Sunday, January 25, 2009

Educated refugees lost in transition to U.S. workforce.

Today's Boston Globe has an article on the "brain waste" suffered by well-educated immigrants and refugees who come to the United States after professional careers in their countries of origin only to end up having to take low-paying, low-skilled jobs because their credentials aren't readily accepted or simply don't serve them well in the American job market. Here's an excerpt:

A doctor from Afghanistan runs a cash register at the Walmart in Lynn. A former two-star general from the same country works as an $11-an-hour security guard in Somerville. And a onetime high-powered lawyer from Albania labored in a Worcester factory before being laid off.

For them, America was a path to safety, even while it was a huge step down in status.

In Afghanistan, Ahmad Darvesh wore a crisp, white coat and a stethoscope as he diagnosed emergency room patients suffering from bullet wounds or pneumonia. In Lynn, with a Walmart badge clipped to his shirt collar, he strikes up brief conversations with customers as he scans their purchases. The customers do not know it, but he chats because he misses talking to his patients.

"I'm tired," the soft-spoken 50-year-old said in an interview in his Chelsea apartment, with his diplomas and photographs arrayed on a folding table in the kitchen. "I'm tired of working in a job that is only for the money. I'm a doctor. . . . I could be more useful."

Across Massachusetts and the nation, 1 in 5 college-educated immigrants and refugees are unemployed or toiling in low-level jobs because they cannot easily adapt their skills in the United States - a phenomenon the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute called "brain waste" in a recent study.

It is an age-old quandary for immigrants who hold doctoral degrees and speak multiple languages, but aren't fluent in English and lack professional networks to steer them to jobs. Now, the problem is getting newfound attention from state officials who are considering expanding programs as immigrants in Massachusetts clamor for more training and assistance.

Many immigrants are able to rebuild their careers here, while some return home, frustrated. But others do neither; they lack the ability to find work in their chosen fields and are fearful of returning to their native countries because of violence or economic crises.

"This is a gaping hole of waste for the United States," said Jane Leu, executive director of Upwardly Global, a nonprofit founded in San Francisco in 2003 to guide foreign-born professionals, from real estate agents to professors, back into their fields. "These are people who have every ability to contribute and want to."

For the college-educated immigrants - some 1.3 million nationwide - the plunge in prestige may come as no surprise, but it is still overwhelming for many.

Faced with an urgent need to earn a paycheck, immigrants often take what advocates call "survival jobs." Often, they suffer from depression, culture shock, and abrupt downward mobility, while less-educated immigrants typically experience an increase in pay.

For the rest, click here. From my experiences working in refugee resettlement programs, I can attest to the reality of the problems noted in the article. Refugees arriving in the United States have already endured significant trauma - all have suffered from the effects of war or national calamity, and many have survived torture, imprisonment, or other violations of human rights. While seeking to recover from the emotional and often physical burden of the experiences that forced them to flee their home countries, refugees must also face the challenges that come with adapting to life in a new country. Finding work can be one of these challenges, and the problem of what the Globe article aptly calls "abrupt downward mobility" can weigh heavily on the psyche of people who've already endured a lot of grief and pain.

I'm glad that groups like Upwardly Global are trying to do something about the problem of immigrant and refugee "brain waste," which is likely to become even more serious given the present economic climate. I should note, too, that many native-born professionals are likely facing analogous problems in the wake of widespread layoffs and cutbacks. My prayers are with all who have faced or are facing these challenges, particularly the refugees I've been privileged to know by name. AMDG.


At 1/28/2009 10:01 AM, Blogger Rich said...

Thank you for your blog. I live in Ma., and just read the article mentioned. It is an eye opener. I will read more of your blog when time permits. Thank You again.
Richard Curtin,

At 1/28/2009 10:03 AM, Blogger Rich said...

Thank You for your blog...
Richard Curtin


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