Circle of Support Opens Doors to Employment for Refugee Women

A Women’s Empowerment Group at Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest in Tucson (LSS-SW) brings refugee participants, including single moms, together for classes on children’s safety, nutrition, and sewing. LSS-SW has found that the social connections made through these classes are a positive factor on participants’ employment readiness, combined with support from case management, Intensive Case Management, and employment services programs.

“These women inspire each other,” says Jeanine Balezi, LSS-SW Intensive Case Manager. She tells how women see their friends start working, and then they want to find a job, too.

Photo of a 12-week Kith and Kin class offered by LSS-SW in partnership with the Association of Supportive Child Care. Classes focus on in-home childcare safety and early-childhood development games and activities.

One example is an LSS-SW client with five children who spoke very limited English when she arrived. She was terrified to start working and was upset when Jeanine told her to take responsibility for getting her children to daycare as a first step to independence. When she started attending the women’s group, the client showed interest in getting a job for the first time.

“She said she wasn’t depressed anymore,” tells Jeanine. “She had gained another family.”

The client was placed in a job at a hotel, but started having back pain after some time working. One of her friends from the women’s support group helped her apply for a different job at a school, where the work was physically less demanding. She started working there, obtained her driver’s license, and bought a car—now she’s independent.

The Women’s Empowerment Group sessions are conducted in partnership with a local university and are led by qualified volunteers. Babysitting is also provided, and the last class had 24 women in attendance. Jeanine stays in close touch with the employment team at her agency to coordinate services and let them know when participants express interest in finding a job.

Supporting single parents as they prepare for employment is a team effort. What supportive services does your agency offer? Let us know at

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Donated Bikes Pave the Way to Jobs in Tucson

Cars, bikes and buses – oh my! Transportation is a common challenge for newly-arrived refugees, but you might find some inspiration from Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest in Tucson (LSS-SW) and their strategy for using donated bikes to help clients get to work.

LSS-SW provides 1-2 bicycles per client household with employable adults, thanks to partnerships with Wheels for Kids and local Boy Scout drives. Both partnering organizations have provided donated, refurbished adult and child bikes.

“We’ve seen clients who are able to work that might not have otherwise been able to.” Since several of Tucson’s bus lines have limited hours of operation, “many of our clients working at hotels have to find another way to get home,” says Kyle Dignoti, LSS-SW Resource and Pre-arrival Coordinator. “Having the opportunity to use a bike has really impacted their mobility.”

Bikes are never given to clients without appropriate safety equipment, including a helmet, rope lock, and brake lights. Safety information is reviewed one-on- one with each recipient, and bicycle safety classes are available through Pima County.

Once a client has a bike, maintenance can be a challenge, but BICAS (Bicycle Inter Community Art and Salvage) in Tucson helps overcome that hurdle by training clients how to fix their bicycles. Clients are able to keep their bikes running and know how to perform basic fixes on their own.

If you have a car or bike donation program in place, we’d love to hear about at it at Haven’t found a community partner to help develop these resources yet? Start by googling terms like “donated bikes” or “bike classes” and see who is in your area – you might be surprised how easy it is to find great local partners!



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Driving in the United States: A Resource from the Refugee Center Online

Every state across the US requires you to get a driver’s license if you want to get behind the wheel of a car.

It is not uncommon for Americans to drive more than an hour each way to work, and 77 percent of Americans drive alone to their jobs, while an additional 11 percent carpool.

Driving may be a mode of transportation to work for some of your clients.  Thus, educating refugees about the local licensing process is very important and should be included in Cultural Orientation and Job Readiness Courses.

Clients need to know and understand the licensing rules, before beginning the process to legally drive. To help clients understand the intricacies of driving in America, The Refugee Center Online has put together How to Get a Driver’s License: Translated Driver’s Handbooks in over 20 languages.

In the United States, the issuance of licenses is the authority of individual states (including Washington, D.C. and all territories). Drivers are normally required to obtain a license from their state of residence, and all states recognize each other’s licenses for temporary visitors.

Any questions about driving should be directed to state DMV offices or local police.  If you have any additional resources you would like to share please contact us at

Don’t forget to buckle up!

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Models for Integrating Language and Workforce Development Skills

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to attend a 1-day conference at Johns Hopkins University’s American Institute for Contemporary German Studies in Washington D.C. The theme of the conference was “Integrating Migrants into the Workforce” and focused on immigrant integration efforts in both Germany and the U.S.

One of the most interesting presentations I heard was by Dr. Heidi Wrigley from Literacy Work International. The Presentation focused on models in the U.S. that are leading the way in offering both English instruction and vocational training.

Here are four models that Dr. Wrigley highlighted:

McDonald’s: English Under the Arches

English Under the Arches (EUA) is one of four Archways to Opportunities programs designed to help employees grow professionally.

The program launched in 2007 with the mission to provide English as a Second Language (ESL) classes that teach managers and crew the English they need to communicate effectively and confidently with customers, staff and in their lives outside of McDonald’s.

These classes are free for employees and they are also paid their hourly wage while they are in class. Helping non-native speakers learn English allows them to break down barriers and feel comfortable when communicating effectively with fellow team members, customers, and, most importantly, in their everyday life.

Proficiency in English is often a prerequisite for most jobs in the U.S. and provides mobility for individuals to pursue higher education opportunities, which in turn leads to increased earning power. To learn more about this program, visit the EUA webpage or read the most recent Archways to Opportunity Progress Report.

Seattle Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs: Ready to Work

Ready to Work (RTW) is a workforce development program in Seattle, WA designed for immigrants and refugees who face barriers to gaining employment.

The program combines English as a Second Language (ESL) classes with computer literacy instruction and case management to help immigrants gain job readiness skills and take steps toward economic self-sufficiency.

RTW was created as a prototype model of English language acquisition offered in a community-based setting, and focused on career development, and employment. Classes meet four days a week, three hours a day, for a total of 12 hours per week.

Instruction is provided by two Seattle Colleges and Literacy Source (a community-based adult education provider). Unlike many other programs, RTW tracks participants’ progress over a longer time frame than conventional funding streams typically allow.

For more details, see National Skills Coalition’s Amanda Bergson-Shilcock’s blog post from June 2016: Ready to work: Seattle creates new on-ramp for immigrant English learners.

Washington State: I-BEST

Washington’s Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training Program (I-BEST) quickly teaches students literacy, work, and college-readiness skills so they can move through school and into living wage jobs faster.

Pioneered by Washington’s community and technical colleges, I-BEST uses a team-teaching approach.

Students work with two teachers in the classroom: one teacher provides job-training and the other teaches basic skills in reading, math or English language.

Students get the help they need while studying in the career field of their choice. The I-BEST program offers several career pathways including Hospitality, Manufacturing and Nursing.

I-BEST challenges the traditional notion that students must move through a pre-determined sequence of basic education or pre-college (remedial) courses before they can start working on certificates or degrees.

The combined teaching method allows students to work on college-level studies right away, clearing multiple levels with one leap.

Check out this video, which features three students sharing their experience with the I-BEST model:

OneAmerica’s English Innovations

English Innovations (EI) is a blended social learning model that integrates English language learning and combines a collaborative, supportive classroom environment with online tools that enable self-paced, independent learning.

Offered as an alternative approach to conventional systems of language instruction which often do not provide the flexibility and resources that adult immigrants need, the EI program includes:

  • Tailored curriculum framework integrating digital literacy skills & language development
  • Blended model for in-class and self-paced learning through online tools and game-based learning
  • A collaborative classroom environment which facilitates cognitive, social and emotional engagement
  • Tutor-facilitated activities, volunteer involvement, and peer support
  • A model grounded in communities, engaging immigrants and immigrant-serving organizations in advocacy for effective English learning and immigrant integration

How do you see ESL and Vocational Training intersecting in your area? Are you aware of an innovative model that we should highlight? Let us know at

*Note: Some language in this post was pulled directly from program websites for the purpose of accurately describing these programs.


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LGBT Awareness Month


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Throwback Thursday: a classic Higher blog post about a fundamental of our work.

June is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) Awareness Month. Here are 4 links to learn more about some of the unique additional barriers facing these clients, how the U.S. leads LGBT asylum access and some of the ways you can help.

We are all passionate about our work to help refugees – among the most vulnerable people in our world. In many countries, LGBT clients face added threats to their safety causing many to flee to seek asylum in the US.  Some of us overcome our own stereotypes or cultural traditions to serve LGBT clients with the same passion and commitment we bring to all our work.

The Center for American Progress website features a great article about the legal history and current state of the U.S. asylum system’s role in protecting Global LGBT rights.  It’s one more reason why we should feel proud of our role in refugee resettlement.  Through this link, you can also access the video included in this post, featuring an LGBT asylum seeker talking about what it’s like to be an LGBT asylum seeker in the U.S.

LGBT awareness, legal rights protection and acceptance is stronger than ever before in the US as was demonstrated in last week’s Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. Hopefully, that creates more community resources and referrals your agency can offer to augment your own services for this population. Click here for a previous Higher blog post that links to helpful resources from ORR-funded Heartland Alliance.

Two recent articles about LGBT asylum seekers in the Middle East and Africa illustrate how continued discrimination affects client lives, safety and the success of their asylum cases.



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Free Higher Webinar: Job Development Strategies for Syrian Clients

6.30 webinarPlease join us Thursday, June 30th at 3:30 pm EST for a free webinar, Job Development Strategies for Syrian Clients.

Learn about emerging job development strategies that have been effective for Syrian clients.  Hear how your peers provide employment services that are client-centered and results-oriented.

Panelists will discuss unique barriers to employment faced by Syrian clients, as well as the unique skills they bring with them to the U.S.  Whether it’s your first day or you’re a seasoned job developer, you won’t want to miss this opportunity!

Register for the webinar here.

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Religious Observance and Employment: To Shake or Not to Shake?

handshakePractical advice for clients whose religious observance prevents them from shaking hands.

It’s disrespectful and dis-empowering to insist that clients “just get over it” and shake hands when it goes against their strongly held religious beliefs. 

We can explain how important it is in interviews and other first impression situations. But what if they are still unwilling to do it?  

For me, disaster happened when a client (male) refused to shake hands with the General Manager (female) of a major employer partner at a job fair.  He didn’t get the job, the GM was really angry and it took several months to repair the partnership.

At the time, I didn’t know how to handle it or how to help clients prepare in a way consistent with their values. An article from a book of advice for sabbath observant Jewish professionals outlines options for handling situations when religious beliefs prevent shaking hands.

“Being honest is probably the best way to address it.  Explain that you are sorry but that you don’t shake hands for religious reasons. You hope that it isn’t take as a sign of disrespect and you appreciate this opportunity.”

The entire article is really interesting and it does give other, less useful, suggestions for handling the situation. It’s valuable to glean practical solutions that could help Muslim clients from advice from another religious perspective. Click here if you’re curious about the entire book, Can I Wear My Kippah on Job Interviews?

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Religious Observance and Employment: Dietary Restrictions muslim dietary restrictionsDietary restrictions are a common and difficult issue to address when preparing clients to succeed in the U.S. workplace. This post will focus specifically on how to understand and discuss Muslim prohibitions against drinking alcohol or eating pork. Many clients are reluctant to touch those products or work anywhere that serves or sells them.

What do you need to understand?  What’s a reasonable observance vs. resistance to “inappropriate” work?  How can you balance respect and practicality when it comes to accepting the first available job?

What is the correct Muslim religious position about working with pork and alcohol? 

As with interpretations of other religions, there are divergent opinions on this issue within Islam, so depending on who you talk to you may get different answers on what the “right answer” is.

Two friends I trust recommended as one credible online source of answers.  Read their response about working at a supermarket that sells pork and alcohol, which they say is boozepermissible.  But what about serving pork and alcohol in a restaurant or washing dishes that held those things? The answer is open to interpretation.

5 Tips from your peers

It’s uncomfortable to give advice about a religion you don’t practice. Here are several suggestions and talking points used by your peers, some of whom are Muslim.

  1. Consult local religious leaders or elders you trust.  They are likely to have helped with similar questions in the past.  You might even be able to invite them to speak at a staff meeting or special job readiness session to provide broader education on all kinds of religious questions.
  2. Bring in a former client who struggled with the same worries to speak to new clients.  It’s always helpful to hear from someone who’s been in your shoes. Clients will appreciate hearing from others in their community who have navigated these issues. Former clients can also provide helpful insight to non-Muslim staff members.
  3. Wear gloves. Gloves are usually a mandatory safety precaution for dishwashers.  Conveniently, they will shield your skin from touching something forbidden. If your job is not dish-washing (maybe busser or food runner), you could ask for permission to wear thin latex gloves.  They are widely available by the box.  Your employer might not pay for them, but they are not expensive.
  4. Serving or pouring alcohol might be a different matter.  It is very common for Muslims of all branches to be uncomfortable serving or pouring alcohol.  The restrictions are a bit more tolerant related to carrying it in boxes or putting unopened bottles on shelves (common in many hotel jobs where restaurant and bar work is often done by the same staff members).
  5. Rely on the basic concept of freedom of choice and consequences.  Our clients are adults and they have the right to make their own decisions. Our job is to provide them with information they can use to make those decisions.  Decisions have consequences.  Finding a job can take a long time.  The more barriers or conditions the job seeker demands, the longer it can take. If they still do not speak much English, they may not have many types of jobs to consider right now.  If they refuse any job related to kitchen work, that could put their family self-sufficiency at risk.
And, what about meat packing or processing jobs?

Much of the same advice applies. Be careful to explain that clients considering this type of job may be expected to handle pork, as well as other types of meat if this is the case. It is very rare for a company to be able to accommodate an employee by allowing them only to work with non-pork products.  You can discuss it with employer partners in advance but avoid referring candidates who will later refuse to do part of the job.


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Simple Strategies to Address Common Barriers, Part 5

Unrealistic ExpectationsAt a recent Maryland-wide workshop which focused on refugee workforce development, Higher had participants do a brainstorming activity, in which groups worked together to list common barriers refugees face to employment as well as possible solutions.

These types of activities inevitably generate a “wish list” of solutions which are great ideas but not always in our power to implement quickly (e.g. adding staff members, ESL at work sites, home-based self-employment for refugee women).

While there are certainly times to pursue those big ideas, perhaps the best thing about exercises like this is that they allow groups to identify simpler solutions that can be implemented immediately.

Over the past several weeks, we’ve been sharing insights from your Maryland peers, focusing on simple and practical strategies that are relatively easy to implement!

So far, we’ve shared tips for overcoming challenges including transportationchildcare, limited English proficiency (LEP), and challenges related to digital literacy/computer access.  Today we’ll wrap up this series and share a few tips on overcoming the barrier of unrealistic client expectations.

Tips for Managing Expectations:

  • Educate yourself on the information clients receive during pre-arrival cultural orientation (CO) so that you can reinforce important points and/or present new information that may not have been covered in the overseas CO (See Adjusting Expectations: The Cultural Orientation Connection, a recent Higher post by Daryl Morrissey, Cultural Orientation Coordinator at LIRS).
  • Collaborate with R&P cultural orientation staff to make sure that messaging around employment is consistent.
  • Consistent messaging with within office among staff- have a team strategy for how you will handle client expectations.
  • Connect with community leaders to encourage consistent messaging within communities.
  • Set expectations early- have honest conversations about appropriate expectations.
  • Highlight the benefits of two-income households and ensure equality of services to both spouses.
  • Walk the line of hopeful realism. Emphasize the importance of taking that initial survival job while also recognizing the skills, experience and education, your clients bring, and laying out a path and timeline for how they can pursue a fulfilling career over time. Develop short, medium, and long term goals with clients.
  • Mobilize mentors (including former refugees) who will help support clients by giving them realistic expectations and a sense of hope.
  • Educate clients about training programs and career development options.

For more on managing expectations see:

Managing Expectations: When Will You Find Me a Job?

Creative, Participatory Employment Plans that Work

Help Highly Skilled Refugees Look Out the Windshield

Feel free to participate in the conversation by leaving a comment below or sending us an email at

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Simple Strategies to Address Common Barriers, Part 3

esl class 2At a recent Maryland-wide workshop which focused on refugee workforce development, Higher had participants do a brainstorming activity, in which groups worked together to list common barriers refugees face to employment as well as possible solutions.

These types of activities inevitably generate a “wish list” of solutions which are great ideas but not always in our power to implement quickly (e.g. adding staff members, ESL at work sites, home-based self-employment for refugee women).

While there are certainly times to pursue those big ideas, perhaps the best thing about exercises like this is that they allow groups to identify simpler solutions that can be implemented immediately.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll share some of these insights from your Maryland peers, focusing on simple and practical strategies that are relatively easy to implement! So far, we’ve focused on tips for overcoming transportation challenges and tips for overcoming childcare challenges. This week we’ll share a few tips on overcoming the barrier of Limited English Proficiency (LEP) challenges.

Tips for Overcoming LEP Challenges:

  • Provide flexible ESL solutions: hold ESL classes at locations that are convenient for clients and/or offer classes at different times of the day so more clients can attend.
  • Explore alternatives to traditional ESL class: have clients speak English at home, watch TV, listen to the radio or practice with a friend once a week.
  • Develop relationships with ESL providers that offer classes at churches, libraries or community centers.
  • Leverage technology: try free education apps like duolingo to encourage language acquisition for 21st century learners.
  • Encourage your clients to work with you on this challenge, asking them to network within their community to explore solutions.

For more on LEP solutions, click here.

Stay tuned for more tips from MD refugee employment programs and stakeholders. Future barriers will include limited computer skills and unrealistic client expectations.

Feel free to participate in the conversation by leaving a comment below or sending us an email at

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