Many of our colleagues in refugee employment are former refugees. These staff members bring with them valuable first-hand knowledge of the refugee experience, critical language skills, and a unique perspective that benefits us all.
It’s important to acknowledge, however, the personal challenges and cultural adjustment that these staff members have successfully navigated (or are currently navigating) in order to be effective in their roles.
Speaking about his own experience getting started in refugee resettlement and employment services in 2011, former Higher Peer Advisor Subash Acharya says:
“[As a Job Developer coming from a different cultural background] I found it challenging to build rapport with employers in the beginning…Many did not feel comfortable with me because they had never worked with someone like me in the past.”
Over time Subash developed strategies for overcoming these challenges, and eventually was promoted to Employment Services Coordinator at Ascentria Care Alliance in Concord, NH. In this role he managed a successful refugee employment program from 2015-2017, before transitioning out of refugee services in order to pursue the next steps in his own professional journey.
We wondered what the experience of other former refugees now working in refugee employment has been like, so during a breakout session at Higher’s 3rd Annual Refugee Employment Workshop, we asked these individuals to answer 3 questions:
- What was your biggest challenge when you began working in refugee employment?
- What advice do you have for new refugee employment staff coming from a refugee background?
- How can management at resettlement agencies support staff coming from a refugee background?
Here is what they had to say:
Biggest Challenges of refugee employment staff from a refugee background (past and present challenges)
- Adapting to a new culture while trying to help others (many from cultures different from mine) adapt at the same time can be difficult.
- Clients from my culture often have higher expectations of me and sometimes expect me to show them favoritism.
- Coworkers, clients and employers sometimes have had difficulty understanding my accent.
- Coming from a different culture, early on I had some difficulty building relationships with American employers.
Advice for refugee employment staff from a refugee background
- Be open-minded and not too judgmental towards your coworkers and clients.
- Stop…think about when you first arrived. Then act. Your perspective as a former refugee will help you.
- Be flexible, and don’t take things personally.
- Work hard on your own cultural adaptation so that you can set an example for clients.
Advice for management about hiring and working with staff from a refugee background
- Provide additional cultural orientation and be patient as these staff members continue to adapt to American culture.
- Don’t just hire for language ability; hire former refugees who have some experience with American culture as well as the professional skills necessary for the job.
- Just like clients, former refugees now working in refugee employment services are adjusting to general American culture as well as American workplace culture. Set these team members up for success by clearly communicating professional expectations and office etiquette.
- Respect the unique perspective of the former refugees on your team; show an interest in their culture and demonstrate a willingness to learn from them.
We hope that sharing the perspective of our colleagues coming from a refugee background will be a reminder of their vital contributions and provide an opportunity for coworkers and supervisors to think through how they can best support and learn from these staff members.