Refugees Today. Movies Stars Tomorrow.

A success story from Lutheran Family Services Rock Mountains in Albuquerque, NM

How do you bring Afghanistan to Albuquerque? How do you create an African village in the Southwest? Why not call your local refugee employment agency?

Lutheran Family Services (LFS) Rocky Mountains, Albuquerque Sub-Office snagged a lucrative connection with local and national film casting agencies this year.  Their clients earned 38,000-47,000 thousand dollars between two films. The film industry helped their clients with short-term and long-term employment opportunities and laid the groundwork for an ongoing relationship with the New Mexico film industry.

 Look for sectors targeted for economic development. 

The LFS employment team wanted to diversify entry-level jobs opportunities for their clients. LFS Program Director Tarrie Burnett and Job Developer Kiri Mathsen focused the New Mexico film industry, an economic sector that has also been targeted by the city of Albuquerque and the state.

New Mexico’s unique landscape and tax incentives for movie production business create a fertile ground for employment opportunities. Not every city has a prolific film and TV industry, Chances are your city has targeted industries for development. Look for ways your agency can capitalize on workforce development strategies.

Recruit volunteers for meaningful work.

Kiri learned that a local casting company was looking for Middle Eastern extras and contacted the casting agent. The Employment team soon had the information for their first casting call, a movie set in Afghanistan, starring Tina Fey.


Aaron Du Bay. Former Volunteer. Refugee Wrangler. LFS Career Counselor and IDA Program Coordinator.

LFS knew they couldn’t manage the project with existing staff resources, so they engaged volunteer Aaron Du Bay to help.

Aaron attended the first meeting and was even hired by the film company as a Special Casting Liaison , referred to on set as the “Refugee Wrangler” to help coordinate schedule times and transportation for the clients to the set. Aaron’s helped overcome the language barriers faced by clients and the call times that come in the night before filming.

Aaron and Kiri both stayed up late to get the shooting schedules, started a phone tree message delivery system and then woke up two hours before the call time to coordinate transportation. Sometimes, Aaron even put in 16 hour days.

Kiri says she couldn’t have done the project without the help of a volunteer. Aaron became a member of the LFS staff team as a Career Counselor and currently serves as IDA Program Coordinator.

Implement a collaborative process with employers. 

With the contacts and lessons learned from the first film, LFS identified a second national casting company looking for extras to staff an African village for Independence Day: Resurgence.

In lieu of trying to make arrangements for all of their clients to go to the film company’s casting call, LFS organized one of their own at their offices. The staff took headshots and assisted clients to complete paper work as the casting company decided on their selections. The LFS casting call was a success—with for almost 100 potential extras in attendance, including both clients and the community at large.

62 refugees from Congo, Burundi, Uganda and Rwanda received job offers to work on the movie. By bringing the employer to them, the LFS team facilitated the onboarding process and increased awareness of their work and the refugee community by inviting the casting company into their offices.

How many times have you wished for employers to provide transportation so clients could accept great jobs? Aaron also negotiated with the production company (20th Century Fox) to provide transportation to and from the set. This was a relatively inexpensive request that took pressure off the employment team and ensured that the clients were on set and ready for action!

A big part of any job development project is to anticipate the needs of the clients, the agency, and the employer. The more details that can be worked out in advance the better. This transportation arrangement coupled with the LFS casting call demonstrates how placing clients can be a collaborative project between the employer and the placement agency.

Don’t overlook the benefits of temporary work.  

Movie extra jobs are great for clients with various kinds of barriers because they require little experience and are on call positions. One LFS client family had nine family members hired because the movie needed extras of all ages. The family was able to find employment without worrying about childcare.

Though this was short-term work, the dollars soon added up with a large number of people getting a paycheck for several days work plus overtime. This was a big help for a family who were new to the country and whose income was not yet stable. This family even earned enough money from their work on set to purchase a minivan. This type of job might even benefit clients with disabilities or seniors whose capacity for physical labor may be limited.

Another benefit to working on a movie set was that the clients got a chance to get to know other people in their community. On the set of Tina Fey’s project, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, the clients got to know other people from the Middle Eastern community as well as the film community. Soon, the clients were securing their own rides to the set by carpooling with other extras.

In the open casting call for Independence Day: Resurgence, LFS office drew individuals in from many different networks not just their own clients. The staff encouraged their interpreters to come in for the event as well as to spread the word. Connections like these with the New Mexico film industry, build important relationships and support networks for clients who are new to the area.

Stories from LFS and clients about the payoff. 

The two film projects increased awareness about refugees in New Mexico and the United States. Kiri and Aaron praised the movie crews for their respectful treatment of the clients and their culturally sensitive approach on the sets.

Clients were able to find flexible employment with entry-level jobs. The prospective work also educated clients in US employment culture. For example, clients who were already working were required to ask their employer in advance for time off. Clients who already had opportunities in the works had the chance to consider the benefits of a short term extra role versus a long-term job. LFS built on young client’s new interest in acting by making referrals to summer theater programs, for additional community involvement and training opportunities.

One client working in a local halal market was “discovered” by someone working on Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. When they learned that he had been a cultural advisor and interpreter for the U.S. military, they recruited him to work on the film. He is still working as Technical Assistant in the New Mexico film industry.


Barkhad Abdi, a Somali refugee from Minneapolis, with Tom Hanks.

Not everyone may see the success of this client or the Captain Philips star Barkhad Abdi. All have something to put on their resume and some were even inspired to pursue a career in film.

LFS advice for partnering with the film industry. 

LFS experience with the New Mexico film industry demonstrates many of the advantages of having a diverse clientele. The team’s efforts saved time, energy and money for the film companies. Instead of having to import their extras in from other cities, refugee clients provided the diversity the casting companies were looking for. Knowing how to sell your clients to prospective employers is the best way to get them hired.

Here are a few more nuggets of wisdom that Kiri and Aaron provided for agencies thinking about job developing in this sector. All of them are applicable to other target sectors.

  • Judge film in your area to see if this might be a lucrative employment field for your clients.
  • Make sure the casting companies are legitimate. There are phony casting agencies out there.
  • Start by contacting a local agency first as they can be more accessible.
  • Help clients find access to the Internet to check casting calls.
  • Do as much new hire and payroll paperwork as far ahead of time as possible.

cassie pic 1Cassie Smith is a doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico. She worked as a Refugee Employment Specialist at Caritas of Austin in Austin, Texas from 2010 until 2014.


  1. This is fascinating. Nice work on negotiating transportation. A few years ago, we also had several client hired as extras in a film starring Cuba Gooding, Jr. Acting experience is also a great way to make a resume stand out in a pile!

  2. Jasmine Baudler says:

    This is incredible! Never thought about looking into the film industry for refugees. Definitely will start!

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