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Influx of immigrants from other states challenges system

Two-year grant enables agency to expand training for employment


Completing an employment application is second nature to most Iowa adults. But for immigrants such as Saverino Gahunga, a Burundi native who lived most of his life in a refugee camp before coming to the United States, it’s a confusing, complex task.

Two hours each weekday, the 49-year-old Gahunga joins four of his fellow Burundian refugees for a class at Lutheran Services in Iowa (LSI) to learn job-seeking skills. Approximately 90 refugees from eight ethnic backgrounds have already received training through the program, which began in December 2010. During this fiscal year, LSI plans to offer the five-week Intensive Work Readiness Course to 13 more groups of refugees.

The nonprofit organization, which until January 2010 had provided initial resettlement services to refugees, now focuses on providing more comprehensive assistance to immigrants, said Nick Wuertz, LSI’s director of refugee community services.

With the new work readiness course, “my goal was to incorporate all those things we didn’t have time to teach before,” Wuertz said, noting that families receive only 90 days of government-paid services and support upon their initial arrival to the United States. “What would happen is that someone would find a job but then lose it, or they’d want to go on to a better job, but they had really learned nothing from me because I had done everything for them. Some of these people, because of language barriers, will still need the assistance of a case manager, but at least through this course they’ll come away with an understanding of what the process is.”

Though the flow of immigrants arriving in Polk County directly from other countries has slowed in the past two years, the number of “secondary” immigrants, those moving to Iowa from other states, has increased significantly, due in large part to the recession. However, the slow economy has made Central Iowa employers more selective in hiring, which has extended the period in which many immigrants need services.

John Wilken, chief of the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services, estimates that at least 600 immigrants have moved to Polk County from other states within the past year due to Iowa’s comparatively favorable employment climate. “What I can’t tell you is how many people moved out during that time,” he said. “We have no data at all about out-migration. It just appears from caseload traffic that we have more people moving in than moving out.”

Of the bureau’s current caseload of 486 refugees, 84 have been receiving assistance for more than a year, “which used to be unheard of,” Wilken said. “It’s a much more challenging caseload. Hopefully within the families, at least one person can get employed. And it’s not like their problems are over once they get a job; it’s about subsistence level.”

Another significant challenge for refugees has been a lack of sufficient subsidized housing, particularly for larger families. “The cost of housing is just very difficult for them to be able to afford,” he said.

More than 800 immigrants sought employment services through the bureau in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30; during the same period, a little more than 500 clients found jobs. The state agency contracts with LSI to provide the work readiness classes, which it ramped up from eight classes last fiscal year to 14 this year. The course, which costs LSI about $3,500 per class to offer, is funded almost entirely by a two-year federal grant.

“The reason we started this (course) was the slowdown in the economy,” Wilken said. “Obviously, employers can become a lot more selective about who they hire because of the economy. Many of the refugees have no or little work history, know little English and are sometimes illiterate in their own language.”

From his agency’s perspective, the influx of secondary refugees presents a challenge, Wilken said, because the bureau does not immediately receive funding to serve them. “Neither state can count people who have moved during the year,” he said, “and they may move more than once and keep canceling out.”

Resources, interviews

LSI’s five-week course covers a broad range of topics, from resources for conducting job searches to the proper way to communicate with a supervisor, Wuertz said. LSI also provides mock interviews through some Greater Des Moines businesses, among them Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino, the Des Moines Marriott Downtown and Hy-Vee Inc.

“That’s one of the ways we involve area businesses,” he said. “The company will conduct a mock interview that is recorded, and then (the class member will) watch it, which is a great way for them to see their body posture, etc.”

Each class will usually visit a participating company for a tour to provide some exposure to an actual working environment, along with information about the hiring process for that particular employer.

Other aspects of the course include a primer on banks and financial literacy provided by Wells Fargo & Co., as well as an overview of social services benefits from the Iowa Department of Human Services.

Based on tests administered at the beginning and again at the end of each class, 98 percent of the participants in the first fiscal year’s class improved their scores, and more than 90 percent of the graduates indicated they feel “much more prepared” to find a job and be successful in that job, Wuertz said.

Gahunga is part of the wave of secondary immigrants to Iowa. After fleeing Burundi in 1972, he lived in refugee camps in Congo and Tanzania before coming to the United States in May 2007. Initially settled in Oregon, he worked sporadically in dishwashing and housekeeping positions. Hearing that there were more opportunities in Iowa, he and his family moved to Des Moines five months ago.

“We are very happy to be in this country,” Gahunga said through an interpreter. “We are very happy that our kids are going to school. The problem is, we have no jobs.”

Having worked as a farmer since he was 18, he’s antsy to find work. “I can do any kind of job, but an agricultural job would be most important to me,” he said.

Eager to work

LSI is now working to expand the network of companies that are willing to provide mock interviews and tours. Additionally, due to the slow job market, LSI has begun seeking volunteer placements with nonprofit organizations in Greater Des Moines, he said.

“That would be at least one ongoing way they could be in a working environment around English speakers and build up their references,” Wuertz said. “We’re going to try that for this next class, so we’ll be looking for organizations that are seeking volunteers and that would be willing to work with us on that.”

Chad Cox, general manager of Hillyard Des Moines, a cleaning supplies manufacturer and distributor, is among the employers who participate in mock interviews. Cox, who has volunteered with LSI as an English instructor, also taught some of the employment readiness classes last year.

“One of the reasons I’ve gotten involved is that we’ve noticed that a lot of custodians are coming from the refugee population,” he said. “So it made sense for us to help them to improve their ability to get jobs, and to help our customers to get better employees.”

Cox said he has hired two refugees he met through the classes, one of whom was an Iraqi immigrant who was interpreting for one of the sessions. “He mentioned that he was unable to find a job, and I told him I would look at his resume,” he said. When he did, Cox found that the man had an engineering degree and an extensive work background. Hired for a warehouse position, the Iraqi pulls and ships orders, handles estimates, and has gone on jobs to coat gymnasium floors with the company’s products.

“He’s an exceptionally hard worker,” Cox said. He said the refugees he has met in the classes have similarly impressed him.

“I think all they need is the opportunity,” he said. “Because of the things they’ve experienced in their lifetime, they have a maturity level that most people don’t have in our country. … They’re very eager to find jobs. Anyone who came to a class as a guest speaker, that was the first question – ‘Do you have a job for me?’”

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