Central Ohio employers urged to hire refugees

Steve Wartenberg, The Columbus Dispatch

September 11, 2014

When he began to fear for his life and the safety of his family, Hussam Al Taie knew it was time to leave Iraq.

"I worked for the Americans, for the American Embassy and the Army," said Al Taie, an Iraqi civil engineer who helped build telecommunication towers, police stations and a health clinic in his war-torn homeland.

"There were many people who thought anyone who worked for the Americans was a spy and should be terminated," he said. "I was threatened and shot at. I lost a lot of friends and was in danger."

And so began Al Taie's life as a refugee, first in Oman on the Arabian Peninsula and then in Columbus, arriving here in November 2010 with his wife and daughter. Four months later, they had a second daughter.

Al Taie told his story at a recent diversity-training seminar for local companies aimed at explaining to employers that hiring refugees doesn't pose legal problems. The event was sponsored by Jewish Family Services and the Franklin County Department of Job and Family Services.

Central Ohio is seeing an influx of refugees from several countries, including Iraq, Bhutan and Myanmar, and already is home to thousands of Somali refugees.

These refugees have rights.

"A refugee has the legal right to work on day one when they enter this country," said Robert Cohen, an immigration lawyer with the Porter Wright law firm.

At the end of June, the world had more than 11 million refugees, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

"A refugee is someone who has been persecuted for their political ideology, their religion, ethnic differences or gender and has been granted asylum," said Doug Rutledge, a career consultant at Jewish Family Services.

"They have the right to work and travel and educate their children," he said.

Their skill sets range from a limited education to lawyers, engineers and physicians, Rutledge said.

The confusion for employers is the legal differences between refugees and immigrants who are in the country illegally.

"There's a lot of misunderstanding," Cohen said. "Employers can't hire illegal aliens - a term I find offensive - and so they worry they'll hire someone they're not authorized to hire and shy away from it."

Refugees can show potential employers their passport or I-9 form from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to prove their status and legal right to work, Cohen said.

"In the last year, we helped 224 refugees get jobs at an average salary of $20,000," said June Gutterman, CEO of Jewish Family Services, which runs a New Country, New Job refugee-employment program.

About 1,000 refugees come to central Ohio every year. Rutledge estimated the area has about 15,000 Bhutan Nepalese refugees and 7,000 Iraqi refugees. The Somali population is about 40,000, " but not all of them entered as refugees," he said.

All Team, a local staffing business for the hospitality industry, has hired numerous refugees.

"It's been an extremely positive experience," said William Pratter, the company's general manager. "You have to understand, there's such a hardworking dynamic. They just want to work."

There are cultural differences that employers and employees need to understand to make any work relationship successful.

For example, Hindus wear white clothes when they are mourning the loss of a parent, said Binaya Subedi, a comparative-studies professor at Ohio State University who advises Bhutan Nepalese refugees.

This means that white uniforms can be a problem, but the Bhutan Nepalese workers "try and accommodate," Subedi told employers at the diversity seminar. "But please, a blue hat, not a white hat."

Wagging an index finger at an employee to get them to "come over to you is rude to Africans. It's the way you call a dog," Rutledge said.

Al Taie works for the nonprofit Economic & Community Development Institute. He also is taking classes at Ohio State University, working on degrees in civil engineering and construction management, and he plans to take the civil-engineering certification test next year.

"If someone has to give up their dream in their country, their goal is to start again somewhere else," he said.

It took Ram Upreti almost 20 years to start over.

"I was in a refugee camp for 18 years," said the Bhutan Nepalese civil engineer, who built schools in his homeland. "People were frustrated. There was no solution."

Starting in the early 1990s, Bhutan took away the citizenship rights of approximately 100,000 ethnic-Nepalese residents. For years, these refugees - including Upreti - were forced to live in camps in Nepal and India until countries around the world, including the United States, began offering them a place to call home.

More than 30,000 Bhutan Nepalese remain in refugee camps.

Upreti was initially sent to Tucson, Ariz., in 2009.

"Then I came here (to Columbus) on Aug. 1, 2013, to be with my family members already here," he said of his extended family of about 20, including three children and two grandchildren.

Upreti works for Ethiopian Tewahedo Social Services and hopes to earn a civil-engineering certification and resume his former career.

"I feel like I was a migratory bird, but no more," he said. "This is my last place. I will buy a home here."