The sixth floor conference room at the City Heights Center was redolent of falafel and baklava and Indian flatbread Wednesday evening, as well as abuzz with chatter — listen closely.
Homing in on the conversation of Mohammad Khajehpour, you would have heard, in cautious but steady English, this: “I would like to get into the workforce. I had to leave Iran to save my son from arrest because he converted to Christianity. I am a chemist.”
Or this from Zina Jassim: “I am an architect, but I will take any entry-level job.”
Or this: “I was a victim of the U.N. bombing in Baghdad. I was working as a communications engineer. I woke up five days later in a hospital in Germany.”
Ibrahim Matee still bears the scar from the wound inflicted on the day he was whisked from Iraq to Germany to save his life, never to return to his country. It runs from the back of his neck, along his left jaw line to the front of his chin, and evokes, he said, final memories of the torn country he left behind.
Matee, 50, arrived in San Diego as a refugee in 2008, but has been unable to find work as an engineer. Instead he relies on $800 in monthly welfare income, the help of his two children aged 22 and 21, who work part time at a car wash and as an insurance biller, and on a small stipend he receives for teaching a weekly Arabic class at the Grossmont Adult School in El Cajon.
They are three of the more than 4,100 refugees from around the world who arrived in San Diego County in 2009, a number that social service providers say makes San Diego the refugee capital of the United States.
Many of them were highly trained and successful professionals before war, political repression or threats against their families forced them to flee their countries to save their lives, at the expense of their livelihoods.
They arrived in San Diego with expectations for resuming their previous careers and found an economic landscape unmerciful to Americans, let alone refugees with few professional connections and, often, less-than-perfect English. Many have taken low-paying and entry-level jobs at convenience stores and at fast food restaurants as they try to rebuild a semblance of their past lives.
A few dozen of them arrived at a downtown City Heights office building by bus, car and foot Wednesday evening to network with local company representatives and other refugees at a mixer hosted by the San Diego Refugee Forum. Dressed in their best business attire, they came hoping the connections they made Wednesday might help them land jobs as the economy improves.
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Before the start of the program, Radha Adhikari kept to herself at a fold-up table with little flags from around the world sticking out of a jar in the center.
She was reserved as she spoke of her past.
She traveled here with visions of the opportunity to work in the law, as a social advocate or in the nonprofit world and take up some of the causes that motivated her fight against the injustices she witnessed and experienced as a refugee back home.
Instead, Adhikari, whose longing eyes, squared glasses and long black hair lend to her bookish demeanor, leaves her City Heights apartment at 6:15 each morning and rides the bus two hours to Escondido, where she works shifts at a Cinnabon at a mall.
“It is an entry-level job,” she said. “But it is better to get into the workforce and help the economy improve.”
On Wednesday morning, she traveled two hours to work, but asked to leave early so she could climb back on the bus home to attend the mixer.
She arrived in San Diego in March. For 18 years, she lived in a refugee camp in Nepal, where her Hindu family had taken refuge from religious persecution in neighboring Bhutan, the predominantly Buddhist South Asian country where she was born.
While in Nepal, she took leave of the camp to study in Katmandu, the capital, earning master’s degrees in international and refugee law and becoming among the few voices for women’s rights in the country, publishing a book and articles on the subject.
“I am a law graduate,” she said. “I worked as a teacher and at a women’s rights” organization. But she was not allowed to practice law because she was not a citizen of Nepal. When the United Nations began processing Bhutanese refugees for resettlement in 2006, she was eager to apply, and late last year learned she had been granted refugee status in the United States.
She still hopes to find a job in social services.
Adhikari’s story repeats itself in iterations by the thousands across San Diego County, and social service providers who work with refugees say many highly trained refugee professionals like Matee and Adhikari who have arrived in recent years have been unprepared for the dearth of professional opportunity that has greeted them.
Stories circulate within the refugee resettlement community of families that have decided to test their luck and return to the countries they left to reclaim their abandoned careers.
Catholic Charities, the largest of San Diego’s four refugee resettlement agencies, has 980 active cases of refugees trying to find jobs. The agency created a specialized employment team to relieve the burden placed on overwhelmed caseworkers, said Mike Buchanan, who directs the effort.
“That number grows every day as the refugee population in San Diego grows,” Buchanan said, driven mostly by the steady and growing stream of Iraqis to El Cajon in recent years.
And the refugee professionals among them are among the last to be considered for jobs by professional firms.
“A lot of these companies’ first priority is rehiring the people they’ve laid off,” said Jonathan Lucus, a coordinator for RefugeeWorks, a national organization that helps place refugees. “You’ve got to make employers interested and you’ve got to stand out in the crowd. That’s difficult for refugees if they don’t speak perfect English or only have international experience.”
It is even more difficult for refugees whose professions require licensing before they can practice. Iraqi doctors, engineers, architects and dentists who have arrived in recent years have had difficulty navigating the process for recertification to practice their professions.
Basman Kraidi was a dentist before fleeing Baghdad with his family amid threats. After arriving in San Diego and finding few opportunities to work, he moved with his wife to New Jersey where he found a job teaching dental assistants.
But the cost of living on their own was too high, and a month ago, they returned to El Cajon to rejoin Kraidi’s mother and father, a former architecture professor who in San Diego is first looking for a job in management before trying to find work in his profession.
As Kraidi studies for dental certification, both he and his wife, Zina Jassim, are looking for part-time jobs, entry-level jobs in any field that will help them make ends meet.
“We will take any job,” Kraidi said.
In the meantime, many refugees, like Mohammad Khajehpour, the chemist from Iran, are patching together income from temporary and side jobs. While he gets credentialed to teach high school science, Khajehpour is tutoring high school students in chemistry.
He remembers the fateful day when he learned that police had raided the home where his son was attending Christian services in secret. Within days of getting him released from jail, he packed up his life and fled to Turkey, leaving behind his job as a commercial chemist.
“I have to take some few more tests, and in the future, God willing, I will become a teacher,” he said.
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