Upon arriving in the U.S. from Ukraine, Max Baron and his family faced obstacles many refugees do on their way to self-sufficiency.
“It was a completely new life,” he said. “New rules, new language. It was kind of tough. The only thing we could think of was get a job, pay the bills.”
After working some dead-end jobs as a teen, Baron landed work at the Davenport Hotel and Tower, one of several local businesses that often seek refugees when hiring. He quickly worked his way up to chief engineer, supervising maintenance employees.
Each year hundreds of refugees like Baron arrive in Spokane in search of a second chance.
Some come with next to nothing from refugee camps in countries torn apart by war, poverty or famine. Many have suffered religious or political persecution. All are seeking the opportunity to make a better life for themselves.
In 2010, Washington ranked eighth in the nation in resettling new refugees. The state Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance anticipates it will resettle about 2,200 refugees statewide this year, with Burmese, Bhutanese and Iraqis the most numerous arrivals.
About 2,370 refugees came to Spokane over the past five years, the state said. In 2011, World Relief Spokane, the area’s primary refugee resettling agency, served 366 new clients representing 21 nationalities.
With few resources, these immigrants are tasked with finding a way to support themselves soon after arriving. In Spokane they find several companies that rely on refugee labor.
Public assistance to self-sufficient
Nearly 30 percent of refugees received some type of cash assistance in the year leading up to a 2008 survey – the most recent data available – by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But about two-thirds of refugee households sampled were entirely self-sufficient by the end of that year.
“Many have become citizens and are working and contributing to the local economy,” said Mark Kadel, director of World Relief Spokane. Eager to make a better life, they usually work hard to find employment and spend little time on public assistance, Kadel said. “They’re desperate to get their lives going,” he said. “To be able to come to America is almost like winning the lottery. They value their job, they want to support their family.”
Once they find work, they often stick around, even in industries, such as hospitality, that have a high turnover rate. That saves those companies money on training new employees.
“For us, it’s extremely advantageous if we can get them in, take care of them, give them benefits, give them some hope, give them some English skills, some employment skills,” said Krisann Hatch, senior vice president of human resources for Red Lion Hotels Corp., headquartered in Spokane. “Oftentimes, they’re extremely loyal and longtime employees for us. It requires patience on our part, but patience that we’re very willing to deliver.”
Red Lion reaches out to World Relief for potential hires.
“It’s such a great marriage because we fill a need they have in trying to find employment and it fills a need we have in finding good employees,” Hatch said. “It’s been a great relationship.”
The hotel chain employs refugees from at least 10 countries, including Somalia, Rwanda and Afghanistan, Hatch said, despite challenges such as a lack of English skills.
“We have a high need for entry-level service employees,” she said. “Positions like food and beverage, in our kitchens and restaurants, and housekeeping. Even front desk, engineering. Our industry is known for relatively high turnover. We’re always trying to seek better creative hiring resources.”
Despite the challenges inherent in hiring refugees and other foreign workers, doing so is good for business, she said. Hospitality, manufacturing and agriculture are industries that rely on refugee labor.
“There might be a little bit of extra effort on the front end,” Hatch said, “but we find the benefits in the long run to outweigh those challenges.”
“My dad told me, ‘You need to go there, life is good,’ ” said Max Baron, the refugee from Ukraine. “It is good, but it was tough languagewise and jobwise.”
In a bad economy when unemployment is high, refugees must compete with more workers for jobs.
“Jobs that historically have allowed refugees opportunities are now being sought by more and more Americans desperate for employment,” Kadel said. “The difference is, many of these entry-level positions are seen as temporary for some Americans until something better or in line with their experience opens up. For refugees, any job is a life savior. Most refugees look at any entry-level job as long term and will stay for many years or until they are promoted.”
Despite those difficulties, World Relief Spokane, which also offers some refugees small-business loans, has a successful refugee job placement record. Kadel said 60 to 80 percent of the people helped by the organization achieve financial self-sufficiency within their first year in Spokane.
In some cases, World Relief will pay half of an employee’s wage during their training period to make hiring a refugee even more appealing to local businesses.
The main obstacle most refugees must overcome is a lack of English-language skills.
“Language is always a big barrier to start with,” said Jasmina Alagic, WorkFirst career counselor with WorkSource Spokane, a program of the state Employment Security Department. She added, “I found that in most cases it is only temporary.”
Upon arrival in the U.S, more than 52 percent of refugees in a five-year sample population spoke no English. But at the time of the survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than half had learned to speak English well or fluently.
World Relief, the WorkFirst program and Spokane Community College’s Institute for Extended Learning all help refugees develop English skills with state funds.
A lack of resources such as transportation and child care, and not knowing the American way of looking for work, also present obstacles for many refugees.
Both WorkFirst and World Relief offer a number of job hunting-related services, including online job searches, completing applications, resume assistance, interviewing, and keeping a job once one is landed.
WorkFirst has a $140,000 local contract with the state Department of Social and Health Services to assist refugees on public assistance, as well as others with limited English proficiency, or parolees trying to get back to work.
However, such agencies may have an increasingly difficult time assisting refugees in the face of funding cuts. Funding for the state Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance has been cut by nearly half in the last few years due to the state’s budget shortfall, said Tom Medina, chief of the office.
For those who overcome the myriad difficulties, a better life is often the reward.
“For me, it was a second opportunity,” Baron said. “Back in Ukraine, it was good, but we were missing the middle-class people. You could work, but you’re not sure if you were going to get paid.”
Yana Makhanov is a Ukrainian refugee who, like Baron, worked her way up to a management position at the Davenport. She now oversees a housekeeping staff that speaks 27 languages.
“I love working here,” Makhanov said. “If you get that opportunity to work for someone and they put their trust in you and give you a chance, for me, it’s important not to fail.”