Lifestyle & Belief

Networking Workshops to Help Iraqi Refugees Find Work


Many newly-arrived Iraqi refugees were engineers, doctors and other professionals in their home country. Here, they struggle to find jobs. (Photo: Jill Replogle)

How do you get your resume moved to the top of the pile in this tough economy? By knowing someone inside the company, of course.

But that is a challenge if you've just moved to the US from a war-damaged country like Iraq. More than 8,000 Iraqis have relocated to San Diego County since 2005, making it one of the largest Iraqi refugee communities in the country, and many of them are looking for work.

At a workshop, a dozen well-dressed men and women write down the names of everyone they know who could possibly help them find a job. Some finish quickly – they've only been in the country for a few months.

The workshop is a training session to help the new arrivals get ready for an International Night of Networking. The event is put on by some San Diego refugee resettlement agencies to connect high-skilled refugees with potential employers.

The group in the room includes several engineers, a nurse, an anesthesiologist and a dentist. "Iraqi refugees are a particularly well-educated group," said Ralph Achenbach of the San Diego Refugee Forum.

"We see in that population, many with professional credentials, advanced degrees and accomplished careers."

That doesn't mean it's easy for them to find jobs here in the US, at least not these days.

Salih Habib, an IT specialist and graphic designer from Baghdad, worked for several large American companies in Iraq, and served as an interpreter for the US military. Habib came to San Diego more than a year ago, but still hasn't found a job.

"I don't know why, maybe it's hard luck," Habib said, "or maybe it's because of my age. I'm over 50."

Habib and other Iraqi refugees face another barrier to finding a job.

"When you come here, you have to buy a car, because you can't find a job without a car," Habib said. "And you can't buy a car, if you don't have a job."

Habib said he has applied for about 100 jobs, and only scored a handful of interviews. But he is hoping to make some headway at the International Night of Networking.
International Night of Networking

Dark-haired men and women in dress suits and sport coats, with stick-on name tags, wander around the room, trying to put their newly-developed networking skills to good use. In front, a projector flashes images of the job seekers, along with their names and professions.

One young man, who doesn't give his name, jumps from employer to employer. He said he studied IT at Baghdad University, but employers here don't recognize his degree, a common problem. Still, he gets a promising sign from a partner in a small electronics firm, who encourages him to send a resume.

For Habib, the night is "useful," because he networked with people from two professional organizations of engineers. Habib said they gave him good ideas about more networking.

In this job-scarce economy, that serves as good news.

In the meantime, Habib said, he has applied for a security job and substitute teaching job. He also applied for a seasonal sales job at Sears, and said they offered him the job.

But that was a month ago, and they still haven't called him to begin orientation. After more than a year of job hunting, Habib said he has starting to lose hope.