Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Degree-holding Iraqi refugees start from zero

By Xue Jianyue
May 8, 2010

Iraqi refugee Kamal Mohammedali delivers the Columbia Daily Tribune to them stand in the middle of the night, earning a meagre living in comparison to his days as a civil engineer in Iraq.
Just as most Americans in Missouri are preparing for bed, Mr Kamal Mohammedali, a 51-year-old Iraqi refugee from Baghdad, heads to work at midnight, delivering the Columbia Daily Tribune to the newsstands across Columbia.

Even before the sun rises, Mohammedali starts his second job at 4 a.m., doing maintenance at public schools here.

Both Mohammedali and his wife, 49-year-old Bushra Faris, are overeducated for the jobs they currently hold - Muhammadali holds a degree in civil engineering and had helped the Iraqi government construct dams for many years. Faris holds a doctorate in Obstetrics and Gynaecology but works as a medical interpreter in Columbia.

"Our degree certificates are not recognized in America," he said. "We are expected to start from zero."

Mohammedali is among hundreds of Iraqi refugees in Missouri who are underemployed, working in low-skilled jobs as their academic qualifications are not recognized.

In order to get it recognized, they have to go through a lengthy process called recertification, which involves submitting academic certificates for evaluation, and taking tests on their professional knowledge and English proficiency.

While the recertification process can vary from each occupation and state, being recertified in a regulated occupation “requires significant financial, emotional and time commitment," according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement website. For example, medical degrees can cost up to $4,000 and several years of tests and revision to get recognized.

For refugees like Mohammadali, they face 2 big obstacles; saving enough to pay for recertification, and verifying their certificates with home universities in war-torn Iraq.

Highly-educated refugees

Unlike previous waves of refugees into America, Iraqi refugees are relatively highly educated, working as doctors, engineers and teachers in Iraq. Economic sanctions in the '90s, the Iraq war and militia attacks across the country had forced them to flee overseas for safety.

From 2006 to 2009, 34,470 Iraqi refugees entered the US, according to state records. Among them, 664 Iraqi refugees entered Missouri. They come under the care of three refugee resettlement agencies - Jewish Vocational Services in Kansas City, International Institute in St Louis, and the Refugee and Immigration Services in Columbia.

In Columbia, among Iraqi refugees that are employed, very few of them hold jobs in areas that they hold credentials or experience, according to the Refugee and Immigration Services.

Upon arrival into Missouri, Mohammedali and his wife remained jobless for four months. He was surprised when his job applications to many organizations, such as the Department of Transportation in Jefferson City, were rejected because his civil engineering degree was not recognized.

His wife, a medical doctor for several years, did not succeed in finding employment in hospitals and clinics in Columbia either.

Mohammedali eventually found his current two overnight jobs after help from friends. His combined income is only $1,800 per month, while his wife earns another $300-$600 as a medical interpreter.

Long time to get recertified

While enough to pay for housing and food, it would take them a long time to save enough for recertification.

In addition, Mohammedali needs money to send his 4 children to university. Although one of his sons, 18-year -old Mohammad Hussein, graduated with a perfect GPA from Rock Bridge High School and hopes to study in MU, it will be difficult to fund his education as the tuition fees will run in the thousands.

Therefore, his son is currently hoping to get a scholarship.

"It takes a very long time and costs alot for many to get re-certified," Anne Zellhoefer from the Refugee of Immigration Services said. "These individuals must take the jobs they can in the meantime to support their families which complicates the process considerably."

“Our staff members are pursuing additional funding and connections in the community to assist with this."

Zellhoefer is not sure if 1-2 years is enough to even get a good start with recertification much less complete the process.

Individuals must be self-sufficient, save enough for the courses and tests, take the TOEFL and pass, before investing more than 5 years in the process, she added.

Mohammedali said that he had worked for so many years and it is difficult for him to retake all the rests and examinations required for recertification.

Furthermore, juggling two overnight jobs to support 4 children would make it difficult for him to find the time and money to recertify his degree, let alone his wife’s medical degree, which would cost much more.

Verifying degrees in Iraq

To make matters worse, conditions in Iraq are making it difficult to verify his certificate with the University of Baghdad, which is necessary to complete recertification.

Seven years after US forces entered Iraq, politics, security and sectarian relations in Baghdad remain volatile.

Mohammedali had lost loved ones to the violence. Years ago, militia dressed up as policemen took his brother and sister's husband away. When relatives went to the Ministry of Interior to seek his release, the government authorities did not even know who took him.

He also noted that Iraq experienced a recent spike in bombings in many Shia populated areas in Baghdad last April.

"The country is destroyed, there is no government," he said. "It is not easy to walk on the street and difficult to go back to the office. You don't know when you will get killed or bombed by militias."

"If I send my certificate by mail to University office in Iraq, I won't get a reply," he said. "In fact, they might even lose it."

The other option, Mohammedali said, is to go the university personally to get a certificate. Unfortunately, it is too dangerous to return to Baghdad now.

His wife had asked her remaining relatives in Baghdad for help to verify her diploma at the home university, but after waiting for several months, there was still no reply from the university officials.

“We waited,” Mohammedali said. “Six months, eight months passed. Still no reply.”

Academic attention

Problems faced by Iraqi refugees had caught the attention of academics and media in the US over the past few years.

Even after receiving several months of federal aid, finding jobs for refugees remains an uphill task for refugee offices. Iraqi refugees struggle to find jobs in the poor economy, with over half of them in St Louis and Kansas City jobless.

Refugee offices also face the challenge of working with limited manpower and funds, as the resettlement program has been "dangerously under-funded", according to the IRC report last year.

In a 2009 report, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) Commission on Iraqi refugees recommended, among many other immigration reforms, that more investment be put into recertifying qualifications of highly educated Iraqi refugees.

Prior to this year, the US State Department provides each refugee with $450 of direct assistance upon arrival into US, as part of the Reception and Placement per capital grant. This grant provides resettlement assistance to refugees for the 30-90 days in the United States.

As the grant has declined by real terms by more than 50% over the decades, the US Statement Department increased the aid to $900-$1,100, effective from January 1 this year.

While it will provide relief to the refugee offices, the funds are solely used for resettlement only, none the funds will be available to help Iraqis with recertification.

A Government Accountability Office report released last March also noted that the current economic downturn had made entry-level jobs, which are normally available to refugees, “scarce and more competitive”.

Mohammedali acknowledges it too. "America is suffering, no jobs for people, we didn't come at the right time," he said.

Finding work, and the right work

Nonetheless, Mohammedali is thankful that he has a job. While the pay is low, it allowed him to rent public housing and earn a living.

In Columbia, refugees are more successful at finding work - more than 8 in 10 refugees have a job this year. Among Iraqi refugees, who began arriving in 2008, more than half of them have already found a job.

It is also too early to decide if re-certification will be successful. "We have only just begun receiving highly educated Iraqi refugees in the last 1-2 years," Zellhoefer said. "This is not enough time to offer any type of definitive statements or statistics on the process or results."

However, Amir Yehia, an Iraqi master's student from the University of Missouri, believes that the actual unemployment rate is higher than reported. Based on his close ties with the small Iraqi community here, he estimates that only 3 to 4 families, out of about 30, have a job.

"Iraqi refugees need to work to survive,” he said. “If they don't have money, don't have time, how can they go to study (for recertification tests)?"

In the meantime, Mohammedali continues to hope an improvement to the recertification process. Employers should respect their work experience and give them opportunities to test themselves, he said, and American society will benefit from the specialised knowledge of Iraqi refugees.

"We should put the right people into the right job," he said. "Of course we can work in a restaurant or hotel, but we won't produce the same results as compared to being put in the jobs we are trained in."

Note: This story was written as part of my investigative reporting class at the Missouri School of Journalism. It was written for publication at the Columbia Missourian, but it did not get published in the end because my interviewee refused a photograph. It is now published in my blog. On October 24, 2010, an American refugee watchdog, Friends of Refugees, picked up my story.

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