IowaWORKS Cedar Rapids Helping Refugees Sew Seeds for New Careers

There are two things to know about hiring refugees, explains Jamel Ajram, son of the Lebanese immigrant who created Ajram Upholstery and Fabric in Cedar Rapids in 1969.

First, is the need to accommodate religion. Most of the roughly 245 Afghanistan refugees who landed in Cedar Rapids last fall are Muslim, and they therefore need short breaks during the day to pray.

Second is the language barrier. Most of the Cedar Rapids group so far have been able to speak at least some English. But the average skill level is not high, and communication requires effort.

“You’ve got to be willing to work at it,” Ajram said. “For me personally, it’s not an issue. My mother was an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher. We can usually figure it out.”

Ajram Upholstery is a front-line example of Iowa Workforce Development’s ongoing efforts to help refugees land long-term careers in their new home.

Carlos Vega, operations manager at the IowaWORKS office in Cedar Rapids, said his team has been working closely with resettlement workers at the Catherine McAuley Center since shortly after the first wave of refugees landed in November. IowaWORKS staff helped arrange a meeting with major area employers to explain the situation, followed by a job fair.  Within a few weeks, 119 of the 245 (a figure that includes men, women, and children) had found work. But the effort continues.

“These folks came in, and they needed jobs, so we got them jobs,” Vega said. “Now, we’re trying to help them find employment that would be more career-oriented.”

Many refugees initially were hired into factory jobs, explained IowaWORKS career planner Sarah El-Hatoum. But standing on a production line may not be a good long-term fit for people used to transportation-related roles or those who used to run their own businesses in Afghanistan.

Just as any other Iowan could, the refugees are using IowaWORKS resources to find a new path.

“Right now, they have jobs that pay decent money,” El-Hatoum said. “That’s not the issue. The issue is that they don’t have the careers that are ideal for them, individually, over the long term.”

Even as refugees disperse from a short-term hotel to residences around the city, El-Hatoum continues to meet with them weekly out of office space Catherine McAuley is providing for IowaWORKS employees. The access allows career planners to assess the work background of every individual, match that with potential employers, then advocate for the refugee with local companies.

That process recently led one refugee, a former Afghanistan tailor, to land a new job at Ajram Upholstery. IowaWORKS staffers helped contact the upholstery job and negotiated for the company to match the pay that the man had been making on an assembly line.

Then, the new employee talked other Afghans into coming to Ajram.

“They’re doing well,” said Jamal Ajram. “They’re hardworking, and they learn pretty quick.”

Sarah El-Hatoum said IowaWORKS has no plans to back away from the refugees. A second wave is coming soon, she said, but the first group still could benefit from additional help with English, interviewing, and resume building. Cultural differences also mean refugees may not understand the relative importance of a job with fringe benefits or the socially correct way to juggle multiple job offers. More training is being discussed.

“Right now, I would say that we have a handful who are in the place where they want to be,” she said. “The needs of the rest are changing, so the process will continue for a good amount of time."