Helping highly skilled refugees find their niche in Seattle

Meqdam "Mike" Almaroof was an engineer in Iraq but found himself working as a security guard once he arrived in the Northwest. (Photo by Rachel Anne Seymour / JFS)
Meqdam “Mike” Almaroof was an engineer in Iraq but found himself working as a security guard once he arrived in the Northwest. (Photo by Rachel Anne Seymour / JFS)

Meqdam “Mike” Almaroof spent his first months in America chasing down teenage shoplifters at a grocery store in Tukwila.

Security guard positions are go-to jobs for new refugees like Almaroof, who arrived in the Pacific Northwest from Iraq last year.  And while he was happy to have the work, this experienced engineer was eager to find a way back into the field he loved.

So when a friendly customer — a retired engineer himself — gave Almaroof some job leads, he jumped to apply.

But his efforts quickly stalled.

“No one even bothered to call me,” says Almaroof, remembering how he attached a headshot to his resume and neglected to include a cover letter, “My resume was according to the Iraqi way — the Middle Eastern way.”

Almaroof is not alone. He’s one of almost 500 Iraqi refugees settled in Washington last fiscal year — a number that stands to increase this year. This group, often professionals who have worked with the U.S. military, has a unique set of skills and professional aspirations.

“In the past we were receiving a lot more refugees who had been living in [refugee] camps for a much longer time,” says Rebecca Craig of Jewish Family Service, a local refugee resettlement organization, “So they didn’t necessarily have much of a work history or any specific professional skills.”

But Craig says new Iraqi refugees to our region often have highly relevant engineering and construction skills and are comfortable in an American work environment. The same is true for recent Afghan refugees. In fact many of them, like Almaroof, had to flee their home countries because of their work with Americans.

“We were building the bases for the Iraqi military. New buildings, refurbishment,” says Almaroof who worked with the U.S. military from 2003 until 2010. But when American troops dwindled he says he and his family began to feel threatened.

“I did not feel safe,” says Almaroof, “People, not a majority but a minor minority started to say, ‘He’s a traitor he was working with the American military.’”

But despite the sacrifice he made to work with Americans in his home country, he says cultural barriers kept him out of white-collar jobs when he arrived here.

“When I got here to America. I didn’t know what was going on with work,” says Almaroof, “Back in Iraq I understood the Iraqi standards but here it’s a different thing.”

In response Jewish Family Service founded Tatweer (which means “progress” or “development” in Arabic). The program offers classes on how to navigate the American job market and matches refugees with mentors from their professional field.

Tatweer workshops cover everything from resume norms (no headshots attached in the U.S. unless you’re looking for an acting gig) to hiring culture (the interview process here can take weeks instead of days). Mentors ensure that all Tatweer participants have help navigating new credentials, additional schooling and the right networks of people.

In a booming city with strengthening ties to the rest of the world, Tatweer believes companies would do well to hire qualified, multilingual refugees with diverse experiences.

“International experience is always an advantage,” says Craig, “Having people on your team who think about problem solving differently allows you to look at problems from multiple angles.”

Some businesses are beginning to agree. Of the first cohort of 10 (who are all Iraqi and Afghans), two have found jobs in their fields (engineering and dentistry). Two others are currently in a second round of interviews.

And Almaroof, a man who says he loves “big machines, big goals and tight schedules,” is hoping to be included on that roster of success.

He’s got a second interview for an engineering position with the city of Kent next week.

Tatweer is open to refugees of any background and is looking for mentors from all professions. Find out more at their website at: www.jfsseattle.org/tatweer

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Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.
Sarah Stuteville

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