Before fleeing the Taliban in 2016, I’d spent six years as a translator, conducting high-level military missions for American forces and government officials. I’d also worked for six years in the USAID funded project as an administrative executive and had both a Bachelor’s degree in English and Literature from Kabul University and a Business Administration diploma from the Kardan Institute of Higher Education.
But when I arrived in America, I had to start over professionally. A series of obstacles prevented me from landing a job in my field. Instead, I started driving Uber, and it was hard to make ends meet. I also felt unfulfilled. I’d spent years doing important work. I was desperate for a purpose that matched my talents. I wasn’t alone.
Today, over 2 million immigrants in the U.S. with international credentials and professional experience are working in low-skilled jobs or are unemployed. With the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer, 86,000 Afghans have come to the U.S. in the past year. As we prepare our communities to welcome these refugees, we must help them find meaningful work in their fields. This means giving them the right training and support and preparing employers to recognize their talent, which often looks different than someone trained in America. One analysis found that underemployment among immigrants results in $39.4 billion dollars in lost earnings and $10.2 billion less in tax payments annually. This is particularly troublesome at a time when unemployment in Texas stands at 4.3 percent.
The move to America likely saved my life. In Afghanistan, I was part of a front-line crew, one of the Army’s most dangerous teams. We’d enter a village first to determine if it was safe for others to follow. When I’d leave my home in the morning, I never knew if that day would be my last. My family and I settled into the Fort Worth area and began setting up our home with a new sense of security.
Of course, I needed a job. But I wasn’t expecting such a steep learning curve. In Afghanistan, the job search process is very informal. It’s all about who you know or when I lived there, whom you could bribe. Here, I showed up unannounced at a hospital to ask for a medical interpreting job, which is how it’s done back home. I also had to figure out how to present my unconventional military experience to potential employers.
But the obstacles went beyond my lack of understanding. Many HR departments use artificial intelligence to sort through applications, which often won’t recognize foreign universities or companies. Or states don’t accept licenses or certifications obtained abroad. And employers can view a gap on a resume as a red flag, when often that time includes fleeing war and resettling elsewhere. Finally, an employer might think they need to sponsor you, not realizing refugees have valid work permits.
Luckily, there are efforts to solve some of these issues. I signed up for a training with Upwardly Global, a nonprofit that helps immigrants rebuild their careers. They teach employers how to recognize non-traditional talent, have an extensive employer network to make introductions. They also offer skill-building classes and prepare immigrants for the job market.
Ten months after I arrived, I was hired as an office assistant at a skilled nursing facility, and in 2019, I found a job in the IT industry, at a recycling company in Dallas. By this point, I also had the confidence and skills to start my own business refurbishing used laptops and computers. Last month, I landed my dream job as an employment advisor for Upwardly Global.
Every day, I’m able to pay forward the training and generosity I received. I’ve already helped a dozen families with their job searches. Just like me, many start out in “survival jobs.” It’s often necessary to get on your feet, but it’s not the best use of your skills and talents in the long term. We don’t want people to just survive. We want them to build a life that will sustain them and their family for the foreseeable future.
This can happen if we bridge the gaps between refugee workers and employers. We need more apprenticeship programs for mid-career professionals to learn on the job. And we need state leaders and professional organizations to tackle the licensing and certification problem. In addition, the majority of the new arrivals from Afghanistan are still on a temporary status. They need a more permanent visa status to rebuild their lives, but there’s currently a growing backlog that’s causing long delays. Congress must pass the Afghan Adjustment Act to help them find stability in their new home. Otherwise they could lose their job and be deported while they’re waiting for a new visa. These refugees should be given the tools and the documentation needed to succeed. The American job market is overwhelming and disorienting for someone who has left their home. But with a little guidance, they can find their way.
Shoaib Sahiby is an Afghan refugee and Employment Service Advisor for Upwardly Global in Dallas.