Employing Refugees: Interview with Ellie McDermott

World Relief Refugee

Ellie and I were part of the same cohort in completing our Masters in International Community Development. We both shared a passion for social entrepreneurship, which Ellie now implements in her role of Employment Specialist at World Relief where she helps refugees find employment in the United States. You can contact her at  emcdermott@wr.org Thanks so much for being willing to do this interview for A Community Entrepreneur!

1. As you help refugees find employment through your role at World Relief, you’re really developing a community of thriving, self-supportive, contributing citizens. Would you say that’s the goal of your job?  

There are many reasons why World Relief helps refugees prepare for and connect to employment. The most pressing reason is financial self-sufficiency. Refugees receive a limited amount of financial assistance during their resettlement period, so it is imperative for them to be able to support their families financially when this limited period is over.

Improving English, building a social and professional network, and gaining American work experience are other essential reasons why we help refugees find employment.

Refugees come to America to become thriving members in a new community. They come to participate, engage, and flourish. Employment is one significant method through which they can achieve this goal.

2. On the stats end, what is the number of refugees entering the US each year and where are most coming from?

The President sets a refugee admission number each year. The past few years, the President has set the maximum admission at 80,000 individuals. The primary countries that refugees are coming from are Bhutan, Burma, Iraq, and Somalia.*

3. What would you say to someone who complains that refugees are taking away jobs from unemployed Americans?

Many of the initial jobs that refugees obtain are jobs that native-born Americans do not pursue, such as entry-level hospitality and warehouse positions. In my experience, most of the refugees I have helped obtain employment have been competing with other refugees and immigrants for open positions.

4. What have been some of the most unique or surprising skill sets you’ve found refugees to possess? Have any of those skills been marketable?

Some of my clients come from urban environments; others have spent nearly their entire life living in a refugee camp with very limited opportunities. What I always remind prospective employers is that the refugee experience is incredibly diverse.

However, a privilege of my job is getting to help recently-arrived refugees identify the strengths that they bring to America. When I’m helping a newly-arrived refugee prepare their resume, sometimes it takes creative question-asking to identify the rich transferrable skills that they bring with them.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of some of my clients’ resumes is the breadth of work they have done. There must be different perspectives of work in different cultural contexts. For example, sometimes clients will tell me that they only had one job before they came to America, say, at a bakery, but when I ask follow-up questions, I learn that they also used to fix their friends’ cars, repair air conditioners, interpret, and drive a taxi!

5. Finally, now’s your chance to dream a little. If you were to start a business with the intention of employing refugees, what would it be?

A bakery! This probably stems from my love of baking, but also would provide a variety of positions suitable for various language and skill-levels, as well as opportunities for employees to share their culture through food.

Employees with very little English could successfully perform packaging or dishwashing positions because these positions require little to no English language skills. Additionally, production workers can complete tasks such as operating mixers and slicing machines.

Employees with previous experience could work as bakers. Those with higher-level English skills could work as cashiers or baristas. As employees gain experience and increase their language skills and understanding of the company, they could move into supervisory positions.

If we were a really big operation, maintenance mechanics could maintain and repair machines. Customer service representatives would manage accounts throughout the city. Delivery drivers would deliver our delicious baked goods to grocery stores and other cafes.

Of course, in my dream, the bakery would feature baked goods and beverages from around the world and would also function as a community center that features refugee art, music, English classes, and more!

6. Anything else you’d like to share? 

Our refugee neighbors bring such a rich diversity to our communities. In my work with refugees, I have learned more about the richness of hospitality, work ethic, perseverance, and generosity. I am deeply blessed to do this work every day.

Meet a refugee! Invite them over for dinner! Learn how to cook new foods! Visit new places together and experience your community through the eyes of its newest members!

I promise, you will learn more than you could imagine.

*”Presidential Memorandum – Annual Refugee Admissions Numbers” http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/09/28/presidential-memorandum-annual-refugee-admissions-numbers