Kaes Almasraf with his Refugee Health Empowerment Program recertification certificate in ACCESS’ Sterling Heights, MI office
Kaes Almasraf remembers exactly how he felt the day he arrived in Michigan three years ago as a refugee. “Just close your eyes and then open your eyes… you’re in a new country with new people, new culture, new system, new everything. Why am I here? What am I going to do?” Almasraf, 38, was working as a dentist and manager of a dental clinic for seven years in Baghdad before he gained refugee status and was resettled in Michigan with his wife and then two-year-old daughter. When he arrived in America, he soon discovered he would be forced to start over the grueling process of re-entering the medical field. Almasraf now works to empower other refugees to achieve their full potential in their medical fields. “They were dentists or they were doctors in their home country—why here, they are nothing?”
Since May 2011, over 13,000 Syrian refugees have been relocated to the US, according to CNSNews.com. More than 1,404 of them have landed in Michigan, the second most popular state for refugee resettlement. The Syrian refugee crisis has captivated the world, as news outlets stream footage of wreckage in cities, violence, and overcrowded refugee camps. The recent election of Donald Trump to the presidential office adds a complicated new layer to this conflict. Will Trump call for a complete halt on all Muslims entering the country, as he said last December according to CNN? Or perhaps he will he end all immigration from countries that have had past incidents of terrorism, as he said in June 2016, according to the Huffington Post. While the world waits for answers, refugees like Almasraf are desperate to find new jobs as soon as possible to rebuild their lives that were upended by conflict.
According to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, every refugee 18 or older is issued a work permit, and expected to begin steady work within six months of resettlement. This short deadline, combined with the small government-provided stipend of $1,200 given per person upon arrival and the limit of 90 days of assistance resettlement agencies are allowed to provide, puts enormous pressure on refugees to find jobs immediately. In addition, they must enroll their children in schools, find housing, and learn English. For refugees who were medical professionals in their home countries, this restrictive and confusing process leads many of them to settle for low-paying jobs outside their field of expertise.
“A lot of them end up not working in the health care field, so they end up taking jobs unfortunately at fast food restaurant chains or in factories, so a lot of the skills they worked so hard for go to waste,” Kshama Vaghela said. Vaghela is the Public Health Coordinator at the Office of Refugee Resettlement-funded Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), the largest refugee resettlement organization in Michigan. ACCESS’ forty-year presence in Dearborn, which has the largest proportion of Arab Americans in the country and second most Syrian refugees in Michigan, puts them in a unique position to directly impact the refugee community. Vaghela works specifically with medical professional refugees, linking them to internships, college courses, resume workshops, mock interviews, and English language training.
The recertification process is daunting for refugees with medical backgrounds. Their degrees need to be translated into an American equivalent and they must pass the Medical Licensing Examination, often having to retake medical school classes. Every refugee must also pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language exam to establish that their English is satisfactory, but for refugees who don’t pass this very challenging exam, getting hired is extremely difficult.
Nicole Feinberg, a case worker at Jewish Family Services, a prominent Washtenaw County nonprofit, has heard many refugees express frustration at repeatedly being denied jobs by employers who don’t accept their foreign degrees or claim their English isn’t satisfactory. But Feinberg has noticed that some of these jobs, like at grocery stores, don’t even require a degree, suggesting an underlying motive—stigma. “They feel that they have to go ten steps ahead of an American applicant to prove that they’re not a terrorist and they aren’t trying to work in your agency to kill you,” says Feinberg.
Almasraf believes this xenophobic rhetoric may stem from people simply not understanding Arab culture, mistakenly thinking refugees don’t know how to use computers or function in American jobs. This lack of understanding can impact the quality of care medical professionals can provide refugees, making the need for a smoother recertification process even more important, because refugee medical professionals may be able to connect more deeply with patients from their own community. “You need to live the situation to understand it,” Almasraf says, which is why he chose to work at ACCESS as a case manager after completing the Refugee Health Empowerment Program to give back to the refugee community. The need for more refugees in the medical field will benefit every American, not just refugees, Almasraf adds, because “Everybody needs a dentist, everybody needs a doctor, everybody needs a specialist.”
“I like my home. I like my friends, I like my neighbors, my job, my clinic. I miss all these things,” reflects Almasraf on the sudden absence of these comforts upon arriving in the United States. “When you are alone, even in paradise, you’re going to be lost.” Almasraf’s dedication to his job guiding other refugees through the recertification process, combined with the efforts from nonprofits across the country, will help lessen this feeling of isolation. Looking back on his move from Iraq to the American Midwest just three years ago, Almasraf is optimistic about the future for his family and other refugees in the medical field. “There were many challenges. But if you need something good for you and your family, you’re going to do your best. You’re going to stand again, you’re going to breathe again, you’re going to make decisions—right decisions in order to be good for yourself, good for your family, and good for your new country.”