Employment Summit brings together employers and refugee leaders

on December 10 | in Celebrate Clarkston | by | with No Comments

Emily Pelton and Jeremy Lewis work together in a small group, sharing experiences.

Emily Pelton and Jeremy Lewis work with others in a small group, sharing experiences and ideas.

More than 60 people gathered to share experiences and build relationships at Building a Stronger Workforce for Georgia Together, an employment summit held on Friday, December 7th at the Task Force for Global Health in Decatur, GA.

The summit was an opportunity for employers in Metro Atlanta to meet with refugee leaders and representatives of service agencies to discuss the mutual benefits of employing members of the refugee community.

The meeting, which was sponsored by the Refugee Organizing in Action Collaborative (ROA) – a project of Refugee Family Services— and Clarkston Development Foundation, included both current and potential employers of refugees. Their discussion revolved around advantages and challenges of employing refugees, and opportunities and strategies toward successfully increasing refugee employment in our state.

The Clarkston refugee community was well-represented at this employment summit, with representatives from more than 6 community-based organizations in attendance. The community leaders spoke on behalf of a new American community actively seeking employment in order to support their families. Refugee service agencies aim to help resettled newcomers become self-sufficient in the United States, and importantly, to help them find employment.

“In Georgia 80% of refugee households are working and paying their own expenses within six months of arrival,” said Mersada Mujkanovic, ROA Program Director. “This is an amazing achievement, thanks to strong connections among employers, community leaders, and service agencies that this summit will continue to foster.”

Panelist Birendra Dhakal speaks about refugee workers.

Panelist Birendra Dhakal speaks about refugee workers.

Birendra Dhakal, Executive Director of the Bhutanese Association of Georgia, said that the refugee community is hardworking and eager to build long-term relationships with employers. With adequate support from local service agencies, he believes every hired refugee can become a long-term investment in a company’s future.

“Refugees and community members want to work and want to support themselves, and do not want to be wards of the government,” he said. “You can expect younger employees to change jobs, but older refugee employees will stay with you longer.”

The summit kicked off with introductory speeches by Heather Brooks of the Task Force for Global Health and Emily Pelton, Executive Director of Refugee Family Services. Following the welcome, Jeremy Lewis, Executive Director of Clarkston Development Foundation, gave a brief presentation outlining the agenda for the day and the purpose behind the day’s structure. Sumaya Karimi, Community Engagement Coordinator for CDF, then facilitated an ice-breaker activity called “Moving around with Purpose.”  The activity’s purpose was to set the tone for the day by getting people talking and beginning interactions.

CDF staff members Sumaya Karimi, Bobbi Kay, Jeremy Lewis, Roberta Malavenda, Kelsey McNicholas, and Chris Thompson then facilitated six small group conversations where employers, refugee leaders and service providers worked closely with each other to discuss the employer/employee relationship. The staff members moved each group through a small group process that helped the participants exchange information and build connections. In preparation for the panel discussion that would close out the meeting, each group identified a question to ask the three panelists.

CDF Associate Director Chris Thompson moderated the panel discussion on refugee employment. The three panelists included Dhakal, Brian Bollinger, director of employment services at World Relief Atlanta, and J. R. Ragon, a manager for Cort Housewares. Ragon has employed refugees in his business for more than 17 years. He said his division is made up of 95% refugees, and that he has had outstanding retention rates among those he employs.

J.R. Ragon speaks about his 17 years of experience with employees who are refugees.

J.R. Ragon speaks about his 17 years of experience with employees who are refugees.

Ragon said the initial challenge for employers of refugees was the language barrier, but by patiently and proactively engaging with his employees and with the service agencies, English fluency improved over time. He also said some refugees honor religious holidays that do not fall on the American work calendar, but that a prepared employer can avoid this problem by scheduling accordingly.

Ragon said that his refugee employees were successful because of the strong relationships they had built over 17 years of working together. He said the people he employed were his company’s greatest asset, and that as people from diverse backgrounds work closely together, his work environment continues to improve.

For refugee job-seekers, current employers of refugees, prospective employers of refugees, and members of service agencies, Building a Stronger Workforce for Georgia Together was an opportunity to meet others and share both the challenges and joys of every attendee’s experience. CDF and ROA were proud to help participants strike up the beginnings of relationships that, with time, we hope to see result in the healthy and long-lasting employment of members of our refugee community.

The meeting was recorded and photographed by the CDF communications team, Bobbi Kay and Justin Leverett. Stay tuned to the CDF website for multimedia from the meeting, including photos and audio interviews with participants!

By Justin Leverett
Justin is working with CDF as part of Quaker Voluntary Service
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