Try 1 month for 99¢

CHICAGO _After fleeing the war in her native Bosnia, Zemira Bajrektarevic arrived in Chicago to face a new set of fears.

Bajrektarevic didn't know English. She didn't know how she'd earn money. When RefugeeOne, a resettlement agency, placed her in a job at Eli's Cheesecake, removing baked cakes from their pans, she didn't know she had leadership qualities that would eventually make her an invaluable employee at the quintessential Chicago company.

Twenty years later, Bajrektarevic, 49, is a foreman at the Eli's factory in the Dunning neighborhood on Chicago's Northwest Side, overseeing many colleagues who, like her, are refugees.

"I love it," she said during a break from supervising a line of 18 workers churning out trays of raspberry oat bars. "I like my boss. I like the job. I like (to) help the people."

Eli's Cheesecake is among numerous local employers that make it a point to hire refugees, giving the dessert-maker a loyal and consistent supply of employees at a time when Americans aren't lining up for factory jobs, President Marc Schulman said.

But that practice could be at risk as the U.S. continues to reduce the number of refugees it admits, advocates say.

In early October, President Donald Trump signed an executive order dropping the ceiling on refugee admissions to a record low of 30,000 for the year that started Oct. 1. His administration had set the past year's ceiling at 45,000, at the time a historic low, which was down from a cap of 110,000 that President Barack Obama set just before he left office.

The reduced cap, as 68.5 million people worldwide are being displaced from their homes, has been widely criticized on humanitarian grounds, but groups that help businesses hire refugees worry that it could also disrupt a recruitment tool that many companies have come to rely upon for good talent.

"We anticipate it being a problem," said Jims Porter, spokesman for RefugeeOne, which works with more than 100 employers that hire from its clientele. RefugeeOne, based in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood, saw the number of new refugees coming through its doors plummet to 175 this year from 700 in 2016, he said.

At Eli's Cheesecake, 10 percent of the 230 employees are refugees, and Schulman said they have been critical in helping the company grow.

"I think these are individuals who really have overcome a lot and want to work really hard and are really dedicated," said Schulman, whose company, founded by his father, has been hiring refugees for more than 25 years. "The reason we are a favored supplier is because of that dedication, and it comes down to the people."

In announcing the new refugee ceiling in September, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. must focus its resources on its backlog of asylum cases, which has ballooned in recent years. People seeking asylum ask for protection once inside the U.S. or at the border, while refugees are chosen for resettlement while they are abroad. To be granted protection as a refugee or asylum-seeker, a person must have a well-founded fear of persecution at home based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

Critics of refugee resettlement say the nation's resources would be better spent supporting refugees in the countries to which they first flee, because that's where most of them remain and the cost of hosting them in the U.S. is higher. Just 1 percent of the world's 25.4 million registered refugees are resettled to another country, such as the U.S. or Canada.

"We have to think long and hard on whether we want to use our resources to help a tiny fraction in a big way or to help more people," said Steve Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit think tank that favors less immigration.

But while the number of refugees coming to the U.S. is small, "it is a very important drop in the bucket because it is sometimes the people who are most vulnerable who are taken in, such as LGBT individuals, victims of torture or political dissidents," said Gideon Maltz, executive director of the Tent Partnership for Refugees, a New York nonprofit founded by Chobani yogurt CEO Hamdi Ulukaya that encourages the private sector to hire and invest in refugees.

A growing number of companies have made commitments to hire refugees in recent years, both for the contribution to their workforce and for the social impact, Maltz said. As fewer refugees arrive in the U.S., some businesses express concern about the ability to recruit them, he said.

"Businesses like to plan, and there is so much uncertainty about what the numbers will be in the years ahead," Maltz said.

Refugee admissions to the U.S. last year fell far short of even the low cap because of the administration's tightening policy. Fewer than 22,500 refugees were admitted to the U.S. last year, the lowest number in 40 years; nearly 85,000 came during Obama's last year in office, meeting the cap at the time.

Admissions from war-torn Syria, where 13 million people have been displaced, fell from more than 12,500 in 2016 to just 62 last year. The Trump administration temporarily banned refugees from Syria and several other predominantly Muslim countries it deemed to be security risks, and though that ban has been lifted, time-consuming security checks are slowing the process, said Mary Giovagnoli, executive director of Refugee Council USA.

Illinois received 708 refugees during the year that ended Sept. 30, down from more than 3,000 two years earlier. Most are from Myanmar, which members of the Rohingya minority have been fleeing in droves, or the Democratic Republic of Congo. The state, which welcomed 392 Syrian refugees two years ago, received three this past year.

The declining number of refugees has affected resettlement agencies that help them find jobs and housing and make the transition to U.S. life. Paid per capita, some of those agencies have had to close offices, threatening the services that help employers integrate refugees into their workplaces, Maltz said.

"Part of the reason businesses in the U.S. have had such a positive experience (with refugees) is that you do have these agencies playing such a significant role in bridging that gap," he said. "The infrastructure is really crumbling as these resettlement agencies are not getting the support they need."

Employing refugees presents challenges, the foremost being language barriers, said Jeff Anderson, vice president of purchasing and operations at Eli's. That has improved now that there is a network of Arabic and Swahili speakers on staff, but when there are less-common dialects, the company relies on RefugeeOne for translators.

Hiring refugees also requires sensitivity to the fact that people are far from home and may take extended time off to visit family. Bajrektarevic went to Bosnia last year for three weeks. Employees use paid time off and can draw from the next year's PTO to extend their trips, Schulman said.

Co-working space provider WeWork, which has committed to hiring 1,500 refugees in the next five years, relies on resettlement partners to identify and train its new refugee hires, and it hopes to continue those partnerships, said Mo Al-Shawaf, director of public policy and social impact at WeWork.

WeWork's refugee initiative began in New York last year when managers with positions to fill were looking for diverse talent sources, Al-Shawaf said. Within six months, 50 refugees had been hired in Chicago, New York and Boston, and the program has now spread to its offices in 13 U.S. cities, the U.K. and Latin America. WeWork also has called on its 50,000 member companies to join the effort by offering jobs, skills training or other support.

Retention is higher among refugee employees than others in the same jobs, Al-Shawaf said. In addition, the effort has been good for employee morale because people feel they are part of something bigger than themselves, he said.

"Employees want to get involved; they want to be exposed to refugee team members," Al-Shawaf said.

Most refugee employees start in entry-level positions that entail making coffee, refilling water containers and welcoming members to the office. Some have moved into roles in technology, operations and security, and the company has job-shadowing and other programs to help them advance.

WeWork launched a coding course for its refugee employees in New York, pairing them with mentors to help with technical skills and social integration, a program it hopes to bring to Chicago.

Olivier Marambo said his entry-level job at WeWork's location in Chicago's Fulton Market district is allowing him to prepare for a future that once didn't seem possible. Marambo fled a violent conflict in Congo in 2008 and lived for a while in Kenya, where he worked on anti-HIV efforts at a refugee camp and taught at a school for the deaf.

Marambo, who arrived in Chicago two years ago, worked as a hotel bellman before joining WeWork, where the reliable hours and support from his employer allow him to also take community college courses in nursing. His goal is to be a doctor.

He is in the process of moving to Minneapolis to be close to family, and WeWork has a job waiting for him there.

"They are very helpful," Marambo said.

Numerous high-profile companies have announced refugee hiring initiatives. Starbucks last year pledged to hire 10,000 refugees around the world over the next five years. Microsoft is investing in a digital literacy training program at a refugee camp in Kenya, and food service company Sodexo committed to hiring 300 refugees across the U.S., Canada, Brazil and Sweden, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

Celergo, based in Deerfield, manages payroll for the international offices of multinational companies, and the company seeks candidates with language expertise and cultural sensitivity to work with global clients, said Michele Honomichl, founder and executive chairman. About 60 percent of its U.S. staff are immigrants, including refugees, or the children of immigrants, she said.

Having a global background is helpful when cultivating relationships with clients operating under different business conditions, such as the shorter French workweek or the slower pace of Africa, because it tends to make you more patient, Honomichl said.

As immigration overall contracts under Trump in an already tight labor market, Honomichl expects it will become harder to find people with the right skills when she needs them.

"Those skills are just things we don't necessarily have here (in the U.S.)," she said. "We are all now chasing fewer people who fit into that profile."

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

0
0
0
0
0