Refugee Employment & Entrepreneurship: Why It Matters to the Church
By Fargol Dyrud and Kylie Mean, Greater Boston Refugee Ministry
We are in one the biggest refugee crises in world history. Over 60 million people are currently displaced from their homes and separated from family. As Christians—called by Jesus to care for the stranger—we must contemplate our role in addressing this crisis.
In our work through the Greater Boston Refugee Ministry, we have learned that work is one of the most challenging issues for refugees rebuilding their lives in the US. Lack of prospects for work fosters unhealthy dependencies, stifled potential, and loneliness. Work provides dignity—it’s a path toward economic independence, an opportunity to build capacities, and a place to develop relationships.
The geopolitical forces causing the refugee crisis don’t discriminate by occupation or education. Refugees come to the US with a broad range of skills and experience. Some are doctors, engineers, or other highly skilled professionals. Others come with little formal education, many having survived in refugee camps for significant portions of their lives. All arrive in the US with the same hope—that they will be able to live in safety and build their future.
Studies have shown that refugees and immigrants contribute positively to local economies. In the Franklin County, Ohio, refugees contributed an estimated total $1.6 billion per year to the Columbus Metropolitan Area alone through the combined economic impact of the resettlement agencies, refugee workers, and refugee-owned businesses.
Despite their demonstrated benefit to local economies, refugees face systemic barriers to securing work. Some find employment that fits their gifts and experiences. But many are currently unable to realize their potential in employment or entrepreneurship—they struggle to find a job, remain underemployed, or face significant obstacles in opening a business.
"Just think about the change from my previous experience to my current one! I was a UN Investment Specialist, with an office in the Ministry Authority. I had meetings and conferences at the highest levels of Government and with international entities. Here, it’s been so difficult to even find a job—to navigate the employment and recruiting system to get a rare interview, all to find that the only job I can get is a simple job, for little pay, requiring no skill." - Syrian male
Refugee employment/entrepreneurship matters to the church. Here’s why.
1. God has dignified work for all.
God has always intended—starting with the first man and woman—for humanity to steward His creation. Genesis 2:15 says “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” (NIV, emphasis added). As beings made in the image of God, we are designed to engage in fruitful work as a small reflection of God’s creative power.
While God later cursed the man with toilsome labor, work itself was not a curse. God first gave work to humankind in the Garden of Eden—before the Fall—as a blessing and a dignity.
Over time a broad tapestry of occupations has developed as societies have changed. What hasn’t changed is the God-given privilege and call to use the combination of gifts and capacities God has given each of us in regular labor.
"Everything is related, and by doing good work, I do the will of God by loving my work, my coworkers, my boss, and everyone I meet. Then when I’m on my way back home, while tired, I’m full of joy and happy to be alive." - Syrian male
2. Work builds dignity and purpose for refugees.
Even if our current job doesn’t match squarely with our talents, work can provide dignity through the opportunity to provide for our families. Earning a living and working towards self-sufficiency is healthy and empowering.
For the refugee, getting their first job in the US provides a family with critical momentum. Earning a solid wage can help provide a necessary boost to get a family out of survival mode. They can then get started on a career ladder or on a path to opening their own business.
As refugees gain the resources to provide for the basic needs of their family, they reclaim more energy to pursue less tangible needs, like connection and relationship. Once able to plan beyond the next month, a family also has space to dream about their own and their children’s future and access the many opportunities and resources this country has to offer.
When our work intersects well with how God has gifted us, we further feel deep satisfaction and joy from being useful, productive, and fully engaged. Frederick Buechner wrote, "The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet." Refugees, too, look forward to a job that calls upon their skills, personality, and capacities.
"I love being an architect because I've been always interested in designing spaces where people live and socialize in the routine of daily life." - Syrian female
3. Refugees foster mutually transformative relationships in the workplace.
We spend a considerable number of waking hours at work. The work environment provides refugees significant opportunity to build language skills. At the same time, they learn about American culture and develop relationships with members of the community, including employers, coworkers, and customers.
But workplace cultural learning doesn’t just flow one way. Refugees broaden Americans’ understanding of God’s diverse creation—employers and coworkers benefit from learning about different cultures and backgrounds. Teams with refugees can generate fresh ideas for business growth as they come to learn about a broader landscape of potential customers.
"Amidst all this I’ve experienced lots of struggles, and I’ve been humbled. But I’ve also experienced joy and great satisfaction just because I have a job and relationships with my coworkers—I’m happy to see them again every day." - Syrian male
Refugees also model character traits in the workplace that American-born workers rarely possess in the same capacity. The life experience of refugees has engraved into their DNA humbleness, resilience, loyalty, and sense of community that enriches their work relationships.
“Refugees will suddenly be [like], you're their brother, you’re their sister, you’re their family, instantaneously. If you help, if you give a little bit, you get back that much more," says Meggan Ward, Director of Operations and Training, Beautiful Day Rhode Island.
In fact, we need the strength of character of refugees to remedy parts of our own damaged work cultures. We can all testify that we need more caring employers and work environments, more of a sense of community, and greater loyalty in our modern American workplace.
Anyone who has worked with refugees has experienced in them a remarkable strength that transforms the workplace dynamic.
"My job has a lot of physical movement, which is very good for my health. We can choose to see the positive side and make it more important than the negative one. This motivates me to do a good job, to do my duty at work the best way that I can." - Syrian male
4. Your Church Can Play a Key Role
We believe the Church is vital to supporting refugees to find sustainable employment or pursue entrepreneurial dreams that would enrich our city.
Any church has the potential to change a refugees’ trajectory on their employment and entrepreneurship journey. How? Your church can become a refugee family’s community network. The Church’s extensive social ties provide refugees with supportive connections that could otherwise take years for them to build in the US.
Each church has different skills they can leverage in addressing the issue of refugee employment and entrepreneurship. Communities of faith can offer (among many other things):
access to critical resources and knowledge
a sense of community and connection
a space for refugees to soundboard or test business ideas
If you’re interested in making a positive difference in the lives of refugees, pray with your church community about how God may be calling you to engage in refugee employment or entrepreneurship.
ABOUT THE AUTHORs
Fargol was a 2017 GBRM research associate working in refugee employment/entrepreneurship and refugee housing as a part of her MBA. As an Iranian immigrant whose life has been affected by geopolitical forces, she empathizes with refugees and is passionate about serving them. Fargol leverages her fresh, insider perspective to push the boundaries of the refugee resettlement/recovery field.
Kylie’s heart for social enterprise, intercultural ministry and hospitality fits well with her role with EGC’s Greater Boston Refugee Ministry. She helps GBRM leadership and ambassadors consider how they can empower refugees and their employers to create transformational employment opportunities.
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