A Conversation with Lauren – Experiences in Refugee Services & Advice for Finding Livelihood
This week we sat down with Lauren Simcic, our Communications & Fundraising Coordinator to hear what she had to say about experience working with refugees in the US and Turkey. In this installment, she shares an insider’s view on the positive gains, facing apathy while seeking inclusion, and some Job Developer tips for those who find themselves starting over. Grab a cup of tea and let’s get settled in!
Can you introduce yourself to the reader?
My name is Lauren, and I’m a 27-year-old from America’s Midwest who’s been working to directly serve refugees and displaced people since I’ve entered the workforce. Today I’d like to share a little bit of my experience in the field, and a bit of advice for refugees who find themselves looking for work in their new country.
My perspective draws from my experience working in NGOs in the U.S. and Turkey, two systems that are very different from one another. I turned refugee services into my career in 2012 and have worn many different hats since then — from job coaching to grant writing, liaising with employers to running communications and fundraising.
I started by serving the Chicago refugee population as an Employment Specialist in the U.S resettlement system for several years before moving to Istanbul where I now work at Small Projects Istanbul, a grassroots organization serving those displaced by the conflict in Syria and other parts of the MENA region.
At SPI I continue to expand my skills in my work as the Communications and Fundraising Coordinator at Small Projects Istanbul. As a Job Developer, I worked to educate and build connections between employers and potential refugee hires. At SPI, I use social media, the web, and public forums to raise the consciousness of a society still grappling with what the role of refugees ought to be in Turkey, and how individuals and the state might be able to create a more apt system to aid their integration and opportunity for success.
What do you love about SPI?
What I love about SPI is our focus on training and enterprise as the means for integration into Istanbul as a greater community — a city of over 17 million which is vibrant but sometimes disorientingly so. Our international team of volunteers brings a wide range of experience that makes our community rich and fulfilling for me to be a part of.
I’m particularly inspired by the gains being made by our Women’s Skills Development Program and bustling craft collective, where women earn fair wages for the products they produce and sell worldwide. As women gain business skills they’re taking greater control of their futures, which is exactly what the grassroots program intends for its makers.
As program participants take steps toward independence in this complex city by entering mainstream education and society, taking jobs to earn a decent wage, and learning to navigate and assert their rights, we at SPI have a sense of mandate to serve the current members of our community and those who will come after. SPI empowers individuals and families by offering the skills-development and support necessary to build a future in which they will choices and greater control of their path. That’s something I’m proud to say we’re doing well.
How did you get into working with refugee or displaced communities?
It all started in high school when I started volunteering as an after-school tutor in Cleveland Ohio to young refugees from Burundi and the Congo. As I learned more about their experiences coming to the US, the growing pains for kids and teens and the deeper barriers like language and entering the workforce that their parents faced, I felt called to become an actor in the process. I wanted to know its inner-workings and the ways that individuals, businesses, and communities could and might be willing to act as partners in their resettlement. Displayed in front of me I’d seen the resilience and range of skills these individuals had brought with them from countries undergoing war that my friends and neighbors hadn’t even heard of. To me, these newcomers were an untapped resource that my community could benefit from. To be fair you could call me an idealist, and part of me still is. To some extent, you have to be to stay afloat in a field with limited resources and a mandate to serve 100s of families annually who’ve been promised that there is a support system waiting for them upon arrival to help them rebuild their lives.
How have you seen the public climate or attitude toward refugees change as you’ve gotten involved?
As I went on to university to study Political Science and Human Rights I was surrounded by like-minded people who wanted to make a difference. When I graduated university in 2012, took on roles within state and local politics, and tuned into the general rhetoric, I quickly got a wake-up call. I found that the refugees and asylees I’d connected with were rarely on the radar of the public officials I’d met with and didn’t come close to the top of the agenda. Unfortunately, it’s taken protracted Western involvement in wars abroad and the largest ‘refugee crisis’ since World War II for the growing population of refugees to enter the public and policy-making consciousness. We now see lawmakers fumbling to develop a national security policy that won’t stray too far from a platform that’s shifting to focus on Americans first — at the expense of families dodging the life-threatening violence that confronts their daily lives. This political climate and lack of public awareness meant it would be essential for me to education employers on the benefits of refugee hiring and inclusion in their workplaces.
In Istanbul, and Turkey as a whole, we face the same issue as advocates. Sharing a border with Syria, some Turks feel resentful that they’ve taken on a burden that the state makes no robust plans to address, adding new workers to the economy whilst nationals themselves struggle to find gainful work. In response, it’s our role to take the pulse of the local community, understand the skill sets needed to succeed, and extend our know-how to displaced people to pass on these skills and instill hope. As newcomers begin to display their skills and edge closer toward traditional work and social spheres, the sentiment will slowly change as Americans, Turks, and citizens of other host countries mix with and build relationships with their new neighbors, recognize their similarities and that the conflicts that force refugees to flee are rarely fixed by a bit of diplomacy as the 24-hour news cycle may urge us to believe.
Tell us about your work supporting refugees in gaining employment.
After university, I went on to work at a refugee resettlement agency in Chicago. As a staff of 25, we worked on teams to receive 400+ refugees on an annual basis and address their basic adjustment needs upon arrival to the United States by specializing in housing, teaching English as a Second Language, school support, and employment services. My role was to act as a mentor to refugees and a liaison to the business community as they gained preparedness to enter the U.S. workforce, use new language skills, interview and receive an entry-level job offer, and to retain the position and ultimately reach self-sufficiency— the ability to pay rent and support their families.
Eventually, my role would evolve to allow me to support refugees who had maintained entry-level jobs and sought to re-enter their former career, access job training, or a pay raise – evidence of the state’s stable refugee funding which would change soon thereafter as a new governor shifted the administration’s priorities. Unfortunately, the depth and range of services for refugees remain at the mercy of politics.
What advice would you share with refugees establishing themselves in a new country, based on your experience?
One of the greatest yet amenable issues facing job seekers was the set of unrealistic expectations they’d brought with them. UNHCR while providing cultural orientation services and communities awaiting their own resettlement often inflate the idea that being granted refugee status in the U.S. means that the American Dream is somewhat automatic— that anyone who wants something badly enough will achieve what they set their mind to. In some ways this is true, but the reality is that many barriers like language and cultural fluency still stand in the way. Education and work experience often won’t transfer officially or unofficially in the U.S. or other countries of resettlement.
The important thing is to remember that this doesn’t leave us powerless in the fight to pave our own way. It’s important to think about the ways in which your skills are transferable to the new environment you find yourself in. I’ve seen Iraqi business owners move to Chicago and reluctantly take jobs as dishwashers then later become IT professionals with a competitive salary. Take language study seriously as it has been the key factor in achieving a job upgrade for 99% of those I’ve mentored. No matter where you are today, you have the power to change your standing in the workforce, your pay grade and ultimately your life standard. Along the way, seek mentors from your community and make connections with those who know the lay of the land and extend their hand to help you navigate. A job coach or connected member of your new community can often vouch for you and give a reference of your character and fit for the job, this goes a long way with a lot of employers who may feel they are taking a risk on you.
Rejections will come your way- don’t hold on to them or take them personally.
Remember to examine yourself honestly and to celebrate the little things in life. Getting through an exam, making it into the next level of English class or making a new friendship. Don’t forget about your own happiness — it’ll make you a better parent, employee, student, and bring you a greater appreciation of the life you’re now leading.
Take time to write down your goals, develop timelines and consider the resources and training you may need to reach them. It’s best to do this with support from a job coach who can give you a realistic sense of time and help you delineate the steps you will need to take to reach your end goal. You’ll likely need to be flexible and accept a job you may feel is below you. Remember that your job doesn’t need to define you, you are much more than the title you hold. There is dignity in earning a stable wage that’ll allow you to live with more freedom. Despite your immediate situation, you must be patient with yourself and the process. Have trust that good things lay ahead for you if you keep your goals in sight, work actively to better yourself and seek help along the way.
Lauren can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and continues to give support to mentees.