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Former refugee keeps Atlanta's MARTA buses on the road

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According to the Georgia Recorder, over 2.2 million people rode MARTA buses in April during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Whether they know it or not, these Atlantans have IRC client, Wisam, to thank for their safe passage to work, grocery stores and doctor’s offices. A former refugee from Iraq and now naturalized U.S. citizen, Wisam is one of MARTA’s newest Bus Technicians, responsible for servicing up to 20 Atlanta buses every day and keeping MARTA’s bus fleet clean, safe and fully operational.

Wisam is a Journeyman Bus Technician for MARTA.

Wisam first came to America through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program in 2008, along with his wife and three children. The family were forced to flee their home in Baghdad in 2006 due to the increasing violence of the Iraq War. In addition to leaving his home country, Wisam also left behind a successful mechanics business that he ran over the course of 21 years from 1985 to 2006. In that time, Wisam managed a team of 10 mechanics. He explained that he always made a point to have a diverse workforce, employing individuals from Egypt, Sudan and other neighboring countries. Wisam personally repaired over 1000 vehicles during that time.

After arriving in Georgia, Wisam worked in several entry level manufacturing roles for five years before he saved enough money to start another mechanic business in Scottsdale, GA. Wisam named this business Sam’s Auto Sales and focused on restoring old cars to their original condition. He ran the business from 2014 until 2019, but when he began to face financial hardship, he was forced to close the shop.

Omar Aziz—the IRC in Atlanta’s My New School Program Coordinator and longtime friend of Wisam—identified Wisam as a good potential participant for the IRC’s Career Development program. This program focuses on vocational training and recredentialing to help refugees and immigrants return to their profession or leverage their skills in a new career pathway. Career Development Coordinator, Lauren Bowden, met with Wisam in February 2020 to discuss his background, create a resume and formulate a career plan. After their discussion, Lauren called the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), explained Wisam’s impressive skillset and arranged for him to interview. By mid-March, Wisam was offered a job as a Journeyman Bus Technician at $22.75 an hour with benefits. MARTA also enrolled Wisam into paid commercial driver training so that he can legally operate MARTA buses after servicing them.

Wisam’s first official day on the job was March 27, just three days after Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued a Stay at Home Order for the city of Atlanta. Wisam was exempt from this order because his position is instrumental to a functioning public transportation system. When asked about working during the COVID-19 pandemic, Wisam said, “Yes, it is dangerous. Any job is dangerous, but everything is good in my job. Every day I service 15-20 buses. I check the oil, the antifreeze, make sure everything is clean and safe. If the bus is safe, other people will be safe, and that is important.”

Wisam’s story is a great example of the IRC’s work to help refugees and immigrants use the diverse skills and talents they bring with them to serve their new community. Lauren explained, “MARTA has a really difficult time finding people with diesel experience and Wisam had it in spades! People sometimes imagine that immigrants arrive in the United States without any work history, but that simply isn’t true. Our clients come to America with decades of professional experience and incredibly valuable skills. We connected Wisam to a good job that values these skills, and in return, Wisam is risking his health to connect millions of Atlantans during this difficult time.”

When Wisam was asked about his experience with the IRC’s Career Development program, he explained, “When I came to the IRC, I have experience, so much experience, but I did not have a resume. I did not know MARTA. I did not know about this job. You made me a resume. You help me with interview. Very quickly I got a new job. The pay is good. Now I have health benefits. I have retirement. I have training. I appreciate the IRC for helping me and helping all the people have good jobs.”

Your donation to the IRC’s COVID-19 Resiliency Fund ensures refugees, immigrants and the wider community continue to have access to essential programs and services, including our Career Development program. Learn more and donate to the IRC’s Resiliency Fund here.

To learn more about the work of the IRC in Atlanta and for information on how you can get involved with the IRC as a donor or volunteer, please contact Development Director, Marian Dickson, at Marian.Dickson [at] Rescue.org or 601-310-3174.

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