Lucy Patterson Grindon, International Rescue Committee, Journalism Intern
American job interviews puzzled Taha Khshali when he first arrived in the U.S. “In Turkey and Iraq, where I come from, they don’t do that [type of] interview for work. They don’t ask you, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ Obviously, I can’t see the future,” he said with a grin.
According to the “Financial Capability for New Americans” report released by the International Rescue Committee last month, “Economic independence is the foundation of long-term stability and successful integration for new arrivals in the U.S.” To help refugees overcome hurdles as simple as a misunderstood interview question or as complex as filing taxes, the IRC enrolls all working-age clients in employment programs. The early employment program at the IRC in Los Angeles helped Taha acclimate to his new environment and find his first job.
Taha fled his home in Baghdad for Turkey in 2013, when he was 18 years old. In Iraq, he had been a student, so he arrived in Istanbul with little work experience. In Turkey, he worked mostly in construction, but he had a difficult time finding enough work. He did not have any help, and he could not understand Turkish.
In Los Angeles, Taha has had two key advantages that he did not have when he arrived in Turkey. The first is the IRC’s help. He has been working one-on-one with Julianne O’Connor, the IRC in LA’s Job Placement Associate who manages the office’s early employment program. Julianne has helped him find job opportunities and prepare for interviews.
“We work, like we practice a lot, we work together here, they train me, they give me the questions, and I try to work on it at home,” Khshali said. “Now, I’m more confident to go for interviews. I understand what they want.”
All refugees of working age who are resettled by the IRC in LA benefit from the agency’s employment services, but Taha’s second advantage is more rare among the IRC’s clients: he speaks excellent English. Like many Iraqis, he learned the basics of English in school, but his natural passion for languages helped him develop the casual fluency of a young American. “I love the English language, so it was a hobby. I started listening to music and improving my English when I was twelve years old,” Taha explained.
Taha found his first job in the U.S. in February 2017. 85ºC Bakery Cafe was seeking employees for the location they planned to open the following month, and they hired Taha just two months after he arrived. Now, he serves coffee and pastries at their new store on Brand Boulevard.
Most of Taha’s colleagues are his age, and they have quickly become his community. “Basically, I don’t really have that many friends here because I just arrived. You can’t just go up to people and say, ‘Hi, hello, let’s be friends.’ That doesn’t work,” Taha laughed.
Taha often spends time with his new friends outside of work. On the day I interviewed him, he had plans to go bowling with them in the afternoon. (Taha loves to bowl; he got a lot of practice with his old friends in Istanbul.) He says his job is never too stressful because he and his coworkers can all have fun together. “We always laugh and joke, even when we get really busy or something,” he said.
Even before he arrived in the U.S., Taha had a strong notion of one proclaimed value of American society: personal independence.
“I came here firstly because I believe in freedom to express yourself and live the way you want,” he said. Still, his new friendships have helped him continue to develop his understanding of the way people live here and improve his American English. Taha’s English education in Iraq was more formal than colloquial. “Now, I know the way that American people speak,” he said.
“When I came here, in the beginning it was a little bit like hard to express myself, but now it’s become easier and easier. That’s one of the reasons why I spoke with Julianne and we worked together to find a job that would make me in touch with people so I can involve more with the society and improve my language,” he said.
Taha still cannot see five years into the future, but he believes in the financial opportunities ahead of him here. “There’s a lot of chances here, and I proved that for myself and for everybody else when I came here. This is my fifth month or something, and I already have a job. My situation is quite good. In this place, if you are a really hard worker, try to study, try to be a hard worker, have an open mind and learn a lot of things, you’ll get appreciated.”