On a cold winter morning, a group of new Alaskans gathered in a classroom annex in East Anchorage to learn about what it takes to get - and keep -a job in the United States.
On a cold winter morning, a group of new Alaskans gathered in a classroom annex in East Anchorage to learn about what it takes to get - and keep -a job in the United States. Bhutanese refugees Hari Subedi, his brother Tulsi and their friend Raghu Nath Mishra arrived eager,bundled up and shaking off snow.
The three men are some of the 110 or so resettled to Alaska each year by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and the U.S. government. When they arrive, often directly from refugee camps, they face huge challenges: building a life in a country where everything from the language to the culture and climate is new.
One of the biggest challenges is finding a job.
Refugees arrive and are placed on public assistance, living on very limited budgets. Their first goal, says State Refugee Coordinator Dr. Karen Ferguson, is getting off public assistance through employment.
"We teach them how to be on (public assistance) and how to get off," she says.
That's why Catholic Social Services, an agency that provides help to refugees through the Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services program, holds employment orientation classes and helps to match willing workers with employers.
Today, Hari, Tulsi and Raghu, who all arrived a few months ago, will attend one such class. Over tea and animal crackers, the men, and other refugees from Sudan, Iran and Bhutan, talk with instructor Mirna Howard about American-style employment benefits.
to orientation classes, Catholic Social Services' Refugee Employment Program matches people with positions, helping find spots for some 70 percent of participants in the first six months.
For their part, Employment Services Coordinator Said Elmi says employers are often impressed with refugee employees' motivation and loyalty. He's helped to place other refugees into jobs at hotels and schools in town.
"It's a good situation for both sides," he says.
Hari, Tulsi and Raghu spent nearly 20 years in refugee camps in Nepal after the Bhutanese government's campaign to remove Hindus from the mostly-Buddhist country forced them out of the country they were born in. While in the squalid camps, where they lived without running water or electricity and had travel restricted, the men all worked as English teachers in nearby villages. After finally receiving word that they'd be resettled in Alaska, other Bhutanese refugees told them how important job skills and education would be.
"Our plan was to come here and do any kind of job," says Raghu. "We hope to upgrade our jobs slowly."
Tulsi and Raghu now have jobs working at Target, where they serve as parking lot attendants, restock shelves, clean up spills and help customers. Tulsi is still looking for a position.
"We feel proud and thankful to have jobs," says Tulsi.
In time, all three hope to return to school to be certified as teachers in the U.S. --- a long road, because much of their education from Bhutan and Nepal doesn't meet equivalency standards here. When they someday become teachers, Raghu says, they'll be able to impart their students with knowledge and their life experiences.
"We know the poor life," he says. "What we have learned we want to give them."
Working at Target is welcome exposure to diverse co-workers and American culture, says Raghu. And the company is allowing him to take time off to escort his young son to Seattle for heart surgery next month.
While he and the other Bhutanese refugees face challenges - gaining computer skills, communicating clearly in slang-heavy American-style English and learning to drive in wintry Alaskan weather are three he cites - earning a paycheck is a good start to his new life.
"I am very much proud to be employed there," he says. "They trust us and believe in us."