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Refugees seek work in tough times

Displaced workers called 'cream of the crop,' 'survivors'

SALT LAKE CITY — Yes, there was that time when one of her employees from Myanmar put a toaster in the dishwasher. The man had never used a dishwasher before — or a toaster, for that matter.

But after an initial learning curve, the refugees she has hired have been a boon to her company, says Suzanne Wild. And now Wild, who is director of housekeeping services at Marriott's Summit Watch resort in Park City, wants to get the word out to other employers: Hiring refugees "is a really smart business decision."

"Any refugee is a survivor, so they're not going to give up," says Wild, who participated in a "Why Hire Refugees?" panel Tuesday, as part of World Refugee Day Education Week.

Roughly 1,000 new refugees arrive in Utah each year after fleeing wars and persecution, and the biggest issue now is finding enough jobs, says Emily Smoot, refugee job developer with Catholic Community Service.

Smoot is encouraged by the successes of refugees she has placed in jobs recently — including 26 with Aramark Corp. at Lake Powell Resort. But she's also frustrated by an unwillingness of some employers to give her clients a chance. And of course, the state's 7 percent unemployment rate doesn't help.

"We get turned down a lot," Smoot says. "I think employers hear the word 'refugee' and think 'I can't be bothered.' " Often, it's more a brush-off than an out-right rejection. "They say, 'We'll run it past our higher-ups and get back to you,' and then never call."

Marriott's Wild says she didn't even know Utah had a refugee population until she was suddenly faced two years ago with a shortage of housekeeping employees. Eventually, she hooked up with the International Rescue Committee and hired 14 men from Myanmar.

"The payoff has been absolutely wonderful," she says. Cleanliness scores from hotel guests have "skyrocketed," and scores on employee satisfaction tests are also high. "We're the second-happiest housekeeping department in (Marriott's) western region."

Even language doesn't have to be an obstacle, she says. To communicate with the Myanmar housekeeping staff, Wild put a smiley face and a sad face on a white board, then under those put pictures of rooms that were cleaned well or cleaned poorly. Each morning, the men watch language instruction DVDs.

Some of Utah's refugees come with skills and schooling; others arrive after years in refugee camps, where they may have had volunteer jobs but no résumé or references that will impress an employer. That's where refugee jobs developers at Catholic Community Services, IRC and the Asian Association come in, helping employers understand the refugees' strengths: problem-solving skills, flexibility and determination.

At the Asian Association, Giles Larsen runs eight-week workshops on job interviewing, the job search process and workplace issues such as hygiene and promptness.

Larsen and the refugees do mock interviews, where the refugees learn that while smiling at a stranger of the opposite gender in their own country might be taboo and making eye contact might be seen as aggressive, employers in America expect a job applicant to be friendly and engaging.

When the Asian Association finds a job for a refugee, it provides continuing follow-up, says refugee employment and community center director Lina Smith — interpreters for employee orientation, job training help in their own language, and trouble-shooting if questions arise at work.

It's not easy getting clearance to come to America as a refugee, notes job developer Smoot. "These people are the cream of the crop. They're not looking for a handout," she says. "They're looking for a chance."

World Refugee Day Education Week includes panels, a refugee art exhibit and a festival and soccer tournament at Granite High School on Saturday. For a list of events, go to www.refugee.utah.gov.

e-mail: jarvik@desnews.com