Lost in transition
Many immigrants find it difficult to rebuild careers in US
A doctor from Afghanistan runs a cash register at the Walmart in Lynn. A former two-star general from the same country works as an $11-an-hour security guard in Somerville. And a onetime high-powered lawyer from Albania labored in a Worcester factory before being laid off.
For them, America was a path to safety, even while it was a huge step down in status.
In Afghanistan, Ahmad Darvesh wore a crisp, white coat and a stethoscope as he diagnosed emergency room patients suffering from bullet wounds or pneumonia. In Lynn, with a Walmart badge clipped to his shirt collar, he strikes up brief conversations with customers as he scans their purchases. The customers do not know it, but he chats because he misses talking to his patients.
"I'm tired," the soft-spoken 50-year-old said in an interview in his Chelsea apartment, with his diplomas and photographs arrayed on a folding table in the kitchen. "I'm tired of working in a job that is only for the money. I'm a doctor. . . . I could be more useful."
Across Massachusetts and the nation, 1 in 5 college-educated immigrants and refugees are unemployed or toiling in low-level jobs because they cannot easily adapt their skills in the United States - a phenomenon the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute called "brain waste" in a recent study.
It is an age-old quandary for immigrants who hold doctoral degrees and speak multiple languages, but aren't fluent in English and lack professional networks to steer them to jobs. Now, the problem is getting newfound attention from state officials who are considering expanding programs as immigrants in Massachusetts clamor for more training and assistance.
Many immigrants are able to rebuild their careers here, while some return home, frustrated. But others do neither; they lack the ability to find work in their chosen fields and are fearful of returning to their native countries because of violence or economic crises.
"This is a gaping hole of waste for the United States," said Jane Leu, executive director of Upwardly Global, a nonprofit founded in San Francisco in 2003 to guide foreign-born professionals, from real estate agents to professors, back into their fields. "These are people who have every ability to contribute and want to."
For the college-educated immigrants - some 1.3 million nationwide - the plunge in prestige may come as no surprise, but it is still overwhelming for many.
Faced with an urgent need to earn a paycheck, immigrants often take what advocates call "survival jobs." Often, they suffer from depression, culture shock, and abrupt downward mobility, while less-educated immigrants typically experience an increase in pay.
Many immigrants lack the American-style experience of aggressively seeking jobs, Leu said. In Afghanistan, for instance, the government picked the best students, told them where to study, and assigned them a career.
In Albania, Robert Gjoni was a young, high-powered lawyer who worked his way up to judge, then legal counsel to the deputy prime minister. But since 1996, when he came to America to avoid turmoil in his country, he has been a dishwasher, temporary worker, valve assembler, and security guard. He went to trade school, taught himself English, and became a quality-control supervisor at a factory, but was just laid off.
Now he is 45, and struggling to figure out what to do next.
"When I came here it was dark everywhere I could see," he said. "The first thing in my mind was to make ends meet. . . . There is plenty of potential, at least many people from Albania who came to this country used to work as doctors and specialists in different fields. They have ended up just like me."
Underemployed immigrants cost the United States money, according to the Migration Policy Institute, because they earn less than their potential and therefore pay lower taxes.
Ghulam Farooq, a former general in Afghanistan whose job was to strengthen the army, felt fleetingly useful to the United States after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He had come here fleeing the Taliban regime in 2000. After the attacks, federal officials and diplomats sought his advice on the war in Afghanistan.
But they have all moved on. Now the 64-year-old security guard and US citizen is stationed at the door of a medical office building, with a space heater to ward off the winter chill. He carries a folder with news clippings about the war, and in hushed tones outlines strategies to win the conflict. But almost nobody listens.
"It is not good if I can't" help, he said urgently. "I have knowledge."
As he spoke one day recently, a white-haired man approached him.
"Orthopedics?" the man asked. "Yes, yes," Farooq answered with a smile, and escorted the man to the door.
Many immigrants endure the loss of prestige in silence.
Jacques Kitembo, a 50-year-old French professor who fled political persecution in Congo and Rwanda, bites his tongue when customers argue with him over the cost of the parking garage, where he works weekends as a cashier.
"Sometimes I want to tell them, 'Do you know who I am?' " he said.
Kitembo, born in Congo, said he realized several years after arriving in the United States in 2004 that he had to ask for help. He became a job-hunting dynamo: He joined the American Association of Teachers of French, which sent him e-mails on job opportunities, he asked the nonprofit Jewish Vocational Service in Boston for help finding a job, and scoured the Internet for leads.
He has found work teaching classes at four public and private schools and colleges, but he still needs the parking garage job to earn extra money to bring his family to the United States.
Unlike Kitembo, many immigrants do not know where to begin.
Richard Chacón, executive director of the state's Office for Refugees and Immigrants, said the agency is working to better coordinate programs for immigrants and refugees statewide - and to expand existing programs for healthcare professionals.
"There's a real need for both some assistance but also some shepherding through the process," he said.
State officials say it is possible for immigrants to return to their careers. Physicians, for instance, must pass two medical-licensing exams in English and complete a two-year paid residency program in a hospital to get their licenses, according to the state's Board of Registration in Medicine. Community colleges, the state, and nonprofits all run programs to help job-seekers.
But for the most part in Massachusetts, it is up to immigrants to find the help on their own. In San Francisco, New York, and Chicago, Leu said, immigrants are flocking to Upwardly Global, which helps them six months to a year after their arrival. The nonprofit assigns immigrants a mentor and six weeks of classes on how to find jobs in their fields in the United States. The program cost about $1.4 million last year to serve 500 people, up from 40 people in 2003.
Taking a step toward returning to a job in a hospital, Darvesh completed a biomedical course in May at Bunker Hill Community College through a program called Just a Start.
All his life, he has been assigned to his job, and he hopes the program will find him a new job soon.
"In the US you have a lot of opportunity," he said. "But everything is up to you."