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For refugees, a class to learn English and job skills

Sep 22, 2016

This isn’t the easiest time to come to Michigan as a refugee.

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson says he’ll sue to stop Syrian refugees from resettling in his county.

Donald Trump’s son is getting slammed for comparing refugees to skittles, saying if even just a “few” can hurt, you shouldn’t take a “handful.”

But for the refugees who’ve just arrived in Michigan, their biggest struggle is finding work, learning English, and rebuilding their lives in a strange country.

For some, that all begins in a windowless classroom in Sterling Heights: the English-and-job-training course offered by a resettlement agency.

There’s a chipper American teacher with a dry-erase board at the front, with pens, a pencil, and a toolbox: today’s lesson is about manufacturing work.

Shy young women from Iraq carefully work through a conversation from the textbook: practice meeting a factor coworker named Tony Menendez.

Their voices barely get above a whisper, and phrases like, “I am a press operator,” are especially tough.

“Good, good! All of your reading is very good,” the teacher tells them. “You just need more confidence. Tell yourself: I can do it! Because you can.”

He's a middle-aged, civil engineer from Baghdad who doesn't like talking about his life before, "because it is in the past."

There’s one refugee in this class who’s already got that confidence. In fact, this whole beginner-level class is driving him a little nuts.

“I want to use my brain,” Namet Al Shamyani sighs later that afternoon. He’s a middle-aged, civil engineer from Baghdad who doesn’t like talking about his life before, “because it is in the past.”

He and his three children, he says, spent the last seven years slowly making their way through the refugee application process.  

"Yes, it took about seven years to complete my documents and coming here."

And when they finally did arrive four months ago, everything felt confusing, overwhelming. Shamyani says he felt lost, almost all the time.   

"Because the people are very different. The streets, the buildings, and the procedures."

But he's a fast learner. And he's clearly desperate to get back to real work.

At one point, another refugee in the class can't understand something the teacher's saying about machinists, so Al Shamyani launches into a long, detailed explanation in Arabic -- even using props. It’s way more extensive than the student could ever need, but it’s a rare opportunity for Al Shamyani to feel like he’s back on familiar ground.   

"Like, I don't want to say he doesn't belong there, but he definitely knows much more than everyone else who never worked in industry," says Vesna Cizmic, the head of employment programs in Detroit for Samaritas.

That’s the refugee resettlement agency that offers this course and works one-on-one with refugees to help them adjust to their new lives.  

“We can definitely try to find him a job," she says.

But finding the kind of challenging engineering work Al Shamyani really craves? That’s more complicated.

Because right now, Cizmic says, she has no trouble finding entry-level work for refugees. Think the 4 am shift at a plant, or hotel housekeeping, McDonalds -- that kind of thing.   

"It may take, uh, time,” Al Shamyani says of his job search so far.  “But not more long time. It may take few months to get this job. And at that time, I will be happy more than now. I am happy now. But if I can find a job - because without job, I cannot find myself."

His kids, meanwhile, are doing great.

All three of them are in school, he says. And his youngest, Miryam, is taking this English class right beside him.  

When he talks about his daughter, he smiles for the first time this afternoon. So how's Miryam adjusting in the U.S.?

"Yes, she look like…happy,” he says, with a contented laugh. “Because she moved to another country, a different country. In Iraq, we cannot get our freedom. Yes, something happy happened to her.”

Getting here, to the U.S., after seven years of trying - that's something happy.

Al Shamyani and his family have only been here four months. They don't know what'll come next, but they're here, they're learning, and at least for today, that's enough. 

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