ELIZABETH, N.J. ― Mohamad Aljahmani once owned an eponymous interior design business in Aleppo, Syria, until war broke out in 2011. He specialized in home design, mostly decorating living rooms and children’s bedrooms.
The city quickly devolved into one of the central staging grounds of the conflict, and Aljahmani fled with his family to neighboring Jordan in 2012. He did freelance design work to make ends meet. Eventually, he found out that his family was being considered for resettlement in the United States. They successfully made it through the 18- to 24-month vetting process and arrived in Elizabeth, New Jersey, a few months ago.
Aljahmani, 38, is unemployed, but dreams of being financially independent again. Right now, though, he’s focused on learning English and creating a portfolio, a website and business cards. He is about to begin language courses at Union County College, where he hopes to transition back into interior design and obtain an associate degree.
Without any current source of income, Aljahmani and his family rely on welfare assistance to keep the lights on and put food on the table. Yet he’s made the conscious choice to pursue an education with an eye toward long-term stability, rather than scoop up any low-paying job that requires few qualifications.
Aljahmani’s situation is not uncommon, but it’s clear that refugees who resettle in the United States approach the question of employment and financial security in a variety of ways.
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With the help of the social services nonprofit ICNA Relief USA, The Huffington Post interviewed several other Syrian men who are now refugees about their job situations. Most said they come from working-class backgrounds, and they all viewed themselves as the primary breadwinners of their families ― compounding the pressure on them to bring in money each month. Some felt comfortable allowing their wives to work, while others said they weren’t accustomed to the concept and would prefer that their wives stay home and care for the children.
The men could be divided into two groups ― those who are actively looking for work but struggling to find any, and those who have resigned themselves to not working.
None of the men came here with any knowledge of English. Many have pre-existing medical conditions that often make physical labor difficult (a number of the jobs that would be available to them require manual labor).
Some men also said they were dependent on welfare ― which sometimes offers more money per month than a minimum-wage job. They cited this as a reason they aren’t committed to finding work.
Their stories, below, have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mohammed Ali Zakkour, 36, is a tailor from Homs who came to Elizabeth in 2015. One of the first things he bought himself in the U.S. was a sewing machine, he said with a smile.
But finding a steady job hasn’t been easy. Zakkour suffered a stroke recently, which is abnormal for someone so young. He’s also missing two fingers on his right hand.
“Even if I do find a job in alterations, it doesn’t make a salary,” he said. “I then have to pick up side jobs like janitorial work in a restaurant, but they give you the lowest pay. The work doesn’t have benefits.”
He’s been taking English classes for many months, but doesn’t feel like he’s improving. Spending several hours per day in class also makes it difficult to work a steady job.
“Learning about grammar is difficult,” he added. “We want to learn conversational English to engage with people at work.”
Ali Alyassin, 43, dyed denim and fabrics for a living in Damascus before seeking refuge in Jordan. He’s been in New Jersey since last July, and still isn’t working.
Refugees typically receive federal assistance for their first four months in the United States. This theoretically offers people time to get settled and learn a little bit of English before needing to find a job.
Yet few people seem to land jobs in that period of time, so they go on welfare, and it can be a challenge to wean themselves off it.
Many of these men feel trapped between accepting a job that pays less than welfare and strips them of benefits, or continuing to live off government handouts because it’s more financially secure, said Leila Elfane, refugee outreach coordinator for ICNA Relief USA.
Elfane has been working with these men and their families for several months. With several children to think about, they’re merely trying to do what’s most cost-effective.
Alyassin, who is currently relying on welfare, said he hopes to continue working with textiles someday but worries about how a salary in that industry will keep him afloat.
“If I find a position in the same field I used to work in, then that’s better for me,” he said. “If it is possible, I would do that.”
Mohamed Taqi, 35, was a chef in Homs and one of the few in this group to find a job quickly. He had been working in a Lebanese restaurant in Elizabeth, but had to stop because of back problems, he said.
He tried showing the results of his MRI to his employer to see if he would be eligible for some kind of additional financial assistance or paid medical leave, to no avail.
“They cannot ask for days off every time they have to go [to a doctor’s appointment],” noted Elfane.
The men are under pressure not only to find work, but also to learn English in the first few months, expectations that often compete with one another. Resettlement agencies initially assist refugees by finding them apartments, helping with paperwork, enrolling children in school and providing free ESL classes. But the English classes aren’t very helpful, the men say, and the time they spend in class gives them less time to find a job.
Taqi said he wishes refugees could receive federal assistance for an entire year so they could focus solely on mastering English without other distractions. He isn’t eligible for welfare because he and his wife have no children. They do, however, get $160 per month in food stamps, he said. His wife, who suffers from diabetes, has been trying to sell the jewelry she makes for supplemental income.
Fortunately, Taqi recently found a new job and is excited to get back to work once his back heals, he said.
“If I’m looking toward the future, the system here, there is dignity [in this country],” Taqi said. “At the end of the day, they did give us health care. I want to work so I can pay taxes. To thank this country.”
Alaa Alsaj, 44, also dyed denim in Homs and hasn’t found a job yet. He’s been bogged down by procedural mishaps since he moved the the U.S. in August, he said.
“The [resettlement agency] messes up all of my paperwork,” he said. “They wrote that my son was from Somalia on his Social Security application.”
Alsaj feels conflicted, he added, because he doesn’t have time to look for a job while he’s busy every day with appointments and learning English.
“[English] classes are mandatory, but they tell us work is also mandatory,” he said, referring to the expectations he feels are being placed on him by the resettlement agency. “What are we supposed to do?”
Mohammed Alahmad, 48, is a former newspaper editor from Daraa.
“I’ve been here for 24 days and I don’t have gas at home. I have five kids,” he said.
He looks around at some of the other men who have been here more than a year and still aren’t working and says how eager he is to find employment.
“I’ll take any job,” he said.
But what Alahmad likely hasn’t realized is that supporting a seven-person family isn’t possible on a minimum-wage job that doesn’t offer benefits, so he very well may turn to welfare or enroll in a community college program to better position himself in the job market down the line.
What Elfane is actively discouraging, she said, is letting these men dither and do nothing.
“We’re trying to educate them so they understand that here in America, you may start with $5 an hour, but a few months later you move up because you learn, you interact with people, you get some connections, you start knowing where to go,” Eflane said.
Andy Campbell and Jesselyn Cook contributed to reporting.