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Refugees Are Helping To Keep Businesses Open In Local Communities

Baltimore skyline CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CARLOS OSARIO
Baltimore skyline CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CARLOS OSARIO

G.T., who escaped from Eritrea due to political and economic turmoil, works as a steward at a Washington, D.C.-area Hilton hotel. He cleans and washes dishes among other tasks, makes $14.85 an hour, and saves up a portion of his paycheck because he aspires to go to college one day. His life is far different from when he left Eritrea to escape a lifetime of forced military conscription.

Now, G.T. earns a steady paycheck and has become a success story of a controversial refugee resettlement process in the United States that some politicians want to restrict on fears that terrorists could come into the country through this manner.

Admitted as a refugee to the United States in April, G.T., who asked for his real name to be withheld because he still has family back in Eritrea, didn’t always have a life this consistently American. He spent nine months trudging through Eritrea to Sudan, then another four months to Libya. From there, he took a perilous journey by boat to Malta, where he worked for three years and four months. While his own journey to Malta happened a few years before the European Union began facing a crush of refugees from Africa and the Middle East, his trek was hardly different from the one undertaken by millions of refugees traveling across the Mediterranean Sea.

In Malta, G.T. was happy “when I heard that there was a chance to go to America. Everyone knows that America has good opportunities,” G.T. told ThinkProgress in a phone interview. “That’s why I prefer to choose to come here. Thank God.”

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Last year, U.S. politicians began tearing into the refugee resettlement process, claiming that terrorists could potentially come into the country disguised as refugees because the country lacks a rigorous refugee application process. As testimony to their fears, as many as 31 state governors rejected refugee resettlement in their states after the terrorist attacks in Paris, France. Roughly 800,000 people have been resettled in the country since 9/11, but not one refugee has been arrested on terrorism charges.

In spite of these vicious claims against refugees, G.T.’s successful integration into U.S. society stands out as an example of the reciprocal, beneficial relationship that refugees and local communities can have on one another. Some local politicians see refugee resettlement as a way to revitalize their cities and to harness talent and skills for entry-level jobs that many native-born Americans may not necessarily want to do.

Jijo Allapat, the director of operations at a hotel chain in the Baltimore, Maryland area, has firsthand experience with seeing how the job retention rate among refugees can be higher than that of native-born Americans.

To this day, we still have three or four [refugees], so the staff turnover was minimized.

“In Baltimore, we always have big staff turnover, so we wanted to make sure that we can tap into all the resources to get the right staffing,” Allapat told ThinkProgress in a phone interview. “To this day, we still have three or four [refugees], so the staff turnover was minimized.”

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Allapat pointed out that there’s a “short-term pain, but long-term gain,” meaning that it takes time to help refugees get acculturated to “our culture, our business,” and sometimes even to the English language. But he said that it’s worth it because “their work ethic is good” and they “bring a different culture to our organization so it definitely helps us to see the uniqueness.”

Ruben Chandrasekar, the executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Maryland, which provides humanitarian assistance in more than 30 countries, agrees with Allapat’s sentiment. He pointed to an anecdote about the time Baltimore was sacked by a huge blizzard and refugee hotel staff worked double shifts “taking turns sleeping and working.”

“[Businesses] are extremely satisfied with the work from refugees,” Chandrasekar told ThinkProgress in a phone interview. “Many [refugees] have lost homes, country, careers, and have lived in limbo for the past 20 years in refugee camps for many many years. [The thinking from refugees is that] ‘when I didn’t have basics like education, running water, then I came to a place like Baltimore and I got my first job and I was able to get my son shoes,’ how motivated do you think refugees would be to work?”

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has seen the value in resettling refugees in her town. Foreign-born workers earned about $1 billion in wages in 2011, with immigrants holding more than 27,000 jobs. They also own 21 percent of the city’s businesses, about three times more than the native-born population, a Baltimore City government report found. Beyond Baltimore, many other cities have found that resettling refugees could help grow the economy by allowing refugees to buy homes, learn English, and eventually become citizens.

The fact that G.T. has quickly become self-sufficient is becoming increasingly commonplace among the refugee population. About three million refugees have admitted to the United States since 1975. A Center for American Progress study found that four refugee groups — Somali, Burmese, Hmong, and Bosnian that make up about 500,000 U.S. residents — have quickly joined the labor force, with high labor force participation by the time they’ve lived here for a decade. The report also found that refugees start businesses, learn English, buy houses, and are persistent about becoming U.S. citizens.

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