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As the political debate over refugees in America heats up during this political season, this series explores the experiences of refugees who are settling, and have settled, in Virginia, and the programs that provide services for them. The Harrisonburg and Charlottesville areas lead the way in refugee resettlement in Virginia. Harrisonburg is second only to Northern Virginia in the number of resettled refugees, which numbered 260 in 2013.

The Struggle for Work in a New Country

Many immigrant newcomers, including refugees, take hourly-paid jobs in the service industry here.  That includes people who in their home countries were restaurant managers, or doctors, or engineers.  In the next installment of our series on Refugees in Virginia, WMRA's Jordy Yager finds one new project in Charlottesville that helps train people for specific work, with the assurance of a job at the other end.

KENNY: I’m just going to mark down on this sheet when you say each thing. Okay? I’m going to pretend like I’m the tester today, okay? Alright.

NAR GURUNG: So I going to check for first all the lights.

The morning temperature’s below freezing when I meet 32-year old NarGurung at the Charlottesville Area Transit bus depot. He and his trainer Ken, or “Mr. Kenny,” as the kids call him, are practicing the 45-minute pre-trip portion of the commercial driver’s license test. Gurung was born in Bhutan and lived for two decades in a refugee camp in Nepal. But now, he’s training to be a school bus driver for the city.

GURUNG: So, under the front of the bus, I going to check for the steering box. So steering box should be, it should not be cracked, no missing nuts and bolts…

Gurung is one of more than 3,000 refugees who have moved to Charlottesville over the last 17 years through the International Rescue Committee’s resettlement program. Housing, healthcare, school enrollment — these are all things the IRC immediately tackles when refugees first arrive. But right up there with these?

MONTE HACKNEY: I help refugees find their first jobs when they come to Charlottesville.

Monte Hackney is an employment coordinator with the IRC in Charlottesville.

HACKNEY: Our work is really focused on helping ensure that people get their feet on the ground and become self-sufficient as soon as possible.

Within the first week of a newcomer’s arrival, the IRC develops a resettlement plan with each refugee, pinpointing the type of job he or she can realistically get. They craft a resume, and discuss any long term career goals.

In their home countries, some refugees have worked as farmers doing manual labor, with little education or professional training, while others have been doctors or engineers. But these technical skills don’t necessarily translate into American life. At least, not immediately.

HACKNEY: We hope to put them on a career track where they can contribute to our community with those skills. That almost never happens with their first job. The first job is really about paying your rent and establishing a way to be self sufficient financially, and then build from there.

That usually means jobs in the 8 to 10 dollar an hour range, which in Charlottesville, means washing dishes at restaurants, cleaning hotel rooms at the Omni, or working as housekeepers at the Farmington Country Club. I met refugees who do all of these things. But the cost of living here is so high that just one of these jobs will often not cut it, especially if you have a family to support, which most refugees do.

According to a recent report looking at Charlottesville’s poverty and employment levels, a single parent with two kids would need to make at least $17.50 an hour to be able to support themselves independently.

Gurung supports his wife, who is pregnant, and his two-year-old son, while helping his parents as well. When he moved here in 2012, he got a job at the Boar’s Head Inn.  After 3 months, the IRC helped get him a better job as a housekeeper at the University of Virginia hospital, which hires lots of refugees, starting them at $10.65 an hour. Within a year, Gurung was promoted to team leader and making $13 an hour.

Clearly, Gurung was hungry to do more. In the refugee camp he had worked as a social worker for the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, helping suicidal and distraught refugee children.

So how do refugees begin to build a career here?

Some go back to school, says Hackney. They get the necessary U.S. certification in their respective fields, nursing for example. The IRC partners with Piedmont Virginia Community College, which offers adult career coaches. And for their first five years, refugees have access to the state’s STEP program, which stands for Skills Training for Enhanced Earnings Potential. It’s geared towards English proficiency, and moving refugees from a survival job to a career job.

Last year, the IRC introduced Gurung to a new program the city had started called Growing Opportunities, or GO for short. The GO programs flip the traditional job model on its head. Instead of training someone in a skill and hoping to find them a job afterwards, the GO programs develop training curriculums based on the needs of specific employers in town. Then they train people, with the assurance of a job at the other end. The city has graduated seven classes since they started a year and a half ago.

HACKNEY: The GO programs at the city have just been like a collective genius.

There’s GO Electric for electricians, GO Clean for custodial services, GO CNA for certified nursing assistants, and GO Driver for bus drivers like Gurung. The program’s open to all area residents, not just refugees, but in Gurung’s class of seven, four were from Bhutan, one from Afghanistan, and two from the U.S.

For months, Gurung’s been showing up for training at 7am, which goes until 1 in the afternoon. He goes home, eats lunch, changes clothes, and goes to work at UVA around 5pm. He doesn’t get home until 2 in the morning. And then he wakes up and does it all again. But it’s worth it, Gurung says. Last week he passed his road test. And pretty soon he’ll start driving actual kids on an actual bus, making $15.18 an hour.

GURUNG: We have to be hard worker all the time because we don’t have nothing here, so we have to struggle from the beginning itself, so if we struggle, struggle, struggle there are lots of opportunity.

In some ways, Gurung’s been training for this job since he was a kid, living in the refugee camp. He and his friends used slippers to make small buses to play with. They’d make wheels and attach a rope to pull them along a miniature road.

GURUNG: Yeah, I used to be the bus driver, pulling the rope.

Two months ago, Gurung and his class graduated from the GO program, meaning that after five weeks of training, they had all passed multiple tests and received their commercial driver’s license learner’s permits.

A small crowd of about 50 friends, family members, city employees and area partners gathered to honor them in a ceremony downtown. Each graduate spoke about their experience and how the program had transformed their life. Gurung recalled government-conducted killings, torture, and rape that his family had fled nearly 25 years ago in Bhutan. And just how grateful he was to be here now.

His peers agreed, and shared their own struggles they had overcome. Afterwards, they all stood up at the front of the room, together, and joined their voices.

Sound of group singing ‘We Shall Overcome’

Jordy Yager was a freelance reporter for WMRA from 2015 - 2019.