Through Work, Refugees Rebuild Their Lives

The first time I ordered food from Foodhini, a Washington D.C.-based start-up that delivers meals cooked by refugee and immigrant chefs, I chose dishes prepared by Syrian Chef Majed. The incredible sautéed okra and baked chicken were accompanied by a note with Majed’s story: how he fled from Syria to Jordan before being resettled in the United States, and how he learned to cook from his mother back in Syria.

So earlier this week, I was thrilled to meet Majed, his wife Walaa and their two young daughters in their Maryland apartment.

Majed, who is from the city of Daraa in southwestern Syria, studied hospitality and then went to culinary school. After completing his studies, he worked as a chef but in 2013, the war forced him to flee.

“I went to Jordan with a small suitcase and my phone,” he told me. He said he looked for job opportunities, but they were very hard to find. Opportunities for refugees to work legally in Jordan are very limited. They are only allowed to work in some sectors that are open to non-Jordanians. Even for those jobs, they must obtain a work permit that ties them to one employer. Like most Syrian refugees in Jordan, Majed worked in the informal sector.

“I earned 300 Jordanian dinars [about $422] per month, the rent was 250 dinars [$280],” he said. With two young children, it was a struggle to buy milk and diapers and to pay for electricity and phone bills. “It was all informal work. Whenever the police came, I had to run.” He said that working in the informal sector meant constantly being afraid of getting caught.

Majed’s account of working in the informal sector sounded very familiar to me. In researching my recent report “I Am Just Looking for My Rights”: Legal Employment Still Inaccessible to Refugees in Turkey, I spoke with dozens of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iran while I was in Istanbul last fall. The refugees described similar hardships: the near impossibility of obtaining work permits, the exploitation they faced working informal jobs, and the pressure of earning low wages while facing the high costs of supporting their families and, often, also supporting relatives back home.

Majed and Walaa said that when they received a phone call informing them that they would be resettled to the United States, they felt they had been rescued. They moved to Arizona in June 2016 and later to Maryland, to be closer to relatives and to more job opportunities. Majed said that within weeks of arriving in the United States, he found work.

“America said to me ‘Majed, come. If you want to work, you can work.”

“The most important thing for a refugee is work,” Majed said. “When I worked in Jordan, any task I was doing, I was thinking that the police might come. When I go to Foodhini [in Washington DC], I know it’s legal. I can improve myself.”

Speaking about her husband’s employment, Walaa said “Here, Majed works like a citizen, not like a refugee.” Among refugees I met in Turkey, being paid less than their Turkish co-workers and being made to work longer hours were a common complaint. For refugees to be treated like other employees in the workplace, the right to work is key.

Yet all too often, refugees’ access to legal employment is dependent on obtaining a work permit. But when conditions for work permits are difficult to fulfil as they are in Turkey, where employers must apply for the work permit, pay a fee and prove they cannot find a Turkish person for the role, few work permits are ever delivered. This forces most refugees into informal work where they are vulnerable to exploitation and barely earn enough to survive.

Giving refugees the chance to work legally not only means that they can rebuild their lives in their host country and give their children a future. It also gives their host community the benefit of their skills and experience. Instead of taking any job they can find and being constantly afraid of the consequences of working without legal authorization, refugees can focus on doing a job they like and know how to do.  This means they can make a bigger contribution to their new community and build their future.

Walaa, who studied computer programming back in Syria, told me she is looking forward to working once the children are in school.

As for Majed, he hopes to one day open his own restaurant where he would cook a variety of different foods. He told me that it is his dream, but then he corrected himself. “It’s not a dream, it’s a goal.”