Traumas not far behind for refugees

by Jordan Green

About 50 of them huddledaround tables last week in theVirginia Room at the GreensboroDowntown Marriott, refugeeswho fled persecution andviolence in distant nations likeTogo, the Congo, Rwanda andVietnam. Many of them hadestablished lives in Greensboroonly last year, and like everyoneelse they’re scraping throughhard times on the employmentfront — only more so.Representatives from a handfulof staffing agencies, Goodwilland the Guilford County JoblinksCareer Center give cheery,motivational speeches, but joboffers are scarce. When threeAfrican drummers began topound out a thundering rhythm,the refugees bolted from theirseats and swarmed around thetables of the presenters.Before the program began,Olsten branch manager DeAnnaTurner had been telling Y’SiuHlong and Y’Buom Nie, bothof the Montagnard/Dega Association: “We hire refugees;everyone should.”Olsten does not have a lotof light industrial work rightnow, she said. Most of the jobsavailable are clerical.“We don’t have any currentopenings, but we might lateron,” Turner said. She toldthe men that Olsten’s clientsrequire workers with Englishspeaking ability, especiallya pharmaceutical companythat makes Tylenol gel caps,because “when you’re workingwith medicine you can’t havemiscommunication.” Her basicmessage was that the refugeesshould be ready for the timewhen the economy turns around— take every opportunity toimprove their English, refinetheir resumes and sharpen theirinterviewing skills.Hotounou Victor Messan, a53-year-old refugee from thetiny West African nation of Togo,has fared relatively well sincehe arrived in Greensboro lastAugust. Accounts of chronicjoblessness and the threat ofeviction are common amongnonprofit providers who serverefugees. So for Messan tofind work at American StaffingResources and later land arestaurant dishwashing job for32 hours a week has to countas a success. Still, he has to bemindful to set aside enoughmoney each month for rent, andis looking for opportunities toimprove his lot.When the drummers began toplay, Messan headed straight forthe Labor Ready table and talkedto representative KawonnaSingletary. Then he went tothe Marketplace Staffing table,filled out an application andsubmitted it.Refugees don’t typically showup looking for work at LaborReady, Singletary said. Theminimum wage rate for nonskilledjobs and the fact thatmost assignments last only aday may be a deterrent for some,she acknowledged. Singletarysaid federal stimulus money hascreated jobs and as the weathercontinues to warm constructionwork will likely pick up. Theagency is fielding about 30workers a day on jobs rangingfrom flagging on road jobs towelding, cleaning motels andunloading trucks.Messan wore a heavy flannelshirt, glasses and a Ford cap,giving him a working-classintellectual look that contrastedwith some of the other Africanrefugees who dressed moreformally in pinstriped jacketsand pressed shirts. Speakingthrough an interpreter inthe hotel lobby outside theconference room, Messanadmitted to frustration with theminimal support provided bythe US State Department andthe bleak economic prospects,but made it clear his greatestchallenges stem from thedifficult situation he fled inAfrica.“I wish the best for the UnitedStates because they saved mylife,” he said. “I wish the bestfor the president. I pray that theeconomy gets back to how itwas.”A nurse active in the oppositionparty that wanted to overthrowthe government in Togo, Messansaid he was beaten all over hisbody and returned from thehospital in bandages and plastercasts to his home. His neighborssaw a mob coming for him andspirited him out of his house,after which the American andFrench ambassadors helpedhim escape to a refugee campin neighboring Benin. That wasin 1999. It would take him nineyears and three attempts toreceive permission to resettle inthe United States.“There is no democracy,”Messan said, explaining hisopposition to the Togolesegovernment. “The people inauthority and in the governmentembezzle, and the wealthdoesn’t trickle down to thepeople.”The translator, a woman namedEdith Gibson from Cameroon,elaborated, describing asituation common in WestAfrica.“They’re using the country’sresources to make themselvesfilthy rich, while the majorityof the people remain poor,” shesaid. “The roads are not repaired,and the education system isfalling apart. The people have to pay to send theirchildren to school.” Living in the refugee camp in Benin broke upMessan’s family, which is the source of his greatest sorrow. Reunitingthem is his primary goal now. “My kids left the refugee camp and wentto the capital city to fend for themselves,”

Messansaid. “My daughter had to do what she had to do to survive, and she gotpregnant. I don’t know where she is…. They can’t go back to Togo. It’sa dead end.” Messan has six children, and his lady friend has four. Hehas seven grandchildren. “I don’t want anything to do withAfrica,” Messan said. “I want my family to be here. I cannot let go ofAfrica right now. My children are not safe.”