STARTING OVER: REFUGEES GET A FRESH START THROUGH LOCAL PROGRAM - The Explorer: Import

STARTING OVER: REFUGEES GET A FRESH START THROUGH LOCAL PROGRAM

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Posted: Wednesday, June 11, 2003 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:47 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Fixed to a wall in the hallway of the housekeeping wing of the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf and Tennis Resort is a massive world map. It is dotted with pushpins of various colors, each one marking the homeland of a housekeeping employee. There are no pins resting on Italy, Ireland or Australia; none marking Sweden, Spain or France.

But glance at the countries whose names people have come to associate with suffering and despair - Bosnia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Columbia - and pushpins decorate the landscape like plastic pink flamingoes on a southern Florida lawn.

"We have people from all over the world," said Marry Carolin, Hilton's executive housekeeper. "We pride ourselves on our diverse environment. Everybody's proud of their home, everybody's proud of where they came from. This reminds us that we are one nation of many people."

Visitors to the Hilton will soon recognize the United Nations flavor of the men and women who perform the resort's entry-level jobs. It is not unusual to hear Farsi, Vietnamese or Arabic in the hallways, and those not professionally associated with the resort may wonder why. A cynical visitor might even see the plethora of employees identified on their nametags by first name and country of origin as classism at its worst: Those in the Land of Plenty having their bathrooms cleaned by those from lands of war, persecution, torture and oppression. But employees and employers alike, as well the groups that bring the two together, see a different story - one of hope, determination and possibility.

"My home, people came and took (it) over and send me away," said Alija Tesnjak, 49, who works in the laundry room of the Hilton. "They do this 11 years (ago), I have leave Bosnia, I go refugee camp, people come help me. I come America, work and save money, have food. I am happy here."

And the resort is happy with him, said Elizabeth Colvin, Hilton's housekeeping manager, who describes Tesnjak as one of her hardest workers.

"The problem for hotels is that this generation of young people (born in the United States) want easy money, good money, for almost nothing," she said. "They don't want to do physical labor. They don't want to start off in housekeeping or in the lower end and work their way to the top. The refugees want these jobs and they are good workers. We give them a new start; they provide us with work we need done."

Miro Marinovich, the Tucson coordinator for the International Rescue Committee and himself once a refugee from Bosnia, agreed.

"We see jobs like this as pretty much (a fresh) start - this is (a) start for somebody who did not go to school here in the United States, for somebody who hasn't lived here in the United States or has no work history whatsoever," said Marinovich. "This is (the) starting point to get them into the whole system … it gives them stability, an opportunity to grow, security. It helps them emotionally in many ways, having a place to come to everyday … we are extremely thankful to the employers who help give these refugees a chance in life and take this risk."

While it might seem like a risk, both in terms of the appearance of taking advantage of the poor and in hiring people with few skills in the hotel industry, Hilton's General Manager Tim Booth does not see it as such.

"I would absolutely say without hesitation that it is a privilege to work with these more culturally diverse individuals. I cannot tell you how much we have learned from them and shared with them," Booth said. "It is a win-win situation. We are able to help people who come from countries of persecution, who want the promise of America, and in return we establish some loyal, long-term relationships as friends (and) in terms of an organization that cares."

As for the possibility of negative public relations, Booth said there is none.

"With the international travel that resorts experience, a lot of times guests run across an (employee) who has a kinship with them just from being from the same region in the world," he said. "It bridges the gap with our international travelers. There is absolutely no downside that I've come across in working with these programs in the Hiltons across the country."

Marinovich's colleague at the IRC, Evelyn Yecies, was adamant about the "professionalism" of the companies that hire refugees.

"These companies do not take advantage - it is exactly opposite, they do everything possible to make it a successful working relationship," said Yecies, employee coordinator for IRC. "The companies we work with offer training, benefits, transportation and friendship."

That friendship is easily seen in the way Tesnjak relates to Colvin, determinedly fighting the language barrier to tell his supervisor with pride how his two daughters, Merina, 17, and Aida, 22, are both attending Pima Community College.

Tesnjak was resettled in Tucson with his wife, Refja, 44, and their daughters in 2000. The family was part of the nearly 70,000 refugees resettled each year in the United States through the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees before Sept. 11, 2001. Since the terrorist attacks on that day, the number of refugees accepted into the United States has gone down by one-half, due mostly to an increase in background checks and security measures, said Marinovich.

"We called all our employers immediately after Sept. 11 and asked about our Muslim clients and all of the employers were really supportive of them, in fact, they were actually protective," he said. "They did not want us to remove any of the Muslim clients and we have had no problem with anyone."

The El Conquistador is one of about 20 employers in Tucson that cooperates with four refugee resettlement agencies in town - the IRC, Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Ministries of the Southwest and the Jewish Family and Children's Services Agency - in employing refugees.

There are 85 employees in the housekeeping department at the Hilton, working three different shifts, said Carolin. Thirty-two of them are refugees, representing eight different countries, and speaking myriad languages. They get paid a minimum of $6.50 per hour and have opportunities for advancement once they master English.

"Many can stay in a job long enough that they move up, they become supervisors, or from teachers assistants to teachers at day care centers, for instance," said the IRC's Yecies.

Still, "There are number of refugees that do get kind of stuck in entry level positions," Marinovich said.

"I wouldn't say they are stuck," Yecies countered. "It is also that they had nothing before. For them to be somewhere where they can come to work every day and have a guaranteed salary and benefits, that is 100 times better than what they had, in say, Afghanistan, so many are happy in the job they stay in."

Saeeda Makhdoom, 25, said she loves her job as a room cleaner at the Hilton, but plans on moving up once she conquers English.

"I start here now, this is good job for me, but if I go school, I be trained for better than this," Makhdoom said, her deep brown eyes dancing, her smile lighting up the room. "People here, everybody I am happy with, but I want go to college and learn computer science. My English is not good yet, and I need to learn everything - the jobs, the culture, the language - then change my job here, then go college."

Along with her sister, Sara, 28, Makhdoom came to the United States after two years in a Pakistani refugee camp. They had fled Afghanistan with their mother when the Taliban regime killed their father, who was part of the Northern Alliance resistance.

"We cannot work, we cannot go to school under Taliban and we are not safe after our father killed," Makhdoom said. "If they kill father, they should be killing other family. For this reason, we come Pakistan."

The women got by weaving rugs in the refugee camp, and thought there was no option for them besides returning to Kabul or living in the camp. Then another refugee told Makhdoom to apply for asylum through the High Commissioner for Refugees.

"People told me my situation is bad because my father is dead. Muslim women without man not safe with Taliban," Makhdoom explained. "They told me I need get help. When I gave my apply to the U.N., it took two years and we give six interviews to many men."

The many interviews Makhdoom endured were part of the screening process the Commissioner for Refugees conducts before determining if a refugee can be referred for resettlement in a country outside their home or the "country of asylum" where the refugee camp is located. Only about 1 percent of the world's 12 million refugees are resettled in third countries, according to the United Nations. Once approved for resettlement, the Immigration and Naturalization Service interviews refugees for final approval. Each of the U.S. refugees applies for Permanent Resident Alien status - a green card - after one year in the United States, and most of them receive it, said Marinovich.

The Makhdoom's sponsoring agency for resettlement was the Lutheran Social Ministry of the Southwest.

"We come here, they give us apartment and they give us furniture and T.V. and for two months they tell us to just rest and adjust to country," Makhdoom said. "They give us food stamps and some allowance and volunteers to watch us. Then they find us job in two months and then we support ourselves, no food stamps or anything."

Makhdoom said she and Sara enjoy their work because it is a "good start for me" and "it is easier than rugs in Pakistan." Like all the housekeeping staff, they work about four days each week during the summer and full-time during the resort's peak season of September through May.

In the year since arriving from the Pakistani refugee camp, Makhdoom has applied herself diligently in learning two things: her job cleaning rooms at the Hilton and English. She said she has no desire to return to Afghanistan, "Because there is nothing left for me there, and it is not safe."

On the other hand, Samuel Deng, 23, would like to return to Sudan someday. One of the Lost Boys of Sudan, Deng was resettled in Tucson through the IRC nearly two years ago and has been working at the Hilton for about a year. He was seven years old when he walked first from Sudan to Ethiopia, then back to Sudan and finally to a Kenyan refugee camp. The whole ordeal took more than a year, crossing crocodile-infested rivers and being hunted alternately by lions, hyenas and armies searching for child soldiers. Of the original 25,000 Lost Boys traveling en masse to Kenya, only 16,000 survived the ordeal.

Deng's eyes betrayed the difficulties he endured at a young age, and when he recounted the story, it was with the detachment trauma victims often display.

"It is difficult, if you are so tired, you just keep going, being willing to save yourself," Deng said. "If you don't know where to help yourself, you look and compare yourself with the older boys, the people who continue going. You don't want to be left behind, you will die. You have to push yourself … you are lucky, you cross the river. You bad luck (with crocodiles), you left in the river."

Deng said he enjoys his life and work here. He lives in a two-bedroom apartment with three other Lost Boys and earns between $600 and $800 per month at the Hilton and about $400 per month at a second job at the Westin La Paloma Resort. He is attending PCC, taking general education courses, and said he hopes to become an engineer.

He said he would go home if he could, but admits he cannot give into the sadness that comes with missing Sudan.

"I can't (be) thinking about family, I will be sad, it will give me a certain problem," Deng explained. "I have to keep doing things here to improve my life, my chances of going back to seeing my family. I know I cannot think what might be happening to them or I will be distracted from improving."

Makhdoom understands the longing for home, even though she does not want to return.

"When I first come here, I went to doctor because all the time I cry and cry. I miss home, I no understand here," she said. "They gave me medicine, I get better and then, when I get job, I am all fine. No medicine, no sadness. I know my home is here. I miss Afghanistan, but nothing is there for me anymore."

Marinovich said one problem refugees sometimes face in their new jobs is understanding the cultural diversity of the United States, especially in places such as the Hilton where diversity is encouraged.

"During our cultural orientations, we talk about diversity in this country, that this country is basically made of different religions and races and nationalities and that this is good," he said. "It is not uncommon, since we have many refugees settled in the same apartment complexes, that they become friends of sort. The other day, I went for a home visit and saw women from Afghanistan, Bosnia and Iraq and they were drinking coffee and talking. I have no idea how they were doing it - none are good English speakers - but they were doing it."

But even in a country that prides itself in tolerance and acceptance, some refuges recognize there are still lines that are not crossed. For example, when Saeeda and Sara Makhdoom were exiting one of the hotel rooms, they came upon Monydeng Ajuang, 21, one of the resort's Lost Boys employees who also cleans rooms. A gold medal of the Virgin Mary hanging around his neck identifies Ajuang as Christian, and even though the Makhdooms are now in America, their Islamic faith prohibits them from associating with a non-Muslim man.

"We say hello, but we can't take pictures," Saeeda said, when asked by a photographer to pose with Ajuang by one of the hospitality carts.

Is the young man offended?

"No," he said, matter-of-factly. "It is different culture, you just must understand, it would not be good for them."

Back at the world map, Carolin becomes emotional when pointing out where some of her employees come from.

"This map is very important to us. It gives us a perspective of how far people have come to this country. It is really amazing what we take for granted and what they've had to leave … most of them came out of dire, dire situations," she said, pausing to compose herself. "There was grave risk of losing their life or the lives of families members. Some have suffered very greatly. They come here to be secure and safe and make a living and to do all the things we all take for granted every single day. I think it is very amazing what they will endure to come to this country and I'm proud to know them."

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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