Durham News

Work is a major challenge for Durham’s African newcomers


Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories about African refugees in Durham, written by students in Professor Deb Reisinger’s course at Duke University, “Issues in Global Displacement.”

“J’étais dans la douche; j’étais dans la douche!” (I was in the shower!) Monique Wani Kideba repeated as we stepped into her apartment.

It was just before noon, yet Monique’s day was only beginning. A Congolese refugee who arrived in Durham this past March, she works the night shift from 11:17 p.m. to 8:20 a.m. and was exhausted. Still, she spread her arms wide for a hug and welcomed us inside.

Monique’s apartment was spare, yet within seconds, her personality lit up the space. She apologetically cleaned the table of glassware and offered a wide smile. “I am very happy,” she proclaimed proudly in English. Monique has what she considers a good position. For a Congolese refugee who arrived in the United States less than a year ago, it is quite an achievement.

Securing a job remains one of the biggest challenges of resettlement. Before arriving in the United States, refugees are partnered with organizations that ease the transition into American life. In Durham, there are four such organizations: Church World Service, World Relief Durham, USCRI, and Lutheran Family Ministry. Among many services, they provide employment training and orientation to best help refugees join the workforce.

A matching grant program provides cash stipends and case management to refugees during their first six months, while they find jobs. This past year, CWS Durham worked with 132 cases and was able to secure 119 jobs for these refugees, according to Jen Skees, the employment coordinator at CWS. Typical starting jobs, such as cleaning, truck driving, painting, security, pay between $8 and $12 per hour. Anis, a refugee from Central African Republic, applied for a job – hotel cleaning, night shift, $8/hour – using Google Translate. He got the job, then found a bicycle to ride there.

“It’s always humbling and inspiring to see how determined the population is,” Skees said. “It’s fulfilling to see them get jobs and become self-sufficient.”

Monique, one of the refugees partnered with Church World Service (CWS), is an exception to the traditional job search process. CWS encouraged her to work as a housekeeper, but Monique did not feel that cleaning homes would be a productive use of her Kampala college degree. Instead, she sought employment independently. She found a job 37 miles from her Durham apartment at a chicken processing plant in Sanford, North Carolina.

Monique spends hours on the company’s bus to and from the factory, stopping in other towns to pick up employees before arriving for the evening shift. Many refugees lack cars and rely on these communal modes of transport, which may limit their job prospects. Although the commute can be tedious, Monique even enjoys working late hours because it allows her to do other activities during the day.

According to her, none of this would be possible without her English proficiency. Monique is fluent in Lingala, Swahili, and French, the official language of the Congo, and has been learning English for several years. When violence broke out in her home country, she moved to Uganda where she was able to study business in college and began to use English, the language in which her college classes were taught.

“It was very hard (to learn) English,” Monique said. She attended literacy classes for three months, then lived with a student who spoke English. With continued practice and language immersion, Monique steadily advanced her English abilities, earning her business degree at the Ugandan university. Soon after graduation, Monique accepted a job as a secretary at a Ugandan high school, paying bills and preparing payroll, among other duties. She spoke fondly of this job, even digging out an old yearbook to present the names and faces of her former colleagues. She sought an equally enjoyable job when she arrived in the U.S.

Monique’s favorite aspect of her job at the chicken plant is the community that it has created for her.

“The manager and all people there are good for me; that’s why I feel comfortable,” she said. “We work together.”

Monique works at the end of the production chain in the packaging division. She earns $20 an hour with the frequent opportunity to gain $10 bonuses. Noting that she makes more than housekeepers, Monique actively encourages other refugees to apply for positions at the plant.

“You’ll be free if you are able to work” is one of her mottos. She often hands out applications to her refugee neighbors and especially enjoys helping new employees. She helps them get their preliminary physical and drug tests and trains them to succeed in the assembly line.

Monique’s experience paints a small snapshot of a refugee’s path toward finding sustaining work. Her friend Bashige who has been in Durham for nine months is still struggling with English and has yet to find a job after losing her first position as a housekeeper for lack of transportation.

“Take ESL classes!” Monique tells her. “Because let me tell you: life is a final draft you can’t edit.”

Writers Kira Panzer is a member of the Class of 2018 and Anna-Karin Hess a member of the Class of 2019 at Duke Univeristy.