Providence Alaska's training opens doors for refugees

April 2023


When Suliman Abdalla came to Alaska in 2013 from Lebanon, where he'd taken refuge from the strife in his homeland of Sudan in Northeast Africa, he was alone, didn't speak English and had no means to support himself in America.

From left, Wahidullah Khan, Samar Khan and Zahidullah Miskinyar, refugees from Afghanistan, got job training in laundry services at Providence Alaska Medical Center as they resettled in Anchorage. The training was through the medical center's partnership with the Refugee Assistance & Immigration Services program run by Catholic Social Services. Many of the refugees who train at the hospital stay on as permanent staff.

Abdalla had accepted an opportunity to restart his life in Alaska through Catholic Social Services. The organization oversees refugee resettlement across Alaska. It has helped hundreds of people fleeing war, persecution and other misery around the globe get their bearings in America's northernmost state through its Refugee Assistance & Immigration Services program.

Abdalla got job training as part of the program at Providence Alaska Medical Center. The training led to a permanent position on the hospital's environmental services staff. Except for two trips back to Sudan that each took him away from Alaska for a few months, Abdalla has stayed with the job ever since. For each trip he resigned and was later rehired. One of his trips to his homeland was to marry a woman who he hopes will someday be able to join him in Anchorage, now that he has stability and legal residency.

Abdalla says his prospects were forever changed for the better by Catholic Social Services and its partnership with Providence Alaska Medical Center, part of Providence Alaska. "New country, everything new, but that's long ago and we know how to do things right now and we are good," says Abdalla.

Model partnership
In the fiscal year that ended in October 2021, the Refugee Assistance & Immigration Services program aided 460 refugees. The refugees get a warm reception upon arrival in Alaska: case management, and assistance with housing, education and employment services, applying for citizenship and family reunification. They can stay in the program for up to five years.


Brigit Reynolds, the program's refugee education and employment manager, says that while the number of enrollees goes up and down, it is currently on the upswing with 194 people newly enrolled from October 2022 through January. Many of the newest arrivals that Catholic Social Services is helping are fleeing the war in Ukraine or the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

Providence has been a partner in the Refugee Assistance & Immigration Services program for more than 12 years. The collaboration was suspended briefly early in the pandemic. The partnership has given dozens of refugees an opportunity for entry-level job training and led to long-term employment for many of them.

Reynolds says that while Catholic Social Services has several employer partners throughout Alaska, the partnership with Providence Alaska Medical Center is a model one. The hospital pays the workers at the same scale it does other entry-level employees, something not all the employers do. It also hires many of the workers and offers them continued training and advancement opportunities.

"It just provides a really good opportunity for growth and for a good paying job right out of the gate," Reynolds notes. "That is not always super common and available."

Valuable experience
The experience is valuable even for the trainees who move on afterward, Reynolds says. Going through the onboarding process at a large employer prepares them for what to expect elsewhere and having the Providence name on a resume can open other doors.

Suliman Abdalla, who fled from strife in his native Sudan, got job training and then a full-time position at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage.

Laarni Competente Power is community partnerships coordinator for Providence Alaska, which is part of Providence St. Joseph Health. She says Providence Alaska Medical Center places its trainees in environmental services, laundry or food and nutrition services. The workers can jump right into positions in those departments because the duties are easy to learn, the jobs don't require certifications and the departments usually are in need of staff.

Power says the training typically lasts three to six months. Catholic Social Services staffers accompany the trainees during their orientation and on their first day on the job. The nonprofit also provides interpreters as needed.

The number of refugees in training at the medical center varies. In late February, the hospital had one trainee with two others about to start. Three former trainees transitioned to permanent jobs in the second half of last year.

Power says the refugees take jobs that have grown increasingly challenging to fill. The hospital's human resources department counts on them and managers want to see them succeed, she says.

Sharing the wealth
Providence's participation in the refugee assistance program delivers on its commitment to serve the poor and vulnerable, Power says. "I can't think of anything greater than helping someone who has been displaced from their home through no choice of their own and had to relocate to a community that's completely foreign to them in which they have language barriers and don't know anybody," she says.

Resettlement for some of the refugees from warmer climes is probably a bit more challenging in Alaska than it might be in the lower 48 states, Power acknowledges. One recent trainee left the state for a more temperate one. Long, dark, frigid and snowy winters can be too taxing for some people, she says.

Crystal "Nikki" Brayboy, manager of the environmental services department at Providence Alaska Medical Center, has watched refugees thrive after being trained in her department. Many of the workers have stayed on long term and others have shifted to other areas of the hospital, including supply chain and sterile processing.

Some refugees who started as housekeepers or janitors have learned the skills or earned the certifications needed to move into positions such as nursing assistant and patient care technician. "We've had people come in and flourish and we share the wealth with Providence," Brayboy says.

Two-way learning
In addition to being grateful for their jobs, the refugees on her staff are eager to bond with their co-workers and overcome cultural barriers in their new lives, Brayboy says. The co-workers generally reciprocate, she says, helping the refugees with language skills and inviting the newcomers into their homes and on outings.

"I kind of have to give a lot of credit to my caregivers," she says. "They're the ones who help me a lot with bridging the gaps."

In addition to Ukraine and Afghanistan, Brayboy's trainees' countries of origin have included Sudan, Iraq, Somalia and Bhutan. She calls her staff "a big melting pot." They foster in each other an appreciation for the diversity of cultures, traditions and challenges around the world. "To me it's all a big learning and compassion-filled adventure," Brayboy says.


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