Providence builds immigrants' work skills, connections

February 15, 2014


Abdurahman Dawud, 30, was born in Somalia but spent most of his life — 22 years — eking out an existence in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. In 2011, his dream of emigrating to America finally came true through the auspices of Catholic Social Services in Anchorage, Alaska.

Somali refugee Abdurahman Dawud learned skills in a job training program sponsored by Catholic Social Services and Providence Alaska Medical Center that led to his full-time job in the Anchorage, Alaska, hospital's laundry.

Arriving alone, with limited schooling, no job experience and very minimal knowledge of English, Dawud found his path to a new, productive life thanks to a community building workforce development program that is a partnership between Providence Alaska Medical Center and the CSS Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services program.

Today, after completing a six-month training program that included working part-time in the laundry services department at Providence while taking language fluency classes, Dawud has been hired as a full-time employee there, finding his new home amid the roar of industrial-sized washers and dryers and the hiss of gigantic ironing machines.

"I am smiling all the time now. People are so nice; we work as a team, sorting and folding," says Dawud. "When I first started this program, I got to work by walking or riding a bus. Now I even have a driver's license and a car!"

Dawud is not the only one at the medical center to benefit from the program, however. His supervisor, James Delks, says Dawud's presence in the department has been good for other employees — and the bottom line — as well.

"People really enjoy working with him; he is so approachable and friendly. Communicating with him was a challenge at the beginning, but now he understands what's needed and helps to get the job done," says Delks. "In addition, the program is very cost-efficient for the department. We have the opportunity to train and use extra laborers, so that when there are openings, we have experienced help available to hire."

Helping refugees gain their footing after fleeing persecution in their homelands is something the Sisters of Providence who founded hospitals in Alaska and elsewhere would embrace, says Kathleen Barrows, director of mission services at Providence Health & Services, Alaska region.

"Our mission, as people of Providence, is to reveal God's love for all, especially the poor and vulnerable, through our compassionate service," she says.

"Though unemployment in Alaska has not seen the double digits of the contiguous U.S., underemployment of refugee and other marginalized populations are an Alaskan reality. And as Alaska's largest private employer, Providence is in a position to make a difference in the lives of these people and the community at large."

Safe harbor

Though the community building workforce development program began in 2009, Providence has partnered with Catholic Social Services for a decade, providing meals and health services at a homeless shelter in Anchorage.

"This program just seemed like a natural extension for us," says Barrows. "Because we are a port city, Anchorage is a very diverse community with people from all over the globe arriving on our shores. Yet our reality is that this is a tough place, with an unforgiving climate, high cost of living and thin government infrastructure. We see this as a way to reach out to the refugee population in a slow, safe way and create an opportunity to transition into our fabric of life."

Experience preferred

To date, 10 immigrants have completed the program, says Barrows, and six are current trainees. Participants have come from Sudan, Ghana, Nepal, Iran, Somalia, Kenya and the Ukraine; most, says Barrows, tell her they are just grateful to be some place where they "feel safe."

But Providence offers them a true safety net, paying trainees $10 an hour, 20 hours a week to get hands-on work experience while improving their language skills in three departments — laundry services, environmental services and sterile processing. So far, six participants have landed full-time positions at Providence after their training periods ended, with higher salaries and full benefits; the others have been successful at finding opportunities elsewhere. "Work experience here helps open doors elsewhere in the state," says Barrows.

And while job tasks may sound menial at first, the learning curve is steep for people who are not only unable to communicate well in English, but who also have no knowledge of regulatory guidelines on collecting biohazards, for example, or sending scalpels and retractors through autoclaves for sterilization.

"Though we may involve other departments with the program in the future, we are intent on keeping the program small so we can focus on quality — making sure this is the best experience possible for each and every person who participates," says Barrows.

Quick study

Prem Bhattari, 26, is one of the program's newest trainees. A native of Bhutan, he grew up in a refugee camp in Nepal and came to Anchorage in 2010 with his mother and younger brother. Since then, he has been taking English as a second language classes and working food service jobs.

Though Bhattari had only been at Providence for a few weeks when he spoke to Catholic Health World, his understanding of both English and the American work culture had already improved. "Things are really, really good for me," he says.

And Barrows is already certain his experience in the laundry services department will be a "win-win-win" situation.

"There are two tangible benefits to Prem's current circumstances. First, he will be able to acclimate himself to a new way of life and get work experience at one of the largest companies in the state. Second, his department will get extra help, plus the chance to train a potential future employee," says Barrows.

"But there is also a third, intangible and priceless benefit to all this," she adds. "Our regular employees also learn and grow from being exposed to different cultures and languages. We've seen through experience that they take ownership of their trainees and make sure they are successful, teaching them not only health care vocabulary but also idioms and acronyms, and embracing them as part of our family. In one instance, they even gave a baby shower to a pregnant trainee. So this program ultimately allows everyone at Providence the opportunity to feel very connected to our mission as well."


Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.