Highly skilled back home, refugees in Minnesota try to find fulfilling work


Vadym Holiuk has never looked so hard for work.

He landed a position as an electrical engineer for Ukrainian Railways right out of college. But after the Russian invasion forced him to flee to Minnesota, Holiuk’s sponsor in Brooklyn Park helped him write a resume on a donated laptop and apply for 150 jobs in engineering and related fields.

Holiuk, 33, landed a handful of interviews. He recently took a computer test at the post office to operate a mail-sorting machine, but while he is nearly fluent in English, he struggled to understand some of the technical words. Holiuk has yet to land an offer three months after arriving here.

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“It’s discouraging because I know he’s getting turned down for jobs he’s really qualified to do,” said his sponsor, Mark Norlander.

At least 280,000 Ukrainians and Afghans have resettled in the United States over the last 16 months. Among the many scrambling to find work are professionals with advanced skills — engineers, doctors, military officers, teachers, scientists — who are trying to find jobs in the fields they excelled in back home instead of taking on the usual refugee employment in factories, warehouses and retailers. Yet they can face obstacles ranging from American institutions not accepting their degrees to having little guidance in white-collar employment searches.

This summer, the nonprofit Prosperity Ready conducted entry-level job training for Afghan evacuees in manufacturing and hospitality. Founder and CEO Lisa Perez recalled being “floored.” The talent, she said, “is just unbelievable and the work ethic, the degrees, the experience.” Her organization also conducts a course to help degreed immigrants find jobs; the next starts Jan. 17. Half of the upcoming group hails from Afghanistan.

“We’re hundreds of thousands of workers short in our state right now, and so to have people who are so talented sidelined — it’s not OK,” said Perez. “There’s applicable skills. It’s just, is there enough support from employers and from community-based organizations to help them make that transition?”

She said the job market here is different from what they’re used to.

“There are so many barriers, and there are flat-out broken parts of our employment system,” said Perez. “It doesn’t matter how smart you are or how much experience you have.” Without someone helping, she added, “it’s really, really hard.”

The Toro Co., which provides solutions for the outdoor environment, makes presentations to Prosperity Ready’s immigrant students, and Perez introduced Afghan newcomer Fahim Loodin to the Bloomington-based firm. Loodin had worked for Western companies in Afghanistan providing security and logistics services to the U.S. government during the war, and began work in May at Toro as a customs compliance specialist in the global trade department. It reminds him of his old work culture.

“I love my job,” said Loodin. “I love the environment.”

Zahidullah Zahid served as acting director general and deputy of the Afghanistan Nuclear Energy Agency, overseeing several hundred employees working to use nuclear technology techniques efficiently in medicine, agriculture, environmental protection, public safety and other fields.

But he hasn’t worked since Aug. 14, 2021, when he saw people running past his office in Kabul saying the Taliban was coming. Zahid knew his life was in danger; his staff had received training and support from Western institutions including Sandia National Laboratories. He and his family went into hiding in safe houses after the Taliban seized power. They spent five months at an American military base in Qatar before coming to Minnesota in October.

He set about updating his resume. Zahid, 38, has a biology degree from Kabul University, and received his master’s in chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear events protection from Tor Vergata University of Rome. He documented his extensive expertise in emergency preparedness and response, protection of radioactive sources; serving as a chemical and biological weapons prohibition officer; collaborating with the International Atomic Energy Agency and other major international organizations; and traveling to cities across Europe over the last decade for conferences and training. Those trips, as he noted on his resume, included participating in a NATO regional cooperation course in Rome and a preparatory committee of a conference in Geneva on the Biological Weapons Convention.

“This for me a new place, a new environment — starting from zero you have to work for yourself, for your family,” he told the Star Tribune in a meeting two weeks after his arrival with his wife and seven children. “And I know I cannot find a job in my field … because they are not accepting the educational documents of other countries.”

Zahid wondered if he would have to work in a supermarket or deliver pizza, and how it would mentally affect him. Zahid, who is fluent in English, wants to work in emergency preparedness and response, or at least a job managing people in an office the way he is accustomed. While waiting for his official work authorization, he’s applied to a few jobs online. His brother’s friend reached out to a state legislator about connecting Zahid with a job at Xcel Energy, and Zahid plans to sign up for Prosperity Ready’s job search program.

At his new home in Eagan this week, Zahid was markedly more optimistic as he sipped green tea: “I’m 100 percent confident that I can find a good job here, but it needs time.”

He’s willing to take an exam and receive more training, he said, but he has found navigating the American job market overwhelming at times. “There is not a proper system available that you can go submit your documents and tell them, ‘I am good in this area, I have expertise in this area, please find me a job.'”

The International Institute of Minnesota noted that it has worked with a series of refugees on their job searches. The agency said it helped one Ukrainian land a job as a math professor at Dunwoody College of Technology; it aided a Ukrainian refugee with a legal background in connecting with Mitchell Hamline School of Law to work toward her law degree and network with local lawyers and a retired judge.

The institute also helped a Ukrainian software designer network and secure job interviews, and an Afghan client with resumes and cover letters for his job search following a career working for international agencies, banks, and nonprofits running infrastructure and housing development programs.

Reza Haidari, 25, was an officer in the Afghan Air Force who was halfway through his training in Slovakia to be a helicopter pilot. Then the Taliban took over and he couldn’t return home. He sought refuge in the United States and found work as a janitor at first. Then Haidari upgraded to medical assembler at Medtronic for $22 an hour. But he misses flying.

“If I could get any kind of job at the Air Force, I’d love that … to be honest, I’m totally lost,” said Haidari, who lives in Richfield. “I have no idea what to do here. I’m searching for any kind of purpose in my life.”

Holiuk arrived in Minnesota in late September with his wife, 2-year-old and twin 11-year-old daughters. They recently moved into an apartment in Brooklyn Park and he feels pressure to find work soon. He said he hasn’t heard from a job counselor assigned to him when he received public aid from Hennepin County.

He wrote a cover letter to railroad companies explaining how the war had prepared him for the job: “Because we had to leave our home, for the safety of my wife and 3 children, I have had to adapt to new and unexpected circumstances and learn many new things. I expect to use this ability to adapt and learn quickly in my work for [a new job].”

Holiuk said he misses working.

“I apply for jobs every day,” he said. “If I have a call for some company and they say, ‘Can you go work the next day?’ I say yes, because I want to work.”

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Highly skilled back home, refugees in Minnesota try to find fulfilling work

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