With help, Syrians rebuild careers in the U.S.

Waiting on tables and selling shoes was not what computer engineer Khaled Turkmani expected to do when he left his native Syria in 2010 after being jailed for criticizing the Assad regime on social media.

After stays in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Turkmani moved to the United States and requested asylum. His request was granted in 2015, one of approximately 25,000 granted in the U.S. each year.

Asylees, like the 85,000 refugees from around the world arriving in the U.S. each year, must be unable or unwilling to return to their country due to persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution. While refugees are resettled from overseas, asylees are already in the U.S. when they present their claims for protection.

Turkmani thought that, with his university credentials and experience, it would be easy to find a high-tech job in the San Francisco area. But after sending out 500 résumés, he got only a few expressions of interest, so he resorted to waiting tables and fitting customers with shoes.

Then he learned about Upwardly Global, a nonprofit group that helps professionals get jobs after interruptions in their careers. With online training, résumé polishing and in-person mock job interviews, Upwardly Global helped Turkmani land a project manager position at a global consulting firm.

“I feel lucky I came to San Francisco,” says Turkmani. And San Francisco is lucky to have him. When not working, the 29-year-old puts his mind to how he might use his IT skills to reduce homelessness and stop bicycle thefts.

Back to their professions

Upwardly Global, with offices in Chicago, New York and the San Francisco and Washington areas, helps immigrant doctors, engineers and other professionals who already have permanent work authorizations. A third of the 1,750 professionals it works with are refugees or asylees.

Naif Antoun, 36, once a banker in Damascus, is back at work in the Detroit area financial district with Upwardly Global’s help. Beginning in a Bank of America branch, he soon won a Top Performer award and now manages small-business relations.

The nonprofit “did a lot of work with me on the résumé and what to say and not to say in interviews,” said Antoun, who had to leave Syria after his life was threatened by the al-Nusra Front. Mock interviews helped him prepare for real ones.

“We work with people from all over the world,” says Allie Levinsky, a program director in Chicago. Even with coaching, it typically takes six to nine months to get a new job after training.

“It’s not easy to leave everything behind and start from scratch,” says Antoun, who heard about Upwardly Global from his English teacher, “but this is a great country.”