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College-educated immigrants don't necessarily find open doors on arrival

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 7, 2010 - For many new Americans, there is life before and life after. On one side sits the past in their home country. On the other side, a new life in America.

That new life can include learning or mastering English, navigating the basics of their new community and finding work. And for well-educated immigrants and refugees, that last part often presents the greatest obstacles.

It's called brain waste, and according to a 2008 report from the Migration Policy Institute, it affects 22 percent of the 6.1 million immigrants with a bachelor's degree or higher in this country. That means that nearly a quarter of college-educated immigrants are either unemployed or underemployed, working low-skilled jobs.

Around the country, brain waste is a problem, says Jeanne Batalova, an analyst and author of "Uneven Progress," a 2008 report on brain waste by the institute, a non-partisan, non-profit based in Washington, D.C.

"We are really talking about lost potential," she says.

The skills of those immigrants educated in another country should be maximized, she says. Instead, they find many barriers to practicing their professions here, including language, industry regulations and licensing, and cultural issues.

In 2007, according to the institute, more than 7,000 college-educated immigrants were either unemployed or working unskilled jobs in Missouri. That number made up 17.2 percent of the college-educated immigrant labor force in the state.

In Illinois that same year, 23.6 percent of college-educated immigrants were either unemployed or working unskilled jobs.

In St. Louis, both Jasminka Grubor and Beni Kibombi have been and are among those statistics.

From Numbers To People

Grubor has a bachelor's in economics. In Bosnia, she worked as a manager at a major export company. In 1996, she came to St. Louis as a refugee.

"Honestly, I didn't think that maybe I will work in my field," she says, figuring her diploma wouldn't be recognized. And she was right.

For the first three months here, Grubor worked at an office supply factory.

For her degree to be recognized, Grubor would have had to go back to school for two years. But she had children and new bills to pay. Returning to school would take time and money. So she worked at the factory.

After that, she worked as an AmeriCorps volunteer for a year and a half in public safety and emergency response. Then, she spent more than 10 years working with the International Institute as a case worker.

"That was when my life turned completely different," she says.

In February, Grubor took those same social-work skills to Bilingual International Assistant Services, where she works with the elderly Bosnian community.

The work isn't based on a degree, but the life skills learned from being a refugee herself.

According to MPI's report, when highly skilled immigrants come here, how fast they recover depends on several things, including their English skills, often the biggest obstacle; where they're from; and how long they're here.

P. Ariel Burgess, director of client services with the International Institute, says most of the refugees she sees are low skilled, but regardless of their skill level, they must learn a whole new life here, and that takes time.

"All of the sudden, they're trying to learn how to drive, how to get back and forth, where to eat -- all that stuff," she says.

However, some refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan who came on special visas because they helped the U.S. military are often highly educated. They tend to work in IT, she says, and know English.

"They struggle with finding a job."

But they're also highly motivated, she says, hit job fairs and tend to find jobs for themselves, even if it means relocating.

Another obstacle for some refugees, Batalova says, is that they may have a hard time proving their credentials. If they fled their countries, she says, they may not have packed their diplomas.

A person's profession also matters, she says. Gatekeepers exist both in terms of industry regulations and H.R. departments, and often highly skilled immigrants have a tough time getting through.

"It seems that for immigrants who have to get recertified in one way or another -- doctors or nurses, certain types of engineers -- the steps that they have to go through are lengthy and expensive."

Also, she says, they're not always clear.

Keeping On

Three years ago, Kibombi and his wife came to St. Louis as immigrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo. They won the visa lottery. But, at first, he felt lost.

"When we arrived, everything was really new for us," he says. "New language, new culture, new food, new friends."

Kibombi has a bachelor's in theology and worked as a manager in the Department of Education, as an assistant pastor and an informatics technician in Congo. He also began studying medicine, he says, but the civil war in his country stopped that.

When he first came here, Kibombi spoke no English -- the No. 1 obstacle for well-educated immigrants.

Kibombi started his life in St. Louis working in the bakery at a local Schnucks, where he only knew how to say "yes" or "no" and didn't really understand his co-workers.

"Before then, I didn't believe that one day I would work in a bakery," he says.

He began learning English by reading and listening to the bible and attending ESL (English as a second language) classes, which he still takes.

Kibombi is a client at the International Institute, where he's keeping up with his old dream to work in medicine and studying to be a certified nursing assistant.

According to MPI's report, other factors that make bridging skills hard here often depend on where a person is from. College-educated immigrants from Latin America and Africa had less success finding skilled jobs, the report found. Often, that's because people from those places are refugees and may be placed in low-skilled jobs right away, Batalova says. Also, many ESL programs don't cater to well-educated immigrants and refugees. Instead, they teach generally to people from all backgrounds, and that can hold the well-educated back.

In addition, being able to navigate the cultural landscape of finding a job is daunting. People don't know how Americans expect resumes, Batalova says, how to conduct themselves in interviews and how to develop and maintain networks.

"You don't get that from text, necessarily," she says.

She knows of immigrants turning in 10-page resumes, with their high school grades and their marital status. H.R. departments aren't allowed to know that last detail, and so the whole thing gets thrown away.

"It's just really some basic, basic things that so many Americans take for granted."

A few other factors that made the difference in finding work here, MPI found, were having a U.S. college degree, previous work experience in the U.S. and coming here under employment visas.

Bringing people along

When highly skilled immigrants come to the U.S. and can't find work in their field, it's a challenge for their sense of self-worth, Batalova says. And there are financial consequences, too. Generally, well-educated immigrants working in high-paying jobs pay more taxes, she says, and take out less from the system.

Currently, she says, no federal programs deal with brain waste. Mostly, it's done at the state and local levels. What those programs need is coordination, she says, as well as clear and specific steps spelled out in different industries so immigrants know how to make the transition.

Programs like these exist in both Australia and Canada, Batalova says. In Australia, researchers estimated that not recognizing foreign degrees cost them between 100 million and 350 million Australian dollars a year, and in Canada, about 2 billion Canadian dollars a year.

No estimates exist in the U.S.

In Canada, according to MPI's report, programs to combat brain waste include a foreign credential recognition initiative and enhanced language training. In Australia, an Overseas Qualification Unit confirms credentials before an immigrant even enters the country, and the United Kingdom has a program to help immigrants validate their degrees once they've arrived.

In the U.S., Batalova says, the biggest problems are those of funding and support.

Brain waste could also have some cultural implications. The idea of the American dream, that immigrants come here and pick themselves up by their bootstraps, is pervasive. It was once true, and still is for many. But when well-educated people come here and must start from scratch, that means they're slipping through the cracks, Batalova says.

"We need to recognize this as an issue."

For both Grubor and Kibombi, perhaps time has made the biggest difference in their efforts to establish new lives in America and resist becoming statistics of brain waste.

Even though she's not working in the field she studied, Grubor has no regrets, she says.

Before coming to St. Louis, she was already a refugee. When she left, she put that part of her life away and now finds satisfaction working with her clients.

And now, when he speaks to new immigrants, Kibombi has this advice -- this isn't a place to relax and sit back. You have to work, and you have to have patience.

"As immigrants or refugees, we have to lose something anyway," he says, "and get in the new way for the betterment of our future."

Kristen Hare

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