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Idaho refugees struggle to find jobs under deadline

By Melissa Davlin

The Times-News

Published: Sunday, Aug. 28 2011 9:09 p.m. MDT

Tirtha Rai, a refugee from Bhutan, cleans rooms at the American Inn in Twin Falls, Idaho.

Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

TWIN FALLS, Idaho — Every day, while his nephews watch television and niece chats with friends online, Prithi Rai scours the classifieds.

He and his brother, Man Bahadur Rai, started looking for jobs shortly after arriving in Twin Falls from a Nepali refugee camp May 5. Though they speak English fluently, they are having a hard time finding positions that don't require prior experience, education or special certifications.

Man and Prithi have been on only two interviews each, both set up by the College of Southern Idaho Refugee Center. They want more.

"We're very concerned about jobs," Man said.

The U.S. resettlement program pays living expenses for newcomers' first months, but it's set up to make refugees independent of public assistance within three to four months of arrival. While the refugee center says there are entry-level positions available in Magic Valley, many refugees are claiming difficulty finding those jobs.

And with a national unemployment rate of 9.1 percent, some Twin Falls residents are wary about bringing in refugees who need jobs and public assistance.

Though many Americans are struggling to find jobs, Ron Black, director of the CSI Refugee Center, said positions paying $7.25 to $8.25 are available here. "It's just, are you willing to work to get the job?"

Typical finds for new refugees: stocking retail shelves, manning a production line at a potato-processing plant, cleaning bathrooms at hotels.

The refugee center has placed 125 refugees in their first jobs since the fiscal year started on Oct. 1, Black said, and that doesn't include second or third jobs the center has helped some find. Many of those start as part-time or temporary positions, but if the refugee impresses managers, he or she often gets hired full-time.

Jobs were easier to find before the economic downturn, Black admitted. Five years ago, the refugee center could place applicants in jobs almost immediately. Now it takes four or five interviews to find a job.

"It is going to be more challenging and they are going to go through more interviews and they are going to have a little bit more frustration," Black said.

Among Twin Falls' newcomers are Bhutanese refugees — ethnic Nepalis who fled Bhutan in the early 1990s and spent nearly two decades in Nepali refugee camps. According to the Bhutanese American Society of Twin Falls, more than 300 Bhutanese refugees have settled in Magic Valley since the first arrived in 2008.

Some of Twin Falls' Bhutanese refugees have the equivalent of master's degrees, while others have never set foot in a classroom.

Most refugees from Bhutan are willing to work whatever jobs are available, Black said, but even the eager face challenges. Many come to Twin Falls with negligible work experience, education or English, and even those with marketable skills need an adjustment period after arriving in the United States.

Many Bhutanese refugees didn't work during the 20 years that they spent in Nepali camps. Some have never held jobs. Going from sitting idly for two decades to working 40-hour weeks is a huge adjustment that many aren't immediately ready for, Black said.

But Man's 20-year-old daughter, Tirtha Rai, got a job at American Inn after about a month in Twin Falls. She initially struggled with making the large beds and remembering how many towels go in the bathrooms, but she learned quickly.

"At first it was quite hard, but now it is easy," Tirtha said.

It's not her dream job — she wants to go to nursing school someday — but for now, she said, "I need it."

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