By Fatemeh Jamalpour
On a sunny Friday afternoon in early March at the Universal School in Bridgeview, 200 unemployed Syrian refugees attend a job fair, hoping to find opportunity.
“The refugees have a difficult time finding work, so we do our best to connect them to jobs here in Chicago,” said Suzanne Akhras Sahloul, founder and executive director of the Syrian Community Network.
Bringing employers and refugees together to make new connections is a primary way that the Chicago based NGO helps Syrian newcomers in the area. “We know [finding a] job is one of the major issues, and they are sensitive about it,” Sahloul said.
The room is full of young and older men and women. Some of the women are wearing hijabs but others are without headscarves. Some are educated and some are not. But no matter what their status was back home, the job fair attendees participate in the workshops to learn about American professional values and practice interview techniques.
Suehaila Susan Nabulsi, 38, a software engineering project manager, leads one of the workshops focusing on what it takes to be successful in the U.S. job market, including understanding cultural expectations about women in the workplace, speaking and understanding English, and being on time.
“Our mission is to help Syrian refugees who come to Chicago by bridging the gap in their transition from their lives in Syria to the U.S.,” said Nabulsi, a SCN volunteer who was born and raised in Chicago and is of Syrian and Palestinian descent.
After the two workshops, the refugees go downstairs to talk with the 10 participating employers and try to find jobs. Hala Fahim, 18, a high school senior who came to Chicago two months ago after living in Jordan for five years, is looking for a part-time job to help her parents to pay bills and rent.
“It was an excellent workshop,” Fahim said. “They helped us understand how life in America is and that we need to work hard – tips in order to be successful.”
Fahim said she can work as an interpreter, cashier or babysitter. “I would accept anything for now because I know it’s hard to get a job.”
Target is one of the employers that attended the job fair, and it has an established partnership with SCN, according to Cynthia Garcia, executive team leader – human resources for the company in Chicago.
“We are searching to fill all types of positions such as cashiers and guest services. We are a very diverse and inclusive organization, so we do not discriminate against anyone,” Garcia said. “We welcome everyone.”
Chicago in Arabic, a media company that works with SCN to help Syrian refugees become familiar with the city, co-sponsored the job fair.
“We bring the Syrian community closer to the city by providing the news about Chicago in our native language, which is Arabic,” said co-founder Malek Abdulsamad, 28. “We talk about lifestyles, culture, business – all kinds of news except politics and religion. We try to bring the community on board and to give them exposure.”
Sahloul said the job fair, SCN’s first, is an initial step in making connections with the refugees and helping them connect to the community. SCN will hold another fair soon, she said, and hopes to increase the number of employers and sponsors.
In the meantime, the first job fair is helping new arrivals start their lives in Chicago.
“I would like to see what happens to the people who attend,” Nabulsi said.