Immigrants say old careers don't transfer in U.S.

Monday, May 24, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — When the news came, Charles Migwi Karugu had a vision of how life would be different once he arrived in America.

He would build gleaming, beautiful buildings. He would find wealth and opportunity. He would turn his good luck and sterling education into the American Dream.

So in 2004, after winning the green card lottery, the 52-year-old Kenyan and architect packed up his family and headed to Wichita.

"I came just to get to greener pastures," he said.

What he found instead was a promising land with a hitch he hadn't expected: Educated or not, qualified or not, he was not able to practice his chosen profession.

"In every country you have to be licensed," he said. "My goal is to be able to get my license and build buildings again."

Karugu, who now works as a construction superintendent, is one of a little-appreciated piece of America's immigrant story: highly educated and previously successful professionals who cannot pick up their careers in this country.

This is why doctors drive cabs, engineers wait tables, lawyers work as bakers. The transition is not easy.

But for many — refugees, green-card lottery winners, visa holders — it also meant beginning another line of work because of language barriers, credentialing requirements, poverty and the perception that an immigrant is not as qualified as a native-born American.

"We have a lot of refugees who are very, very well educated," said David Holsclaw, director of the Don Bosco English as a Second Language Center. "Many who are doctors, lawyers, engineers and so on. The truth is, you seldom start in your chosen profession. You seldom end up in your chosen profession. The demands of immigrant life make it very hard to do."

The result, experts say, creates a severe brain waste, misused human capital and a nuanced human struggle often overlooked by the immigration debate.

It's also proof that America, while still a nation of immigrants and the land of opportunity, remains an intensely difficult place to navigate, even for the most well educated of newcomers.

Just look at Jol Ghazi. The former well-paid professional now looks out at a bleak economic landscape from his new home in Kansas City, wondering what, if anything, he'll be able to do to feed his family.

He left behind everything he had in Iraq. "I left 52 years of my life there."

He brought his family because it is safer and, he hopes, will give his three children and their children better lives.

In this country for just a couple of months, Ghazi was on break from his daily English-language classes near downtown Kansas City.

Jewish Vocational Services will help him with rent and food for five months. Then he'll need to find work.

In Iraq, he had an advanced degree in engineering and a prosperous jewelry business.

"I'll try for jewelry," he said. "If I don't find that, I'll try for a mechanic. I have to find work."

Experts say Ghazi, and many of the other well-educated immigrants and refugees who pass through Don Bosco's English-language program in Columbus Park, are likely to smack into obstacles.

Their English makes it more difficult to persuade prospective employers to hire them. The process of Americanizing their foreign degrees is costly and time-consuming. Sometimes pride can be a problem, dealing with the humiliation and frustration of being a success one day and a stereotype the next.

"A lot of people think that (all immigrants) are gardeners and people working at the back of restaurants," said Jeanne Batalova, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

"In fact, a large part are college-educated, and immigrants are slightly more likely to have advanced degrees than U.S.-born. The question is whether they're able to transfer their education into the right jobs.

"What we find is it's not that easy and not that straightforward. The notion that once you have a college education all the doors are open is not true."

That's a lesson John Gak has learned here in this country.

The 44-year-old once studied engineering and worked for multinational oil companies. But when he left his home, war-ravaged Sudan, he also left behind his career. Gak is now a dealer at the Ameri-star Casino, where he's worked for more than a decade. He's studying computer information management on the side, hoping to get his degree in 2013. He runs a nonprofit that raises money to build schools back in Sudan. He's looking forward, not back. He's let his engineering life go.

"I'm not disappointed," he said. "It's another culture. I can't blame anybody. I'm proud of what I do. It's a way to feed my children, feed my wife, feed my family back home."

In 2006, more than 6.1 million immigrants 25 or older in the United States had at least a bachelor's degree, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

The percentage of immigrants who are highly educated closely mirrored that of America's native born population: 17.2 percent of foreign born in this country had at least a bachelor's degree, compared with 20.5 percent for those born in America, and 12.6 percent of immigrants have advance degrees, compared with 11.5 percent of native-born Americans.

Where immigrants come from has a large impact on the likelihood of employment in line with their skills. According to the study, 43.5 percent of educated immigrants from Latin America who had been in America for 10 years or less were in unskilled jobs. That number dropped to 32.9 percent for Africans and 18.9 percent for Europeans. Those from China fare the best, with only 10 percent working in unskilled jobs.

"What we found is about one in five college-educated immigrants, regardless of where they got their education, work in unskilled jobs or don't work at all," Batalova said. "There is another 22 percent of immigrants who are college educated who are working in semi-skilled jobs. If we combine those populations, the brain waste issue is even more significant."

Karugu, the Kenyan architect, knows the challenges too well. But he refuses to give up on his 20-year career as an architect. His designs helped build schools, hospitals and office towers. His goal is to someday stand in this country and look proudly up at a building that he designed.

Doing so will require a six-year apprenticeship. He vows to put in the extra hours, and years, until he realizes his dream.

"I'd say I'm four years away," he said. "A lot of people don't have the knowledge that I do. Right now I'm working in the building industry. I got the job because of my academic background. It's a good job, and it's good when you work in something you know."


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