New immigrants turn to local agencies for job and lifestyle assistance
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The American Dream" can mean different things to different people. The most optimistic might envision opportunity, a chance to rise to the top from next to nothing. The more cynical might see frustration and false promises.Tony Tye, Post-Gazette
Reji Kurian, an Indian immigrant who lived for many years in Kuwait, settled in the Pittsburgh area and formed a successful sourcing company, Scott-based Doni American International.
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Reji Kurian has seen both sides of this vision. As an Indian immigrant to Pittsburgh via Kuwait, Mr. Kurian faced numerous obstacles to success in his nearly two years here, including language barriers, complex bureaucracies and self-esteem issues.
But ultimately he struck gold, forming a sourcing company, Scott-based Doni American International Inc., that is experiencing rapid success.
He credits the assistance of the Jewish Family and Children's Service, one of many area organizations that seek to ease the path for the thousands of immigrants who arrive in the region every year.
Their work is seen as vital not only to making immigrants feel more at home, but also to helping the local economy grow by encouraging more immigrants to put down roots. The region currently is home to about 62,000 foreign-born residents, the fewest of any major metro area, and local business leaders say they need a lot more.
"A steady influx of working-age immigrants in their 20s and 30s would gradually enlarge the region's working-age population," a crucial factor in wooing more companies and offsetting a potential crisis as baby boomers begin retiring and the region's population continues to stagnate, said Peter A. Morrison, a demographer with think tank Rand Corp.
That's where agencies such as the Jewish Family and Children's Service come in.
Founded in 1937 to accommodate the arrival of Russian Jews, the agency now serves as an umbrella organization for three centers that provide immigration services -- the Pittsburgh Regional Immigrant Assistance Center, the Welcome Center for Immigrants and Internationals, and the Career Development Center.
Accredited by the Pennsylvania Board of Immigration Appeals and the U.S. Department of Justice, the assistance center provides legal advice regarding the naturalization process.
The newly formed welcome center provides social services to new arrivals, addressing such needs as housing, health care and child care. And the career development center, which began serving immigrants five years ago, offers job training and placement.
Mr. Kurian turned to the JFCS a year after arriving here in early 2005 with his wife, who had served as a nurse in both Kuwaiti and American army hospitals.
A successful businessman in Kuwait, he felt alone and frustrated. He wanted to start his own business, but could not figure out how. Then a fellow immigrant told him about the JFCS, and soon, Mr. Kurian had organized a meeting between 23 immigrants and Kannu Sahni, one of two JFCS immigration employment specialists.
Mr. Sahni recalls the meeting vividly. "When we first met with this group, it was hard to speak with these individuals. They just didn't have any confidence."
A lack of self-esteem is a common obstacle that many immigrants face, even though many are well-educated. Of the immigrants with which the career development center works, 76 percent have at least an associate's degree, 40 percent have a university degree and 19 percent have a master's degree or higher. Fifty-four percent speak English and at least one other language proficiently.
As William H. Frey points out in an article in the June 2004 edition of American Demographic magazine, 58 percent of Pittsburgh's immigrants are college-educated, the highest rate of any major city in the country.
Koshy Mathew is one example. Like Mr. Kurian, Mr. Mathew is a Kuwaiti immigrant who is highly skilled, having served as an assistant finance manager in Kuwait. Yet upon arriving in Pittsburgh, the only work he could find was at Wendy's.
This troubled Mr. Mathew, but he persevered, unable to bear the idea of telling his brothers that he was still unemployed when they called from Kuwait.
Similarly, Mr. Sahni relates the story of another couple, both doctors in their home countries. Upon arriving in Pittsburgh, they got jobs at Giant Eagle, one bagging groceries and the other coring pineapples. A third gentleman with a master's degree in engineering found a job as a mechanic.
By now, these stories are a familiar refrain at the career development center, which maintains a holistic approach in its work to help immigrants adjust to their new lives and country. "These are all unique individuals with unique skill sets, aspirations, and goals," said Cheryl Finlay, the center's director.
Among its services, the center offers job-readiness and accent reduction workshops, and one-on-one career counseling and job retention services. It also collaborates with more than 400 employers and community organizations.
Its success stories speak for themselves. All 23 participants at the meeting organized by Mr. Kurian, for example, are now fully employed.
"To meet this group now is a whole different thing," Mr. Sahni said. "We were invited to a special Christmas gathering. It was incredible to see people who were so 'down and out' functioning."
After taking a finance workshop, Mr. Mathew was offered a job through PNC Bank. After brushing up on interview skills and resume writing, the doctors are now in accelerated nursing programs. And the engineer is now serving as a project manager.
Perhaps Mr. Kurian's story is the most dramatic.
Using his strong contacts in the Middle East, he recently completed a sale of 4,000 leather jackets made in Texas to the U.S. Army in Basra and is currently working on a multimillion-dollar deal. He has hired one employee and plans to hire more as he expands.
He considers Pittsburgh a wonderful place to live and work, citing as attractions the lack of competition, easy access to major business centers, a low cost of living and the city's family-oriented nature.
Immigrants who are jobless in traditional gateway cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles are taking notice. As a result, the career development center has decided to focus recruitment efforts on other U.S. cities.
The JFCS is helping out, too. Working directly with employers, it follows up for nine months with each client to make sure that they remain employed. Ninety-two percent of its clients have retained their jobs for at least nine months after receiving them.
The goal, its staffers say, is to make sure the American Dream is a phrase that fosters hope and optimism -- not frustration.
First Published January 26, 2007 12:00 am