Foreign degrees in hand, no jobs in sight

by Lauren E. Bohn
Liusin Eliya has a master’s degree in agricultural engineering, but after moving to Chicago last year he found himself washing dishes at the Westin Hotel.

Eliya is an immigrant from Iraq, and like a lot of immigrants finds that despite being successful in his field at home, his credentials don’t seem to help in the U.S.

Upwardly Global, a nonprofit organization that helps highly skilled immigrants find jobs, reports that more than a third of their Chicago clients during the past year were from Iraq.

“We left the war for peace and hope here, so I’m happy,” Eliya, 61, said. “But I’d like a good job. Even if it’s two hours away, I’d take it.”

Eliya is Assyrian, a population that has swelled here as more than 1,050 Assyrians have fled to Chicago over the past eight months. Chicago is home to the largest concentration of Assyrians outside Iraq, acccording to the Assyrian National Council of Illinois.

Before its fall in 612 B.C., the Assyrian Empire ruled over what is now present-day Iraq.
Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Assyrians, as Christians, have increasingly become targets of sectarian violence.

The challenges of these refugees and immigrants — most of whom are highly educated — are only exacerbated by the global economic downturn.

“It is bad,” said Assyrian council executive director Isho Lilou. “I can’t tell you how many Assyrians come into this office. Former cardiologists, engineers, professors…they are paralyzed.”

Rebecca Tancredi, Upwardly Global’s Chicago program manager, said “because immigrants and refugees are unfamiliar with the American system and lack networking contacts, they often lose their ability to work in their fields and sink through the cracks.”

Ninous Badeen, also Assyrian, has been marking time with job rejections during his six months in Chicago. Badeen, 31, of Skokie, said he hopes to use his master’s degree in computer engineering from Baghdad University. In the meantime, he makes $12 an hour as an office manager at the Assyrian council.

Juliana Taimoorazy, founder and president of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council — a refugee herself — said U.S. certification programs and degree evaluations bear too heavy a financial burden on the influx of Assyrian refugees and immigrants in Chicago.

Badeen echoed her concerns.

“Paying for computer classes would be impossible,” he said. “It would take too much time and I need work immediately to support my wife and little girls.”

Eliya said he is grateful for the part-time work Lilou has given him at the Assyrian council, but misses working with livestock and crops.

“If you asked the company I worked for, they’d tell you what I was back home,” he said. “I was one of their best employees.”