Afghan refugee helps airport contractor Unifi recruit other refugees for jobs – The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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Later, a friend here who was an old classmate from Afghanistan told Jalali about a job at Unifi, an Atlanta-based aviation contractor. Unifi does ground handling, security, aircraft cabin cleaning and wheelchair assistance at Hartsfield-Jackson International and other airports around the country.

Jalali started working for Unifi in 2023, and as a recruiter for the company he helps hire employees and get them started on the job.

With his deep connections to the Afghan community in metro Atlanta, Jalali is also helping Unifi with its recently announced goal to hire 500 refugees by 2027.

‘We find a way’

In 2021, President Joe Biden launched an effort to support vulnerable Afghans resettling in the United States, including those who worked alongside Americans in Afghanistan over two decades. In 2022, Biden announced a process for Ukrainian citizens to come to the United States and be considered for eligibility for work authorization.

In other cities such as Seattle, Unifi is working with a Ukrainian church to reach out to refugees, displaced by Russia’s invasion.

In Atlanta, Jalali shares job opportunities with multiple refugee communities in metro Atlanta through WhatsApp groups, and helps recruits throughout the hiring process, going through background checks to get airport badges, and even arranging carpools to help those without vehicles and driver’s licenses get to work.

“When I started, it was very hard to bring a single refugee. But now we find a way,” Jalali said.

He said many of the refugees he connects with live in Stone Mountain, Decatur and Clarkston, where the nonprofit Clarkston Community Center offers English as a Second Language classes, connections to legal help for refugees and other services.

Unifi has already hired more than 200 refugees since 2022, particularly at airports in Atlanta, Houston and Seattle.

It is one of more than 200 companies across the country that are members of the Tent Partnership for Refugees to help refugees find jobs in the United States.

They include Delta Air Lines, which is a part-owner of Unifi; Accenture, IHG Hotels & Resorts, UPS, Amazon, Google and others.

“Refugees are looking for jobs. Companies are in short supply,” whether it’s at a Starbucks or a McDonald’s or a Target, said Archana Arcot, Unifi’s chief people officer.

The post-pandemic travel surge has motivated Unifi to find more workers and decide to “start having a formal structure to go out and hire refugees,” Arcot said.

“Programs like this take a lot more effort to set up (and) establish, but once you have the right structure … then it creates a multiplier effect,” Arcot said. She said the company is trying to build more ecosystems for refugee hiring, such as in Minneapolis.

Refugees have the advantage of coming with eligibility to work in the United States — so the employer doesn’t need to sponsor a work visa, Arcot noted.

And airports have long been attractive to “people coming into the country looking for jobs,” especially in cities like Minneapolis, Detroit and in cities in border states such as New York and Seattle, she said. Airports also often have public transit to easily get to work.

Jobs at Unifi and at airlines typically offer flight benefits, which are valuable to those who want to fly back overseas to visit family members.

Airports also tend to have jobs that require physical labor, and where language skills are not as large a barrier, Arcot said. Many of the jobs start at $15 an hour, she said.

“Where you can place them is limited,” she said. But she also sees higher retention rates because those workers are “not trying to go and work at three different employers.”

Those who speak languages other than English can do well in jobs such as loading snack carts for in-flight catering and janitorial work, especially working on teams together, she said.

Those with English language skills can qualify for customer service roles, according to Arcot.

There may be some restrictions in the kind of work some are comfortable doing, she said. With loading beverage carts, “they may not be comfortable touching liquor,” Arcot said. “Knowing the culture and recognizing what in that culture works and where you can assign them work is important.”

In Atlanta, Arcot said Jalali is a key part of that strategy as a “high-touch recruiter.”

Jalali said with some recruits, they may not speak English, have never used a computer and don’t have an email address. He completes applications for them and helps them set up an email address.

“You’re making these commitments and investments for the long term,” Arcot said.

The long-term goal is for the workers to advance to different jobs, use their language skills, and help with “appealing to a multicultural customer passenger base, which will always be the topography of large international airports,” she said.

Hogai Nassery, CEO of the Afghan American Alliance of Georgia, said upward mobility is important.

“We have some folks who are pretty well educated and speak pretty good English,” Nassery said. “The jobs themselves are great — people need to land on their feet.”

She also said “whatever they’re doing now, I hope it’s geared towards jobs that definitely have some legs.”

Jobs at the airport such as with Unifi are seen as better than work in warehouses, chicken factories and manufacturing plants, said Shaista Amani, program manager at the Afghan American Alliance of Georgia. But she added that workers also need a way to move up, by gaining certified skills such as ServSafe certification for food handling.

But it is difficult for even well-educated Afghan refugees to find professional jobs if they don’t have U.S. job experience or personal connections, she said.

Jalali also said he knows some workers who are highly educated and, like when he first arrived, are starting out all over again.

“We have doctors. … We have a minister,” Jalali said.

“It’s up to you how you want to build your future.”

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