By Lisa Kava
Volunteers from an Upper West Side synagogue and an Upper West Side church are partners in a program that helps refugees and asylees in the New York City area find employment.
The Refugee Employment Partnership (REP) is the brainchild of Congregation B’ Nai Jeshurun member Richard Fields who founded the organization in 2017. REP has since its inception placed approximately 30 refugees in various jobs.
REP acts as a personalized boutique employment agency for refugees. Each refugee seeking employment is assigned a volunteer mentor who works with the refugee giving hands on guidance throughout the job search process. The mentor helps with everything from building a resume, to researching companies and acing an interview.
Founder Richard Fields along with REP Program Administrator David Coleman focus on developing and maintaining relationships with employers who are willing to take a chance on hiring refugees.
Many have been quite successful.
Fields told West Side Rag that he had learned from some of the organizations that help resettle refugees (such as Church World Services and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society HIAS) that major challenges of resettlement include finding housing and finding employment.
“I was thinking about ways to help and I thought it would be easier to help them find jobs than to help them find housing” he said.
This idea was the genesis for REP, where Fields led a group of volunteers from B’nai Jeshurun. Soon after, volunteers from the Rutgers Presbyterian Church, who were working on a joint project with volunteers from B’Nai Jeshurun, decided to join the program as a co-sponsor. REP’s volunteers are made up of both synagogue and church members as well as outside volunteers. Most of the refugees come from Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central and Western Africa or the Ukraine. “There is a broad range in terms of their skill and language level,” Fields said.
David Coleman, the program administrator and the sole full-time employee of REP, started out as a mentor volunteer. The most rewarding aspect of working with REP is “seeing how happy people are when they get the job,” he said. “Employment creates a sense of security and these are people who have suffered through years of turmoil, insecurity and fear. They are so grateful.”
Coleman told West Side Rag that as a mentor he had worked with “a guy who escaped from Turkey with his wife and three kids in a tiny motorboat. He showed me photos. Their real-life stories are so compelling.”
Employers who hire through REP include companies in a variety of industries. Levain Bakery, Equity Residential (an operator of luxury rental apartment buildings), Andersen Tax, BrainPop (an educational software company), Orsid Realty and Silver Lining (a construction management company) have all hired through REP.
Jennifer Perlmutter, the director of HR for Levain Bakery, told West Side Rag that the bakery has hired cookie scalers, retail team members, porters and customer service members through the program.
“It has been rewarding to be able to offer opportunities to people who have had hard lives and who really needed help,” said Perlmutter.
Jason Helein, the Recruiting Manager at Equity Residential says his company has hired a handful of employees through REP in both porter and concierge positions and expects the number to grow because he has been pleased with the hires. “I have found through REP access to a population of individuals who have come from a place of conflict. They worked very hard to overcome it and this wasn’t easy for them which puts other challenges our jobs will be putting in front of them in perspective. They are humble, self-aware and determined to build a future here.”
Suzanne Khoja fled Syria with her family and arrived in New York in February 2017. The program placed Suzanne and her brother in positions at Levain Bakery. Suzanne started out in customer service packaging cookies, moved on to selling cookies and eventually learned to make lattes and other drinks. Suzanne’s brother was placed by REP as a porter at the bakery and is now selling cookies, while her sister took a job as a cafeteria worker at a local elementary school. Suzanne currently works as a hostess at Restoration Hardware’s restaurant, a position she found through the program. “The volunteers at REP helped my family and me helped me to stand on our feet again. To feel relief and peace again. I am glad that they came together…church and synagogue volunteers to make us feel what it is like to be an American.”
Shaqueel arrived from Pakistan in 2016 and was placed by REP as a payroll administrator at ORSID Realty. In Pakistan, Shaqueel had worked in financial management after earning a business degree and is glad to be utilizing his skills here. “I am very happy and thankful to Richard Fields and to REP for referring me to a place where I can use my skills in a positive and accommodative environment.”
REP is meant to be a “win-win,” according to Fields. “We give employers access to a different labor pool and our clients generally have a terrific work ethic and don’t take jobs for granted.” Coleman says the program has been so successful in such a short time that he could possibly see it expanding to other cities, where the model could be replicated.
REP is always on the lookout for additional employers to add to their growing list. To learn more contact Richard Fields at Richard@refugeeemployment.org or David Coleman at Dcoleman@refugeeemployment.org