Easing the way of refugees starting a new life

Suliman Abdalla arrived in Alaska 10 years ago from Lebanon. He didn’t speak English and was shocked by the Alaska climate, so different from his native Sudan. In his country, he could get by on public transportation, but here, driving is nearly a necessity. 

“When you come to the U.S. there is nothing easy,” said Abdalla, a floor technician in the Environmental Services Department at Providence Alaska Medical Center (PAMC). “After years of work, I learned to drive; you have to drive.” 

Fortunately, Catholic Social Services Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services (RAIS) was available to help Abdalla in those early days. Formed as a safety net to help newly arrived refugees transition to life in Alaska, the program offered him language classes, job training, and eventually, a permanent job. RAIS is one of dozens of community programs that Providence Alaska supports via community investment. The partnership between Providence Alaska and Catholic Social Services not only helps ease the way for those coming to America for the first time, but also provides a stream of dependable, hard-working employees who find lifelong careers at Providence. 

“The program has come a long way,” said Nikki Brayboy, Environmental Services manager, and Abdalla’s supervisor at PAMC. “It is a teaching and learning experience at the same time. And Suliman is such a good worker – friendly and always ready to help and offer suggestions. We are lucky to have the employees we get through this program.”    

Brigit Reynolds, Catholic Social Services education and employment manager said what really makes Providence’s support helpful is the direct connection she has with those who do the hiring. Applying for a job is a detailed process that takes an understanding of how the hiring system works. For people like Abdalla, that can feel overwhelming. Reynolds said she helps make those connections for refugees and guides them through the process.  

“To have those points of contact at Providence is critical,” Reynolds said. “I have no idea how many of our trainees would not have been able to work at Providence without this program.”  

Today, more than 10 years since the program started, refugees have been hired to work in laundry, environmental services, food and nutrition, general stores and more. Training lasts for approximately six months, depending on an individual’s needs. 

“A lot of refugees come with skills and talents but might not be able to jump right into a job,” said Issa Spatrisano, who helped match Abdalla in his job in Reynolds’ position. Today, she is CSS’s state refugee coordinator and works with refugees across the state. “There are English barriers, childcare challenges and adjustment time that takes place. They might not be ready to walk right into a Providence job, but they will be good at it when they get there.” 

Furthermore, Spatrisano said, once their on-site training begins, they also receive a paycheck.  

“Offering a job training program that is unpaid is not realistic to our clients,” she said. “This is the only real program in the state that exists in a paid internship model. It allows them to actually do the training program and provide for their families.”  

Preparation for job readiness begins in the classroom.  

At Catholic Social Services’ Welcome Center in East Anchorage, refugee educator Maddy Medina sets up for a language class for newly arrived refugees. It is similar to those Abdalla once took – free and open to all RAIS clients. Currently, four students from Ukraine and two from Afghanistan are in attendance. The Afghan women have toddlers in tow, who are quickly whisked up by volunteers who entertain the young ones so the women can focus. The lesson is about Alaska agriculture.  

“We are working on job readiness through the practice of agriculture,” Medina said. “We are introducing and working on vocabulary around gardening.” The previous week the students planted celery and leek seeds. On this day, they match action words such as “digging” and “watering” to pictures on a screen. Medina uses hand gestures and speaks slowly to help the students make the necessary connections.  

Reynolds, from her office just one door beyond the classroom, watches the progress. The goal is that the people in today’s classroom will one day be where Abdalla is: gainfully employed, with benefits and a fulfilling life in Alaska. 

“They are willing to work,” Reynolds said. “All of our clients bring such a strong work ethic; their dedication and resilience is amazing. The number of things our refugees do on the daily to adapt to life here is beyond the comfort zone of most people, and they make it work.”     

Now, 10 years later, Abdalla can confidently say Alaska is his home. His wife is still in Sudan, and he hopes to one day bring her here. That would complete the picture.  

“There were many rules, so many rules, when I came,” Abdalla said. “But I had help. I have community now.”