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Airport Jobs Center. Photo by Alex Stonehill.

Airport Jobs Center. Photo by Alex Stonehill.


Starting Over At Sea-Tac

Staff Reporter

All week, we are exploring the lives of refugees in Puget Sound and the challenges that they face as they settle in to their new communities.

When new refugees arrive, they have a lot to juggle. There's finding housing, getting kids enrolled in school; often there's learning English. Then, there's finding a job.

Many refugees look to one of the state's largest employers, the Seattle–Tacoma International Airport. In the second part of our series "Refugees in Puget Sound," reporter Jessica Partnow has this story about what it's like for new refugees trying to start over at Sea–Tac.


The Pokhrel family lives in a cozy apartment in the city of SeaTac. On a Saturday morning, mom, grandma and niece are all crowded into the tiny kitchen, grinding spices and producing delicious curry smells.

The father's name is Nandu. A dab of orange on his forehead shows he's said his prayers at the Hindu shrine in the corner of the living room. He's wearing a blinding–white shirt and creased black pants.

Nandu: "My name is Nandu, Nandu Pokhrel, and I am, uh, I am working in Safeway — Des Moines Safeway here — since 2009. I, I work as a courtesy clerk."

Before he was a courtesy clerk at the Des Moines Safeway, he was a public school teacher in Bhutan.

Nandu was born in Bhutan, but he's ethnically Nepali. He's Hindu, unlike Bhutan's majority Buddhist population.

Nandu and his family fled Bhutan in 1991. The government wouldn't allow Nepalis to practice their religion or speak their language, or even wear their own clothing.

Nandu and his family spent 17 years in a refugee camp.

Nandu: "Refugee camp — it was difficult, it was very clustered, close to one another, not like in the, our country Bhutan, and and no good facilities, you know."

He says the camp was crowded, with everyone living close to one another. There was a school, but the facilities were lacking. It was a struggle to get enough clean water, and no one had electricity.

Nandu and his family came to Seattle as refugees in 2008. It was a huge change from life in the camp.

Nandu: "Everything was totally different so I was mad. You know, I have no friends, no telephone, nothing; I was very mad, you know!"

But after a few months, Nandu started to settle in.

His English teacher was a big support. And he slowly made friends with the growing Bhutanese community here.

Now he's really starting to relax. He's taking fewer hours at Safeway because both of his sons are working to support the family.

To officially qualify as a refugee, you have to be able to justify that you crossed an international border in fear for your life. Then you can apply for resettlement in the United States. It can be a long wait.

When you arrive in the US as a refugee, you can get financial assistance for the first few months. Nonprofit agencies will help you find a job.

You can apply for welfare or food stamps just like anyone else, but depending on the program, the financial assistance will last either eight months or until you find work.

Most refugees try to find a job right away.

Sea–Tac Airport is one of the biggest employers in the state. Lots of refugees head for the airport to look for work.

Take Nandu's son, Krishna. To find him, first you have to get to Sea–Tac's North Main Terminal.

PA: "Exit for North Main Terminal; C, D and N Gates."

Krishna is here five days a week. He wears a polo shirt and he's got a big smile on his face.

Krishna: "So, leaf lettuce, tomato, onion, cucumber on it?"

It's the lunch rush at the Great American Bagel Bakery.

Krishna: "So we have Dijon mustard; OK for you?"

Fifteen customers are stacked up in line.

Krishna: "How about cheese? Swiss, American, Cheddar, Jack, Cheese?"

Krishna and his coworkers are moving fast from toaster to soup pot to cash register.

British man: "Yeah, Can I have a chicken breast sandwich, please?"

Different accents are flying from both sides of the counter. Everyone working here today was born outside the US.

Krishna: "My coworkers are like me. I'm not very educated. I'm just, I know how to speak little bit English and I don't have much idea about the modern world."

Krishna speaks English all day. But he says the job isn't helping him learn anything new.

Krishna: "Really, we don't learn any English from the company 'cause we have to speak same way, you know, like 'How are you?' 'How can I help you here?"

Plus, it's always so busy there's never much time for chit–chat. But he's happier here than he was at his first job at a seafood processing plant. He had to butcher these giant fish. He would end up covered in blood at the end of the day. Sea–Tac was a welcome change.

Krishna makes $9.45 an hour. Labor advocates complain that wages at the airport are too low.

Airport employers don't officially track refugee status, but an estimate from a nonprofit called Airport Jobs says close to 9,000 refugees and new immigrants work at the airport. That's half of the people who work here.

They are cabin cleaners, baggage handlers, food servers, wheelchair pushers, taxi drivers.

But these jobs aren't easy to get. There's stiff competition for any job right now. And interviewing in a new country presents a whole new set of challenges.

For example, in the US we just assume the point of an interview is to sell yourself. But in lots of other countries, talking too much about your skills or success would be seen as showing off. In some cultures, just looking your boss in the eye is disrespectful.

Mergitu Argo: "You just obey — OK, OK and take it, you understand it or not — don't talk back."

This is Mergitu Argo. She's an employment specialist at the Airport Jobs Center. A lot of what she does is help people navigate cultural differences.

It's not always easy.

One time, an Ethiopian man came to her looking for work. She got him an interview with this manager, a woman who runs both a Starbucks and a Burger King at the airport.

Argo: "So once she interviewed him, she wanted to give him the Burger King position instead of the Starbucks."

But he was really hoping for the Starbucks spot. So he said so.

Argo: "And then she say 'You don't like working for Burger King?' So 'No, no I like Burger King, I like to eat hamburger. I want to be fat like you!'"

'I want to be fat like you.' Not exactly the first thing you want to say to your future boss.

Argo: "So she got very offended and she said no more job for you!"

He was devastated. And he wasn't even sure what he'd done wrong. He thought he was giving the manager a compliment.

Argo: "Where he came from it's nice, it's a compliment. You're fat or you're big, it shows that you're well fed and you have money."

Calling a person fat is like congratulating them for being rich.

Mergitu helped smooth things out. In the end, the man got the job at Burger King.

Mergitu's organization sees as many as 160 clients in a single day. Staff members speak seven languages — from Somali to Ukrainian. But that's just a fraction of the 83 languages their clients speak.

And more and more people are looking for work. Over the past four years, Airport Jobs saw a 30 percent increase in the number of job seekers.

Sharmarke Mohamud: "(In Somali) I'll call you back. Okay, okay."

Sharmarke Mohamud found his own way into working with the airport. He owns a small independent taxi company called Low Fare for Hire.

He loves his job.

Mohamud: "It's freedom! The whole reason it's the freedom. Nobody's firing you except yourself."

Sharmarke was born in Somalia, but fled to Nairobi, Kenya as a child. He lived there for six and a half years before coming to Seattle as a refugee in 2000.

Mohamud: "And it's the easiest job! That's another thing. It allows you to pray five times a day by just going any time you want."

Praying takes about five minutes, but it has to be done at very specific times.

That doesn't always match up with hectic airport schedules. So for Muslims working inside the airport, prayer time is a frequent source of conflict.

Mohamud: "Those kind of freedom is what most of the cab drivers looking for. Especially Somalis."

For Sharmarke, starting up a business wasn't easy. He is an observant Muslim, which means he's not allowed to pay interest. So he couldn't take out a business loan.

He and a partner just saved up their money. And they've found creative ways to support the business. They got a clean energy company to subsidize their fleet with cars that run on compressed natural gas.

The company has grown from three to 15 cars just in its first year.

There are tiny taxi companies like Sharmarke's all over Puget Sound, and refugees working in just about every job at the airport.

For many of them, Sea–Tac Airport was their first glimpse of America. And now it's the backdrop to their everyday lives.

Next year, up to 3,000 more refugees will arrive in Washington state. More than a few of them will try to find a way to start a new life at Sea–Tac.

From the airport, I'm Jessica Partnow, for KUOW.

© Copyright 2012, KUOW