Selling Hot Dogs? Job Market Bad for Skilled Arab Immigrants

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When Tholfikar Altaie moved to New York he wasn't looking for the American dream -- he just wanted a job. He arrived with an MBA and was the security manager for the United Nations office in Iraq, his homeland. But when he came to New York City in 2009 he couldn't find work. When he did, it was in retail sales at a Century 21 department store.

"I was really disappointed," Altaie, 28, said. "The problem is you think you'll find a lot of work, you have a master's degree, then you discover that everyone also does too and no one contacts you when you submit your resume."

Altaie is not alone. Often, when Arab American immigrant professionals move to the United States searching for better work opportunities, they are disappointed. Doctors become hot dog vendors. Engineers sell halal chicken-and-rice plates. And businessmen drive taxis. The toll can be exhausting.

"It's obviously demoralizing to come to this country and not be able to move up," said Lena Alhusseini, executive director of the Arab American Family Support Center in Brooklyn. "It can be really hard for the families."

'Dirty Jobs'

Alhusseini sees many professionals, hungry to work, who take what some Arab Americans call "dirty jobs." In their native countries, professionals such as doctors, engineers, or accountants are looked at with respect because of the amount of time they have invested in their field. And the more education, the more respect they are shown. A doctor is addressed as "Dr. so-and-so," and an engineer as "Engineer so-and-so" by colleagues, acquaintances and sometimes even close friends and family members. So when they immigrate to a new country, expecting to work in their respective professions, immigrant professionals feel slighted.

The transition tends to be more difficult for men because women are more willing to take menial jobs to support the family. "It does something to the ego," said Alhusseini. "With women it's all about the children; the men, it takes them longer to get there. They tend to believe if they try hard enough, they'll get what they want."

However, the American work culture and job-seeking methods are different from what they know in their native countries. Difficulties with interviewing, resumes and networking are huge barriers to finding a suitable job.

"America is everyone's dream, but when people come they see that it isn't the dream they thought it would be," said Mohamad, a resident of Queens who emigrated from Alexandria, Egypt, about 10 years ago.

Mohamad, who was an accountant in Egypt, is now a partner in a pastry shop in Astoria. He knows doctors and engineers who are working as street vendors and have accepted jobs that are "unimaginable." When he first moved to America he could not find an accounting job, so he took jobs in retail, grilling shish kebab on the streets and stocking inventory in a deli.

"You have to start from scratch and you suffer," Mohamad said of new immigrants. "You don't reach your potential because you just take any job available at the time. They're forced to find a job and just go with it. That's a big problem here in America." While he said he is making ends meet, he still complains he's not working as an accountant.

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