Selling Hot Dogs? Job Market Bad for Skilled Arab Immigrants

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.

Arab American Immigrants Seek Their Part of American Dream

Altaie experienced the same problem. Born and raised in Iraq, he worked for the United Nations Development Programme office there as a security manager where he improved his English and worked for several other American companies as an independent contractor. In 2006, he left Iraq when it became too dangerous and headed to Egypt, where he earned his MBA in marketing at the University of France in Cairo. Because of Egypt's high unemployment rate, he decided to move to America for better work opportunities and took his little brother with him. However, his expectations were not met.

"The first six months were horrible for me, I was thinking about going to back Iraq," he said. "It was very tough. The system, the culture, everything is very different. You need to know what's going on."

He enrolled in a program offered to Iraqi refugees by the U.S. government that provided them with additional income if they managed to secure a job. So, he resorted to the first job he could find—a retail position at Century 21, a department store in Manhattan, where his skills were not being put to use.

Like many other immigrants, Altaie did not know how to find a job in America because he was not familiar with the culture.

"Job seekers are not familiar with characteristics of the U.S. job search, like how to write a resume and answer questions during an interview," said Debbie Wibowo, a communications and outreach associate at Upwardly Global, a non-profit organization that tries to help immigrant professionals find suitable work in the United States. "Here you have to brag about yourself."

Because they lack work experience in the United States, immigrant professionals do not have extensive professional networks, which is how most jobs are found, said Wibowo. Arab American immigrant professionals, who make up about 8 percent of the organization's clientele, face the same challenges as all others.

Upwardly Global has helped over 300 immigrant professionals find jobs appropriate for their skills since it has opened its New York doors in 2006. She says feels her job involves more than just helping immigrant professionals find work, though. It's about helping them find their emotional strength as well.

"When they first come to UpGlo it is fair to say they are de-motivated, they are lost," she said. "Every time we finish a training session, the biggest improvement they feel is they have regained their self-confidence."

Language can also be a barrier. "You can be a Nobel Peace Prize winner but if you can't speak the language that will be something that will hold you back," said Alhusseini. Her organization in Brooklyn offers language programs to help teach children and adults English.

Through networking, Altaie was able to secure a marketing job at United HealthCare insurance this year. Although the hours are longer than he would like (about 60-70 hours a week), he said he is thankful to be using his business skills and to be making more money.

Altaie and Mohamad could be examples of a new mindset among immigrants.

"The old societies have changed their attitudes towards education and the new one emphasizes making money as the measure of success," wrote Dr. Mervat Hatem, a professor of political science at Howard University who has worked with the Arab American immigrant community, in an email.

"I don't have a problem with my job," said Altaie. And returning to Iraq? "I don't think so, maybe in the future, but not right now, I'm happy."