By Katie Scarvey, Lutheran Services Carolinas

Columbia-area refugees share their employment journeys

Manhal Mohamed says that the day in June 2009 when Lutheran Services met him at the airport was the best day of his life.

In October, Manhal spoke at the Terra Restaurant in Columbia to a gathering of LSC employees and community partners who have been supportive of LSC’s refugee clients by giving them job opportunities. Employers represented were Still Hopes Episcopal Retirement Home, ProLogistix, Aramark, Palmetto Health, and Embassy Suites.

A refugee from Iraq, Manhal says he realized that starting over wouldn’t be easy, but with hard work he’s forged a career for himself in the Columbia hospitality industry.

He began his hotel career as a houseman at a Hilton, doing things that no one really enjoys, like cleaning bathrooms. Some days, he says, he’d go home and cry. But he never doubted that he could make something of himself. Within a year and a half he was promoted to supervisor, and later, he earned his current job as a manager at Embassy Suites — the director of housekeeping.

His friend Tahseen Abayechi has a similar story. Tahseen had worked with U.S. troops and American companies in Iraq, which put his life in danger. He, too, came to the U.S. as a refugee around the same time Manhal did, finding employment as a bellman at a Hilton hotel. He was shy, but as his confidence grew his personality emerged; he stood out for his friendly service to his guests. Now, he’s the night auditor at another hotel.

Tahseen and Manhal are not alone in their success. Dylan Gunnels, a job recruiter for LSC’s refugee services program, explained that 96 percent of LSC’s refugee clients in the Columbia area become self-sufficient within the first 180 days of arriving in this country, which means they are getting and maintaining jobs and able to cover their expenses.

In the long term, Gunnels said, studies have shown that refugees will eventually contribute more in taxes than they received in relocation benefits and other public assistance.

Manhal already has a good hotel job but says he hasn’t achieved all of his goals — he aspires to be a general manager one day.

“I will never stop dreaming about my future,” he says.

Manhal hasn’t forgotten Lutheran Services, and he gives back by donating items of furniture or bedding that the hotel no longer needs. “I will always try to help and return the favor,” he said.

Manhal has hired LSC clients and “is super patient with language and cultural issues,” said Lindsey Leduc, LSC’s South Carolina area manager for Refugee Services. “He is easy to work with and understands our programs and limitations since he went through the program himself.”

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