A Jewish Family Service program helps refugees find employment by offering classes on how to navigate the American job market and matching refugees with mentors from their professional field.

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Meqdam “Mike” Almaroof spent his first months in America chasing down teenage shoplifters at a grocery store in Tukwila.

Security guard positions are go-to jobs for new refugees like Almaroof, who arrived in the Northwest from Iraq last year. And while he was happy to have the work, this experienced engineer was eager to find a way back into the field he loved.

So when a friendly customer — a retired engineer himself — gave Almaroof some job leads, he jumped to apply.

But his efforts quickly stalled.

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“No one even bothered to call me,” says Almaroof, remembering how he attached a headshot to his résumé and neglected to include a cover letter, “My résumé was according to the Iraqi way — the Middle Eastern way.”

Almaroof is one of almost 500 Iraqi refugees who settled in Washington last fiscal year — a number that stands to increase this year. This group, often professionals who have worked with the U.S. military, has a unique set of skills and professional aspirations.

“In the past we were receiving a lot more refugees who had been living in [refugee] camps for a much longer time,” says Rebecca Craig of Jewish Family Service, a local refugee resettlement organization, “So they didn’t necessarily have much of a work history or any specific professional skills.”

But Craig says new Iraqi refugees to our region often have highly relevant engineering and construction skills and are comfortable in an American work environment. The same is true for recent Afghan refugees. In fact many of them, like Almaroof, had to flee their home countries because of their work with Americans.

“We were building the bases for the Iraqi military. New buildings, refurbishment,” says Almaroof, who worked with the U.S. military from 2003 until 2010. But when U.S. troops dwindled he says he and his family began to feel threatened.

“I did not feel safe,” Almaroof says. “People, not a majority but a minor minority, started to say, ‘He’s a traitor, he was working with the American military.’ ”

But despite the sacrifice he made to work with Americans in his home country, he says cultural barriers kept him out of white-collar jobs when he arrived here.

“When I got here to America. I didn’t know what was going on with work,” Almaroof says. “Back in Iraq I understood the Iraqi standards but here it’s a different thing.”

In response, Jewish Family Service founded Tatweer (which means “progress” or “development” in Arabic). The program offers classes on how to navigate the American job market and matches refugees with mentors from their professional field.

Tatweer workshops cover everything from résumé norms (no headshots attached in the U.S. unless you’re looking for an acting gig) to hiring culture (the interview process here can take weeks instead of days). Mentors ensure that all Tatweer participants have help navigating new credentials, additional schooling and the right networks of people.

In a booming city with strengthening ties to the rest of the world, Tatweer believes companies would do well to hire qualified, multilingual refugees with diverse experiences.

“International experience is always an advantage,” Craig says. “Having people on your team who think about problem-solving differently allows you to look at problems from multiple angles.”

Some businesses are beginning to agree. Of the first cohort of 10 (who are all Iraqi and Afghans, though the program is open to all refugees), two have found jobs in their fields (engineering and dentistry). Two others are currently in a second round of interviews.

And Almaroof, a man who says he loves “big machines, big goals and tight schedules,” is hoping to be included on that roster of success.

He has a second interview for an engineering position with the city of Kent next week.

Tatweer is open to refugees of any background and is looking for mentors from all professions. Find out more at their website at: jfsseattle.org/tatweer.