By Kirsten Boele
Nestled in her cozy couch and dressed in comfy boxer shorts and a t-shirt, 27-year-old Lindsay Loebig stares at the dancing bodies from MTV’s music videos. She scoops up cereal swimming in a bowl of milk. Her cats Fiona and Alma are bird watching from the kitchen counter. The fan brings some movement into Loebig’s peaceful morning routine.
But by around 8:30 a.m. the serenity is over.
Loebig steps into her office at Lutheran Refugee Resettlement Services, which is tucked away in a conglomeration of gray concrete. Matter-of-factly she says she received a call from a newly arrived refugee who was laid off. “You have to have no expectations, just roll with the punches,” Loebig explains about job-hunting.
As an employment specialist she helps hundreds of newly arrived refugees find work each year. And this is nearly impossible in Arizona’s current economy.
The past year Arizona’s unemployment rate hovered around 10 percent, which is one of the highest unemployment rates in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“For refugees who are coming in with no English, no familiarity with U.S. culture and little work experience, it is just taking them too long to get jobs in this very tight job market,” says Ken Briggs, Director of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), another voluntary resettlement agency in Tucson.
Loebig vividly remembers one of her first cases. An Iraqi gentleman in his 50s who arrived in Tucson all by himself. He was an air-conditioning technician, but he did not speak any English and had no certification to pursue his profession in the United States. After six months he still did not have a job.
“If I don’t find a job, I am going to kill myself,” said the suicide note he left at Loebig’s desk. “I applied everywhere and was getting desperate to find a job for him,” she explains passionately.
Arizona used to be one of the most promising resettlement destinations. Most of the 3,000 refugees arriving annually achieved self-sufficiency within four months and started their journey to become thriving Americans, according to Briggs.
But times have changed.
In today’s economic climate refugees in Arizona often go six to eight months without even finding part-time employment, according to Nicolle Trudeau, Director of Lutheran Social Services.
“With the economy you really have no guarantee for anything, you just have to hope for the best,” Loebig agrees, shrugging her shoulders.
And this new reality has consequences. Refugee resettlement agencies in Tucson as well as in Phoenix decided to resettle fewer refugees. The IRC lowered their numbers for the last fiscal year from 475 to 375 refugees. The numbers for the new fiscal year of 2011 starting October 1 have been reduced once again. “Definitely in Arizona we felt that it was important to hold back a little bit until the economy improves,” Briggs said.
Until then, Loebig releases her stress on the soccer field after work.
At 5:30 p.m. the warm sun sets over Tucson, painting the sky in picturesque shades of orange. Loebig sprints back and forth between the two goals of the improvised soccer field at the University of Arizona mall. Her whole life she has been playing soccer and now it has become an important medicine against the stress. “It used to be a problem, all night long I would be thinking about my clients.”
While waiting for the day that the job market will pick up again, Loebig creatively tries to add to the list of living-happily-ever-after stories such as the case of the Iraqi air-conditioning technician who was ready to commit suicide.
After months of bad luck in the job market Loebig decided to e-mail the Near Eastern Studies Department at the University of Arizona to find work for this client. “And in some crazy way one of my former professors e-mailed back and said that her husband owned a Middle Eastern restaurant,” she says excitedly. Loebig got him a job and today he still works at the restaurant.
With a smile and eyes sparkling Loebig explains how rewarding a seemingly small achievement such as finding a job for a refugee after months of practicing and digging for job openings.
The Iraqi air-conditioning technician occasionally pops in the office. “It is really refreshing when people do come in or when you bump into people and you see they are doing well. It reminds you that you did that. That really brings you back to the focus of what the job is,” Loebig says.