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The Jobs That Await Afghans In The U.S. Are Often Far Below Their Skill Level


For the tens of thousands of Afghans who've arrived in the U.S. this summer, there are immediate needs - housing, food, schooling for kids. And a central challenge looms - how are they going to support themselves and their families? NPR's Andrea Hsu looked into what kinds of jobs may await.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Ahmad Zai Ahmadi was just a teenager when he ran into some U.S. Marines at the bazaar in his hometown of Kandahar, Afghanistan. It was 2003.

AHMAD ZAI AHMADI: I know a little English at the time, so I just started saying, hi, and how are you? And is this - OK, you speak English. Do you want to be translating for us? I said, of course, yes.

HSU: He worked as an interpreter for U.S. forces for almost a decade alongside some pretty high-ranking U.S. officers. In 2009, he applied for a special immigrant visa to come to the U.S. That's a program for Afghans who serve the U.S. government and face threats as a result. He waited and waited. Eventually, he got a new job managing a fuel delivery company. Later, he started his own travel agency. Then, in early 2020, as coronavirus was spreading across the globe, his visa finally came through.

AHMADI: It took me 11 years with this whole process.

HSU: Ahmadi arrived in the U.S. with his wife and three kids and got some initial help from a refugee resettlement agency. But when it came to finding a job, he found he was largely on his own. And think about the timing. The country was going into lockdown. Tens of millions of people were being laid off. Ahmadi reached out to the Afghan community in northern Virginia.

AHMADI: So they told me the best way to start is to get a license, get a car and start your food delivery.

HSU: DoorDash, Grubhub. He bought a car with the help of a retired colonel he'd worked with in the war. He began delivering food from 8 in the morning to 8 at night, seven days a week. Later, he added driving for Uber and Lyft. It was decent money, but the costs of that kind of work are high. He had to pay for gas and he never saw his kids, so he tried working at McDonald's.

AHMADI: I was doing cashier in customer service. So I was just, welcome to McDonald's. How can I help you on the stuff?

HSU: It paid $10 an hour, not enough to cover rent. He tried Wal-Mart, where the pay was 12 an hour, but there the hours were erratic and the pay still wasn't enough. Ahmadi has a high school education and various certifications, including in technology.

AHMADI: So I was trying to find a job in some of the IT fields, but I couldn't get a chance because here my certificate just doesn't work here.

HSU: Jina Krause-Vilmar says this is a big problem for Afghan refugees.

JINA KRAUSE-VILMAR: They get kind of lost in limbo.

HSU: Krause-Vilmar is CEO of Upwardly Global. It's a nonprofit that helps refugees with professional skills find jobs. Often what they need most is help presenting their experience in ways that make them more marketable to U.S. employers. She says many of the Afghans who make it here are college graduates. They're lawyers, engineers, accountants. And yet, according to one survey, about half end up driving for Uber, Lyft or Amazon.

KRAUSE-VILMAR: It's a missed opportunity for our country. That's talent we're leaving at the table. We have 2.4 million mid-scale job openings in our major markets right now. These are individuals that are coming with the skills that we need.

HSU: And often those skills were gained while working for U.S. companies. Noah Coburn is author of the book "Under Contract: The Invisible Workers of America's Global War." He's interviewed more than 100 Afghans who worked for U.S. contractors. He would like to see those companies step up and do more.

NOAH COBURN: The contracting companies that made so much off the war in Afghanistan and made so much off of paying these Afghans fairly low wages really have a real moral obligation here.

HSU: The U.S. exit from Afghanistan last month opened an opportunity for Ahmad Zai Ahmadi, a brief one. He heard that interpreters were needed near Washington Dulles Airport to help process all the Afghans arriving. He speaks both Pashto and Dari and was offered a job on the spot. He says many coming in now don't speak English.

AHMADI: I'm so worried about these people because as I said before, life is very challenging in the United States. So I'm not sure what's going to happen to these guys.

HSU: He himself would like to go back to school to get an American degree. But right now, he says, he has no choice but to work to support his family. So when the interpreting job ends, it's back to driving for Uber.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF EELS SONG, "SWEET LI'L THING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.