Abstract: "Not the Chicken Factory": The Underemployment Experiences of College-Educated Iraqi Refugees (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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747P "Not the Chicken Factory": The Underemployment Experiences of College-Educated Iraqi Refugees

Tuesday, January 19, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Lindsey Disney, PhD, LCSW, Assistant Professor, State University of New York at Albany, Albany, NY
Jane McPherson, PhD, MPH, LCSW, Assistant Professor, University of Georgia, GA
Ziad Jamal, MD, Director of Multicultural Program, Positive Growth, GA
Background and Purpose: Underemployment (i.e. a skilled worker in a low skill job) has a negative impact on life satisfaction, and college-educated refugees often experience underemployment in the countries where they are resettled. In 2016, 28% of Iraqi refugees resettled in the U.S. held at least a Bachelor’s degree. The context of post-2003 war in Iraq – where high social, educational, and/or occupational status made Iraqi professionals and their families vulnerable to abduction and violence– was the catalyzing reason why many Iraqi professionals became refugees. As they have made new lives in the United States, many of these highly-educated professionals found themselves unable to use their hard-earned professional degrees and skills in this country.

Using interviews and a phenomenological approach, this small-scale study explores college-educated Iraqi refugees’ experiences of employment in the U.S., and how employment experiences impact their resettlement and life satisfaction. To be included in the study, participants had to have been initially resettled in the United States after 2003; have been in the U.S. for at least two years at the time of the interview; and have worked in the U.S. for a period of at least three months. Interviews averaged 40 minutes, and they ranged from 31 to 50 minutes. Twelve interviews were conducted from June 2016 to December 2017. A thematic analysis was used to examine and interpret the interview transcript data. We also utilized member checking to increase study rigor and trustworthiness.

Our participants share a complex picture of both loss (“You build yourself for education, for your position, and in one second, you lose everything. That’s hard.”) and gratitude (“We are here. We are safe. We feel we are lucky.") Additionally, a common framework for making short-term and long term employment and education decisions post-resettlement emerged from their narratives, with three subthemes: (1) the process of deliberation, (2) the roles of informal and formal counsel, and (3) maintaining hope.

Conclusions and Implications: Our findings support the hypothesis that employment is one of the most influential areas of a refugee’s resettlement experience. Additionally, this study provides a narrative of resilience that can often be overlooked in the refugee literature, which is highly trauma-focused