San Diego County has a vibrant refugee community. Over the last 6 years, more than 19,000 newly arriving refugees have resettled in the region. To help breakdown language and cultural barriers that pose challenges for refugees seeking to obtain employment and achieve self-sufficiency, the County developed the Refugee Employment Services (RES) program. Its most passionate supporter is its own Refugee Coordinator, Abdi Abdillahi.
Abdillahi has been working with refugees for more than 30 years and joined the County 10 years ago when an Eligibility Worker was needed who could speak Somali for the North East Family Resource Center.
“I always knew I wanted to help this population,” said Abdillahi. “Thirty years ago, I was a refugee myself, in the exact same position they are. When I took the position with the County, I knew I could help refugee clients feel more comfortable because I could understand exactly what they were going through.”
Passionate about helping refugees, Abdillahi, who has a Master’s of Business Administration, worked his way to become the Refugee Coordinator for the County of San Diego. The RES program is a small group – only 3 people – but with big hearts and goals: to help refugee families achieve self-sufficiency through employment within the first 12 months after their arrival to the United States. The County’s RES program provides employment related services for refugees, asylees, Cubans and Haitians, certain Amerasians, and families of human trafficking victims who are receiving CalWORKs.
“Since I joined the Refugee Employment Services program in 2013, the employment rate of our refugee clients is up from the low 20 percent to the mid 40 percent range, and employment retention is up over 90 percent,” said Abdillahi. “Even with these improvements, the refugee population still has a lot of needs.”
In addition, the RES program has recently launched a new program called Vocational English-as-a-Second Language (VESL). In addition to helping clients learn the English language, the VESL program provides employment planning and skill development, intensive case management, help with career navigation and advancement, and access to employer partnerships and on-the-Job training opportunities.
“Some of our refugee clients have professional degrees or have had some education and they are only missing the language and work experience here in the U.S. to become self-sufficient,” said Abdillahi. “Many have never been to school at all. For the past 10 years or so, I have built a good relationship with the refugee community here in San Diego and it is based on trust and respect, which really makes my job easier.”
The region also has a multitude of service agencies which individually and jointly, through strong collaboration, provide additional refugee services. Abdillahi attends monthly meetings with different refugee community groups and quarterly joint meetings with the four main Resettlement Agencies, the International Rescue Committee, Jewish Family Services, Catholic Charities, and the Alliance-For-African Assistance. In these meetings, attendees exchange ideas and discuss issues, concerns and program updates related to refugees. The attendees also discuss best practices and ways to build a better service delivery system for refugees throughout the county.
In addition, Abdillahi also manages Project SHINE, an intergenerational program for refugees administered by the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District (GCCCD). Project SHINE promotes self-sufficiency and helps participants not only increase their understanding of the health care system in the U.S, but also build their confidence in speaking English and feel a sense of social connectedness.
One success story that inspired Abdillahi was a client he had while he was a social worker for the Welfare to Work program. A few years into the program, the client established his own business and over time has successfully grown his business to include several stores and restaurants that now hire refugees to help them get the on-the-job training they need to build their resumes.
“To be successful like that you need passion, someone to care about you, someone who understands what you are going through,” said Abdillahi. “With my degree, I could have worked for corporate America, but this population needs someone who has been in their shoes – someone they can trust. I love it. I have always wanted to help this population.”