By Zehn Wang
‘They can bring so much’
WISCONSIN – Ali Akbar Gholami arrived in the United States last September with little more than his work ID. He had no time to gather much else as the Taliban took over the Afghanistan capital of Kabul and escalated a humanitarian crisis, prompting the U.S. to airlift him and 76,000 Afghan nationals to safety.
With him, Gholami – who speaks fluent English, studied civil aviation for two years and previously worked at Kabul International Airport – brought skills and a work ethic American employers desire amid a tight labor market, especially here in Wisconsin where the unemployment rate has dipped below 3%, pushing employers to boost salaries and benefits to attract and retain talent.
After security vetting in Qatar and the staging process in New Mexico, Gholami, 23, arrived in Green Bay in October 2021.
He said his top priority upon arriving in Green Bay was the same as other working-age evacuees: find a job before the three months of federal resettlement aid ran out.
“We just start from zero,” Gholami said. “That’s why we need more money to pay the rent and send some money back to Afghanistan to our parents.”
He first started at the JBS Foods plant on Green Bay east side before Catholic Charities, a nonprofit resettlement agency, connected him with BelGioioso Cheese.
Gholami said he now earns $24 per hour working second shift packing mozzarella blocks into boxes at the company’s Appleton plant.
But Gholami faced a challenge.
Without a car or driver’s license, how would he commute between his apartment in Green Bay and the cheese plant – a roughly 19-mile route inaccessible by bus?
Gholami is among at least 838 Afghan evacuees, including children and elderly people, now living in Wisconsin – enriching communities helping ease the labor crunch as Wisconsin’s birth rate plunges and its population ages.
The same could be said of future refugees from other countries, including Ukranians fleeing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war.
Bojana Zorić Martinez, director of the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families’ Bureau of Refugee Programs, said many employers have expressed interest in hiring Afghan evacuees.
“We’re very pleased, at least from what I’m hearing, with how employment is going,” she said. “There are a lot of employment opportunities all across the state.”
Some workforce barriers, however, such as English language difficulties, access to affordable child care and lack of transportation, can all affect non-immigrant workers.
Federally-contracted resettlement nonprofits have helped Afghans find housing and jobs, but they aren’t equipped to address all employment barriers.
“Having a new population of Afghan immigrants is just another opportunity to help bolster our workforce,” Missy Hughes, secretary and CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp, said.
She said employers must also try to understand their workers’ traumatic experiences and help them succeed.
“Businesses have to be a part of this resettlement,” Hughes said. “They can’t just be a recipient of this human being.”
In Gholami’s case, his new employer loaned him money to buy a car.
As far as other barriers, volunteers are stepping up to fill the gaps.
Mike Ruminski, a Green Bay-area man, has helped Gholami and seven other Afghan evacuees obtain their driver’s licenses, enroll in English classes and connect with job specialists.
Ruminski also bought two computers to help Gholami, and his three Afghan duplex mates, access the internet to set up their new lives and connect to families back home.
“He said ‘Whatever you need to do, I can help you,’” Gholami said.
Ruminski said he teasingly calls them “The Beatles” – which is a nod to their youthfulness and friendship forged under the same roof in Green Bay.
“The one thing that keeps me here in Green Bay, Wisconsin, is the people,” Muddassir Saboory, Gholami’s duplex mate and former airport coworker, said. “Because I meet lots of nice, nice people here.”
Transportation is a ‘critical need’
On a sunny Tuesday morning last February, Gholami said he exited the Green Bay DMV service center with pride and excitement.
With help from Ruminski, who lent him his 2009 blue Toyota Prius for the test after helping him train for two weeks, Gholami had passed his drivers exam.
“Excellent job,” Gholami recalled Ruminski saying. “You got the best score.”
The two met months ago at a local YMCA.
Ruminski is a longtime Bay Area Workforce Development Board director and a self-employed health insurance advisor who previously trained commercial truck drivers.
He offered Gholami and seven other Afghans roughly 12-16 hours of training each and access to his car, so they could get their licenses.
Gholami said he practiced behind the wheel on weekends and between shifts at the cheese plant.
He said Ruminski guided him on traffic laws that don’t exist in Afghanistan, such as how to navigate roundabouts.
“(Transportation) is a critical need for people trying to become self-sufficient,” Ruminski said.
In Green Bay, some companies send vans, arrange carpools or find other options to transport Afghan employees between home and work, workforce officials say.
Among them: JBS Foods, which has hired 26 resettled Afghans at its Green Bay beef plant – including Saboory, 25, who works long hours as an interpreter and takes English classes twice a week in his free time.
Still, employer-led options don’t help car-less Afghans get to the grocery store and run other essential errands, Matt Valiquette, executive director of the Bay Area Workforce Development Board, said.
“Once you expand beyond Green Bay, public transportation becomes far more limited,” he said. “And in some cases, it doesn’t even exist.”
Gholami said BelGioioso helped him carpool until he could obtain a driver’s license and buy a 2006 Honda Accord, which he paid $7,000 for – using a $2,000 loan from Ruminski and another $2,000 loan from BelGioioso.
“I didn’t expect that they would help me,” Gholami said.
More jobs than people
Green Bay’s 126 resettled Afghans are accelerating northeast Wisconsin’s racial and ethnic diversification, which has seen the bulk of its population growth in the past decade among people of color.
Ruminski said he has spent years volunteering with groups that have helped refugees and other immigrants settle around Green Bay – humbled by the Afghan evacuees’ courage and initiative.
“None of these guys have ever complained about their situation…,” he said. “They all got on a plane back in Afghanistan – they didn’t know where that plane was going to go. And they didn’t know what country they were going to end up in.”
Ruminski and Hughes said Wisconsin needs refugees and immigrants to help fill thousands of open positions statewide.
“We have many more job opportunities than we have people,” Hughes said.
According to a 2021 report by Forward Analytics, the research arm for the Wisconsin Counties Association, “Without natural growth, the only way to grow or even maintain the state’s population and workforce is through migration.”
Forward Analytics reported that Wisconsin employers have relied on migrant and immigrant labor throughout history, but the state’s net migration rate has slowed in recent years, dropping to less than 1% during 2010-20.
Despite potential trauma, refugee employment rates closely track with those of other immigrants in the U.S., according to a 2020 Journal of Economic Perspectives study.
Local communities just need to offer “a little guidance” to make sure they thrive and stay, Ruminski said.
Hoping to stay
Whether the Afghans can live their American dreams depends upon securing permanent residency.
While each has permission to live and work in the United States, their temporary status leaves them vulnerable.
Nearly 37,000 evacuees could qualify for a Special Immigrant Visa, while some of the remaining 36,400 might qualify for asylum, according to a Department of Homeland Security report.
That requires navigating an immigration system that faced backlogs even before the Afghan evacuation.
Putin’s war in Ukraine could add more pressure as thousands of fleeing Ukrainians have arrived to the U.S. border with Mexico.
President Joe Biden – who has pledged to accept up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees – has granted them 18-month protected status and aims to expedite asylum reviews by producing decisions within 150 days of application submissions.
However, Erin Barbato, director of the Immigrant Justice Clinic at the University of Wisconsin Law School, said shortage of immigration lawyers leaves many Afghans on their own to slog through the complicated asylum process.
Barbato estimated 400-500 Afghans in Wisconsin are seeking asylum, but said few nonprofit law firms are equipped to help, and private attorneys can be expensive.
All four of the Green Bay “Beatles” are applying for asylum – which means proving the deadly risk of returning to Afghanistan and filing an application within one year of arrival here.
Saboory said the Taliban viewed his work as an airport safety officer as suspicious and has targeted family members who still live in Afghanistan.
“The Taliban sees me as an enemy, and they say they see me as an American slave,” he said.
After he left, Saboory said Taliban officials searched his parents’ apartment and punched his father in the face when he refused to disclose his son’s whereabouts.
His asylum application includes a photo of his father’s bruised eyes.
“I feel very bad to use my father’s picture for my case,” he said. “I know my life is in danger and my family is in danger because of me.”
Ruminski said he hopes to find pro bono attorneys to accept asylum cases from Afghans in the community, which can otherwise cost $4,000 per person.
In February, Ruminski said he accompanied “The Beatles” to a Job Center of Wisconsin event, where specialists helped them set education and career goals.
Saboory said he would like to become a dentist, while Gholami said he aims to return to aviation.
Ruminski said at least three other evacuees are eyeing commercial trucking – an industry that faces a nationwide shortage.
“They can bring so much,” Ruminski said of those ambitions. “We just have to embrace that, foster that and care for that. It’s an investment in the future. And quite frankly, it’s the humanitarian thing to do – to bring diversity into our citizens’ lives.”
This piece was produced for the NEW News Lab, a local news collaboration in northeastern Wisconsin consisting of The Press Times, Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Watch, FoxValley365, the Green Bay Press-Gazette and The Post-Crescent.