Connections, Culture in Job Searching for Refugees

Engineering tools

Job searching is more than what you know, it’s who you know.

And many refugees in the Puget Sound Region don’t know anyone.

Masar Altaie was one of those refugees when she arrived from Iraq in 2010, with the help of Jewish Family Service. She came with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. Once she was in Washington, she earned a technical certificate to add to her resume.

In the last decade, JFS has seen a growing number of refugees who are highly skilled professionals — like 37-year-old Altaie — arriving in the Puget Sound Region. Some of these refugees have even worked with the U.S. government or American military contractors in their home countries. Yet finding employment in their fields can be a struggle because they lack professional connections on top of juggling new cultural norms.

Even with her education and skills, Altaie wasn’t able to find a job in engineering. With every application she submitted online, she received an email back that thanked her for her time before letting her know the company chose a candidate it believed to be more qualified.

And at one point, Altaie even offered to volunteer as a civil engineer.

“It was still not enough,” she said. “I didn’t have connections.”


At the end of 2014, JFS launched Tatweer, a mentorship program that pairs refugees with professionals in their fields. The program is designed to help refugees move from survival jobs — that often have no room for advancement — into meaningful careers using skills they already have. Its main goal is professional advancement with the help of connections.

There is “a remarkably powerful correlation between the size of an immigrant’s self-reported social network and his or her likelihood of achieving success,” according to a recent study by IMPRINT about refugees and immigrants.

During Tatweer’s pilot year, Altaie was paired with Britt Teegarden, Chief I&C Engineer at SNC-Lavalin, a global engineering and construction company with headquarters in Canada. As a 1981 Washington State University graduate in chemical engineering and 25 year veteran with his employer, Teegarden knew how important it was for Altaie to get her first U.S. engineering job. A job in the U.S. gives an employee experience in a company that other employers will know, and a job title with better recognition in the states.

After meeting her, Teegarden responded to Altaie’s work ethic and professional skills. “The determination and drive that girl has,” he said. “I wanted to do whatever I could to help her find a job.”

What the two soon discovered was finding employment for a refugee had as much to do with cultural barriers as connections.


Even in a global workforce there are people who look at a name like Masar Altaie and think of stereotypes.

“It hurts her chances,” Teegarden said. And he believes Altaie is not alone in this. Other refugees may face the same struggle. “There’s an extra barrier they have to get past because of their heritage,” he said. “It’s kind of obscene, and I don’t care for it.”

With this in mind, Teegarden turned to people in his industry who would understand, including his boss who was born and raised in Iran before coming to the U.S. to study in the 70s. Teegarden set up mock interviews for Altaie with his boss and other staff members, helping her build interview skills with the benefit of immediate feedback.

“There are cultural differences, but we all speak engineering,” Teegarden said. “And because we do that, we break down lots of barriers.”

After a drafting position opened up in the electrical department of Teegarden’s company, he helped Altaie tailor her resume to the position. She was offered an interview and then the job, landing an important career stepping stone with the help of her mentor.

“It’s hard. I know it’s hard,” Altaie said. ”I am proud of what I have reached so far.”

To volunteer as a mentor or learn more about Tatweer, visit our website.

Photo by Studentlanceusa.

Rachel Anne SeymourBy Rachel Anne Seymour

Rachel is a trail-running dog owner and the Marketing and Communication Coordinator for JFS. She has previously worked as a multimedia journalist for newspapers throughout the Midwest and Western Washington.

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