[Recognition Award Winner] What Career Counselors Need to Know About Refugees

By Shadin Atiyeh


The current rhetoric regarding refugees in the media has been a dehumanizing response to an ongoing violence in Syria which has contributed to the largest refugee crisis since World War II. The surrounding countries are faced with unprecedented challenges of caring for millions in immediate need. The process of refugee resettlement to the United States is very different from the images represented in the media by words such as surge or swarms of people crossing borders in the middle of the night, who may be dangerous and cannot be vetted.


In reality, refugees endure multiple background checks, interviews, and health screenings before acceptance and travel, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Generally, this process takes at least two years-- years in which life is put on hold, basic needs can only be met through handouts, and important decisions are made by organizations and outsiders. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), who interviews those fleeing violence and determines whether they have a rightful fear of persecution, about 1% are referred to a third country for resettlement. These are often considered the most vulnerable and as having no other durable solution. The refugees themselves do not choose to be resettled or to which country. The country then follows its own security and health screenings and if the refugee family passes, the family is referred to an agency for resettlement. The resettlement agencies determine which local affiliate to refer the family for reception and placement services. The affiliates then welcome the newly arrived refugees, providing case management, education, counseling, and cultural orientation while working with the local community to facilitate integration.


Post Resettlement Futures

The growing crisis abroad should elicit our profession’s obligation towards diversity and social justice. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, himself a refugee, said “Refugees have been deprived of their home, but they must not be deprived of their futures.” Career counselors can assist refugees post resettlement towards a new future. Resettlement work in the first months is done by non-profit organizations in partnership with government and often with limited resources. Some arrivals have a family member or friend in the area while others do not know a single person in the country before arrival. Many call the non-profit agency that resettled them their family. After at least two years of waiting for approval from the U.S. government to be accepted as refugees, the day of arrival is expected to be a day of relief. Instead, it can be an overwhelming and challenging transition. Setting up a new home, getting medical screenings, enrolling in ESL (English as a Second Language) classes and employment programs, setting up a bank account, obtaining necessary identification, adjusting to cultural norms and financial systems, while not understanding the language, can potentially be retraumatizing.


The initial three months puts a deep strain on a family in which expectations are not met, family roles may be reversed, and anxiety can be isolating. It is a process that must engage the whole community in welcoming new arrivals and guiding them towards self-sufficiency. Career counseling professionals should be at that table. It is not only a humanitarian obligation but an opportunity for our country to benefit from the talents and skills of resilient new Americans. Our role as career counselors is to facilitate integration, professional success, and self-sufficiency for refugees so both they and our country can benefit. Refugees come from diverse national backgrounds, languages, religions, educational experiences, work histories, and abilities. Our skills as counselors are best suited to assess our clients' diverse backgrounds and match them to needs in our community, guiding them towards a career rather than just survival jobs.


Methods of Help

There are many ways that a career counselor can contribute to the success of refugees in their host country. To orient a person to think about their future during these stressful moments, demands a balancing of roles. This might be going through a budget, translating and explaining junk mail, doing a job application together, discussing social norms, or advocating for opportunities. Career counselors may

  • Reach out to the local resettlement agency and volunteer or offer consultation.

  • Support relief efforts and resettlement agencies.

  • Advocate for educational opportunities for refugees, many of whom had their education interrupted by war and traveling.

  • Address negative rhetoric about cultural groups and immigration which contributes to discrimination, fear, and isolation. Both the host country and immigrants benefit from a welcoming community in which all have an opportunity to contribute.

  • Look at the services offered and evaluate how accessible they are to immigrants and refugees. While the resettlement agencies strive to support newly arrived immigrants, they also need to be able to integrate them into the community and refer them to other resources. The availability of these resources to this population depends on the cultural competency of those providing them.


Our Helping Profession

What do career counselors need to know about refugees? They can and should help them. As a person flees his or her home, he or she will need to establish a new home elsewhere, including securing education and employment. Career counselors have the skills to address the trauma of this upheaval, orient the refugee to the cultural and economic climate, teach job readiness skills, engage the client in career planning and self-determination, and advocate for equitable opportunities for refugees and other immigrants.



Office of Refugee Resettlement: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/orr/resource/the-us-refugee-resettlement-program-an-overview

Upwardly Global: https://www.upwardlyglobal.org

Higher: http://www.higheradvantage.org/nawdp/

Cultural Orientation Resource Center: http://www.culturalorientation.net

Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society: http://www.hias.org

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services: https://www.uscis.gov/refugeescreening

Career Convergence welcomes articles with an international connection.

This article was recognized by NCDA in 2018 for the author's contribution to the web magazine.  Career Convergence is re-running the article in July 2020 in honor of all award winners typically recognized at the annual NCDA Global Career Development Conference.

Click here for the complete list of Career Convergence Recognition Award Winners.


Shadin Atiyeh, MA LPC NCC ACS, has experience in community agencies serving survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, immigrants, abused and neglected children, and homeless families. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from University of Michigan in both Psychology and Middle Eastern studies and a Master's degree in Community Counseling from Eastern Michigan University.

Contact: shadin@jfsannarbor.org


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