15 Feb 2017

Vulnerable or Valuable?
Business sees refugees as an asset

In 2015, while living in a refugee camp in Tanzania, Ancila Munganyinka received a letter that she and her family had been approved to resettle to the United States. Her weary heart held a mix of hope and fear. This would be yet another move to yet another new country in the desperate search for security and the opportunity to build a safe life. Ancila remembers her fears, explaining, “I had heard in the United States you have to work very hard. How will I survive?”

How will I survive?

As refugees flee violence, war and oppression every day, this question of survival is a question of life and death. But as refugees resettle into new homes, in new countries, the question shifts. Survival becomes less about if a refugee will survive and more about how to survive. Ancila worried about finding work. She thought, “I am old. I am sick. I am deaf. I am not strong. I don’t speak English.”

Displaced people are vulnerable. And it’s easy to believe the story that vulnerable equals helpless, instead of seeing that these are educated, skilled, successful, employable men and women who have simply faced unimaginable hardship and trauma. Refugees are eager for a chance to work, earn and contribute.

One locally owned business is doing its part to write a different narrative. Jakob Rukel founded AJR Filtration in St. Charles, Illinois in 1996. Jacob, a Croatian immigrant himself, knows exactly what it’s like to build a new life in a new place with very little. He worked backbreaking construction jobs in Croatia before he and his wife immigrated to the United States. Once here, they each took on three jobs just to make ends meet. After years of hard work, business training and careful experience, Jakob started his own company with the goal of passing along a successful enterprise for his sons to run.

Jakob’s sons, John (pictured at left visiting the sewing school) and Angelo, now serve as the COO and CAO, respectively, while Jakob still acts as CEO. As savvy businessmen, the Rukels needed help finding reliable, skilled labor who could grow along with the growing demands of their company. From their personal experience, they knew that some of the hardest working and most trainable people in the workforce were immigrants. So they combined their need for help with their desire to be helpful, deciding specifically to seek out immigrants and refugees looking for work. John explains, “My family was able to realize the American Dream, and so part of our mission here at AJR is to help other immigrant families do the same.” In 2011, this passion and commitment was the impetus to begin their longstanding partnership with World Relief DuPage/Aurora (WRDA).

To help meet the booming demand for its products and services, AJR needed to find people who could sew on their industrial machines. Through WRDA’s Employment Services, the company connected with refugees who were looking for work.  Initially, there was a sewing test that applicants could take with an AJR supervisor. If employees passed the test, a job was offered. Those who did not pass, but had come close to passing, were offered in-house training to get up to speed.

AJR was so pleased with the refugee employees and their work ethic that they wanted to train more. So they provided a Burmese refugee an industrial machine so that she could teach and tutor others in the morning before she went to work at AJR in the afternoons. But even that wasn’t enough to meet the demand of the growing work.

So AJR set up a meeting with WRDA’s Employment Services team to brainstorm how to train more refugees. They agreed that an in-house sewing school would be the right next step. And because much of the work needed was manual, a high level of English was not required for potential employees to begin. This meant that refugees had the unique ability to start work and earn money even as they began learning English.

John proudly says, “World Relief is our most important partner. We would not be able to find the labor we need without the refugees who come to us through World Relief.”

And now, one of AJR’s recent and most promising recent sewing graduates: Ancila Munganyinka. Ancila arrived in the United States in 2015 after living as a refugee since 1972 in multiple countries, settlements, and camps. Her new life felt secure, but lonely. She wanted to be part of her community, make friends and work, but she wasn’t sure what she had to offer. Then the World Relief Employment Services team discovered Ancila had experience sewing. They sent her to AJR for training and assessment. She quickly tested out of sewing school and was offered a job. Ancila has been working hard at AJR for several months now, and loves having meaningful work to put her hands to. “I feel better every day. I was frustrated. I was depending on someone every day. Now I feel very sufficient, and it’s much better.”

This mutually beneficial partnership between World Relief and AJR Filtration continues to thrive. Since 2011, AJR has hired 306 refugees through WRDA, including around 25% of the second shift employees. AJR’s HR Manager, Diana Gonzalez Butler, says of these employees, “They are some of the hardest workers and stay with the company the longest! We love them.”

World Relief knows firsthand that refugees coming to the United States dream of finding a productive, dignified way to support themselves and their families. And extraordinary partners like AJR Filtration use their resources and influence to create space for reliable, talented, trainable refugees and immigrants to achieve that dream.

Story Source: World Relief DuPage/Aurora – August 2016