- Associated Press - Saturday, August 30, 2014

ERIE, Pa. (AP) — The gambling industry in Western Pennsylvania is betting on refugee immigrants. And casinos say it’s paying off.

At the casino at Presque Isle Downs horse-racing track, 40 percent of the men and women in the pits flipping cards and counting chips got their initial training in a room barely larger than a closet in the rear of a former Methodist church owned by Multicultural Community Resource Center, an Erie nonprofit that helps resettled refugees find jobs, housing and schools.

Paul Jericho, the center’s senior program officer for refugee services, was a part-time dealer, and the blackjack classroom was his brainchild. He had placed Bosnians as valets and Bhutanese in housekeeping and casino restaurants but thought a lot of talent was going to waste, especially with immigrants who are math whizzes.

“I just thought that the casinos offered a great opportunity for the refugees,” Jericho told the Tribune-Review. “Once they learn the system, they’re given a chance to perform equally with all the other dealers. It’s a meritocracy, and it gives them the chance to live the American dream.”

Nearly 200 of the 1,800 workers at Rivers Casino on Pittsburgh’s North Shore, from the finance department to blackjack dealers, arrived as documented immigrants in the State Department’s refugee resettlement program. That’s twice the rate of foreign-born employment for the rest of Allegheny County, and it’s growing as charities - including the Catholic Diocese, Jewish Family and Children’s Services and the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council - help the state-regulated gambling parlor place qualified, law-abiding immigrants in service jobs that pay $22 to $28 an hour, depending on tips.

“The best word to describe them is ‘outstanding.’ Name the department, and in nearly all of them, you have immigrants,” said Rivers Vice President André Barnabei. “Food services, table games, valets, marketing. And many are becoming supervisors.”

Yet Barnabei emphasized: “It’s the same for all workers here, those born in America or those who came from outside the country. The industry always has rewarded hard workers who make a positive contribution, and it doesn’t matter where you come from.”

The Presque Isle casino had its own dealer courses, but because of language and cultural barriers, Jericho thought refugees needed a head start. He started by screening for those with the best grasp of English and arithmetic.

Today, the immigrants pick their own candidates for the center’s classes, and the nonprofit hires instructors to school them in the intricacies of card games.

So far, 89 have learned the finer points of doubling down, tilting and payouts and cutting inside the church’s classroom. Most are Bhutanese refugees, mainly Hindus, but some are from Burma, Iraq, Armenia and Eritrea.

Some rose through the ranks to become Jericho’s bosses when he pulls shifts at the casino. Others migrated to casinos statewide - including Rivers in Pittsburgh, where they generally make more money.

Jericho said Erie’s casino reaped a big payout, too. Officials found that immigrants typically are hard workers who almost never call off work or arrive late. They take their jobs seriously and make sure that others from overseas do.

“If you’re a no-show, you’re fired,” Jericho said. “But when you have the work ethic that these men and women have, you don’t have to worry about that.”

Two of Jericho’s early Bhutanese stars in the casino class were Pashtu Pati - everyone calls him “Pash” - and Bali Siwakoti. Asian nations often blocked refugees from getting jobs or starting businesses, Siwakoti said, so “we had to hide our identity just to find work.”

In the United States, “we can show everyone that we want to work, and work hard to get ahead,” said Siwakoti, 28, who obtained an insurance broker’s license and began a side business.

Story Continues →