- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 15, 2002

ATLANTA — He was a "big boss," a business executive who ran an international corporation and negotiated million-dollar deals. Today he's a warehouse worker, a diabetic 60-year-old man who loads boxes and fills out shipping forms.
Muharem Lasetovic grew up hearing that America is the land of opportunity. He didn't know how much that opportunity would cost once he came to Atlanta from Bosnia three years ago.
Mr. Lasetovic discovered that holding a master's degree in economics in Bosnia and being the president of a small appliance company there counted little with American employers. Like many newcomers with professional backgrounds, he had to abandon his career.
"I was a celebrated economist," he says after displaying his resume in his Norcross, Ga., apartment. "Maybe I'm too old now to make a new career. Maybe."
Every year, thousands of people like Mr. Lasetovic pour into Atlanta from abroad. The metro area's immigrant population jumped 53 percent from 1990 to 1998, the nation's second-highest increase, according to the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. Officially, because he fled political violence in Bosnia, Mr. Lasetovic is classified not as an immigrant, but as a refugee one of an estimated 45,000 refugees who have come to Atlanta in the past decade.
Many new arrivals encounter the same problems as Mr. Lasetovic. Though many bring impressive resumes and skills, everything from language barriers to age prevents them from finding professional jobs similar to those they held in their homelands. People who were among the elites of their native countries doctors, professors and business executives end up lifting boxes and pushing brooms.
"The person who may be picking up your dry cleaning may be a talented physician from another country," says Robin Harp, an employment specialist with the International Rescue Committee, an agency that helps settle refugees. "You don't know what a person's background may be."
Few, however, regret their decision to come here, despite the loss of status and income, Miss Harp said.
Iraqi political refugee Abbas Kafagy, for example, was a college professor in Iraq, with a doctorate in international development from Oklahoma State University. A specialist in agriculture, he now directs terminal traffic at Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport. "It has nothing to do with my qualifications," he says with a weary shake of the head.
But Mr. Kafagy endures a long bus commute and aching feet in the hopes of one day bringing his wife and four children here, which he considers safer than his homeland.
"This is for my kids," he says. "I'm going to teach them another way of life."
There are a variety of reasons immigrants with professional backgrounds fail to continue in their former jobs. Professional licensing in America is very strict, credentials are rigorously evaluated, and an immigrant's references can't be easily checked. Yet one of the biggest obstacles is lack of English skills.
To gain professional certification here, it's not enough to speak passable English. New arrivals must know it well enough to pass a competency exam in English, often filled with technical jargon.
To complicate matters, learning English is usually hard for immigrants working menial jobs, says Susan Crooks, a job-upgrade specialist at the IRC. "If you work as a housekeeper or in a warehouse and you don't speak to anyone, it can take a long time to learn English," she explains.
Dr. Moktar Bayor has been a surgeon since 1973. A native of the West African nation of Togo, he once trained other doctors as a member of the World Health Organization. From 1993 to 1997, he was the only doctor in a refugee camp in Ghana that housed thousands of people. He worked nonstop, rarely getting a full night's sleep.
Today, he works in a warehouse in Lithonia, Ga. Dr. Bayor cannot be certified as a doctor in America until he masters English well enough to pass the medical exams.
In the meantime, he stays as close to the medical field as he can. He sorts and packages medical equipment for MedShare International, a Lithonia volunteer group that ships donated supplies to needy clinics around the world.
Buff Grace, Dr. Bayor's supervisor, says he has applied his lifelong work ethic to his current job. He comes in so early and stays so late that MedShare has simply given him a key to the office.
But such effort often leaves immigrants without the energy to start a new career.
When Mr. Lasetovic returns home from his 10-to-12-hour workdays at APL Logistics, a storage facility for medical films, he doesn't have much energy for anything else. "I'm 60," he says. "I come home and I'm very tired."
Professional newcomers who do manage to land an interview for a job in their former field often face a level of competition they never faced at home. Many worked in socialist systems, where they were simply appointed to positions.
"Most of the people we work with, they come from countries where you don't have to do the song and dance and get your personality out there," says Miss Harp, the IRC job specialist.
Many immigrants also come from countries where computers aren't widely used. Most professional jobs in America require some computer skills.
Miss Harp says she once tried to find a job for an immigrant who was an architect. But she had no luck because the woman had never used computers. Miss Harp then tried to get her a housecleaning job, just so she could pay her bills in the interim. "They wouldn't hire her because she didn't have the English skills," Miss Harp says.
The entire job-search process can be bruising to the spirit.
Mr. Kafagy, a soft-spoken, diminutive man, spent years on agricultural research, taught agriculture and was a researcher at universities in Egypt, Libya and Iraq, his homeland. But since arriving here, he's applied for jobs at five universities across the nation, with no luck. "Sometimes, I am looking for any job in the university," he says.
In his spare time, Mr. Kafagy is trying to keep his professional skills sharp. He reads books on global trends and writes academic articles. He also tries to relax, listening to classical music, watching CNN and even, occasionally, cartoons. "Here in America, you have to struggle," he says. "That is OK. I am going to solve this. I know America has a lot of resources."

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