- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 4, 2005

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — No one was in suits, high heels or briefcases at the weekend job fair in Little Rock for hurricane refugees. Instead, the 150 job applicants arrived in T-shirts and shorts, filling out makeshift resumes upon arrival.

For many of them, applying for jobs was their first attempt at rebuilding their lives, which were turned upside down last week by Hurricane Katrina. Some had no idea how long they would be in Arkansas, while others considered staying permanently.

[As many as 40,000 refugees are thought to be in Arkansas, with more coming. Thousands are being airlifted by the 189th Airlift Wing of the Arkansas Air National Guard to Fort Chaffee, a decommissioned Army base near Fort Smith, in the northwest corner of the state. Many others are in Little Rock and other cities in central Arkansas.]

For many, it takes time to absorb the knowledge that “home” may no longer exist. Several applicants corrected themselves from saying “have” to “had” as they talked about the jobs and houses that structured their lives a week ago.

New Orleans resident Brenda Dugas, who worked in a Tulane Medical School office, hopes to get a job entering data in Little Rock. She worries that her limited knowledge of computer programs will narrow her choices.

Mrs. Dugas left New Orleans, the only home she has known for her 54 years, the day after the hurricane hit the Gulf Coast and, like many others fleeing the storm, drove until she found a motel room. She finally found one in North Little Rock.

With no family in the area, she doesn’t know how she will pay for a place to live. A friend offered her a room in her home, but three other refugees are staying there and Mrs. Dugas doesn’t want to impose on her.

Free T-shirts, a $50 gift card to Wal-Mart and free meals help, but she spent $4 just washing and drying her clothes at a coin laundry. She has no idea when she can return to her home, which is under water. She has heard estimates of three or four months.

She left her checkbook behind because she thought she would be returning at once. Mrs. Dugas says of the past week: “It’s like watching a movie.”

Twenty-five employers registered to participate in the job fair, and four more showed up. Employers included staffing agencies, hospitals, fast-food restaurants and the Pulaski County Special School District.

Barbara Johns, director of nursing at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, says the hospital is offering both temporary and permanent jobs to refugees. Applicants typically ask about child care, clerical and management positions.

William Nunez of Covington, La., found plenty of demand for his skills as a Spanish teacher. But he is a Colombian immigrant waiting for a visa and can’t switch from one job to another without government approval. For now, Mr. Nunez, his wife and their 4-year-old son are staying with a Little Rock family.

Duane and Sharon Williams of New Orleans likely will take lower-paying jobs in Arkansas. Mr. Williams, a Wal-Mart manager in New Orleans, has been offered two jobs at Sam’s Club — collecting and pushing shopping carts and working as a cashier.

Mrs. Williams, a full-time artist in New Orleans, was filling out a Wendy’s application. “We’re grateful,” she says.

She knows no one in Arkansas but found help from a Little Rock church. Mr. Williams sang at a concert at the church in 1999 and recognized it as they drove into town. An assistant pastor put them in touch with the owner of an apartment house, who offered them a rent-free unit in Conway, 30 miles north of Little Rock, for several months.

She declines to talk about the week since the storm, saying she probably would start crying.

“It hasn’t really been all that bad,” her husband says. “By the grace of God, we’ve been relocated with pleasant transitions.”

Erik and Flora Beasley and their two children drove 15 hours from their home near Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans to an uncle’s house in Cabot, north of Little Rock. Although he has lived in Louisiana all his life, Mr. Beasley says, he is considering staying in Arkansas to get away from the hurricanes.

Mr. Beasley, a truck driver, thinks he can find a job in Arkansas, where trucking is a major industry, and his wife applied for a medical-billing position. They already like Arkansas, they say, but two children, ages 3 and 8, don’t understand that they might not be going home.

“I believe they don’t know what’s going on,” he says. “They look at it like a vacation.”

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