WeWork Initiative Reveals Refugees' Potential to Contribute to the Economy

Three women held up a sign supporting refugees in Colorado at a celebration of World Refugee Day at the Colorado State Capitol.
Three women held up a sign supporting refugees in Colorado at a celebration of World Refugee Day at the Colorado State Capitol. Sara Fleming
Masika Kakule’s first job in the U.S. after arriving last fall as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo was at a sewing manufacturing business. She worked long hours, sometimes from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., and traveled to work on unfamiliar bus routes in the winter. She had come to the U.S. in search of better job opportunities and safety, and while she knew she had a lot to learn, she was determined to try, even when it was hard.

Nine months later, she’s working in a drastically different environment: Kakule was hired in February as a community service associate at WeWork, a company that offers co-working office space and networking opportunities to high-profile companies. She cleans and restocks the kitchen and the conference rooms in the trendy, modern LoHi office, and she’s gone from needing an interpreter for daily necessities to using English every day to interact with WeWork’s clients. She says she likes the job because she gets to see people, and it’s similar to the job she held in the Congo, working in a restaurant. Someday, she would like to be a chef.

Kakule’s story is one of finding a better place for herself in an unfamiliar context after fleeing violence and being separated from her family for most of her life. And the challenges she has had to face are not unique.

According to Jennifer Wilson, the executive director of the International Rescue Committee's Denver office, many refugees are capable of doing far more advanced or high-skilled jobs than the ones they get after arriving in the U.S. But they face innumerable barriers to getting those jobs. Beyond the challenges of learning a new language and navigating an unfamiliar job market, they might also need to obtain new certifications, even when they were practicing professionals in their countries of origin. Not to mention they are also often the targets of racial, ethnic and religious discrimination.

click to enlarge Travis Weiner of Vets for American Ideals speaking at a WeWork community event on Monday. - COURTESY OF WEWORK
Travis Weiner of Vets for American Ideals speaking at a WeWork community event on Monday.
Courtesy of WeWork
That’s why a celebration of World Refugee Day, which took place today, June 20, at the State Capitol, focused largely on the economic contributions that refugees bring to U.S. communities. “A lot of what you see missing in the rhetoric around refugees is the benefits that refugees bring,” Wilson says. “They give far more than they receive.”

A recent report by the Colorado Department of Human Services followed 2,700 refugees over a ten-year period and found that for every dollar the state spends on resettlement programs for refugees, it gets back $1.23 in tax revenue. The report contradicts a common argument made by advocates of limiting refugee acceptance in the U.S. that refugees are an economic burden.

In contrast, Wilson says, refugees are often highly valued workers because they are uniquely “reliable, dependable and motivated.” They want to work, Wilson explains, but often have trouble finding employers who will give them a chance.The International Rescue Committee partners with several national-level companies that have committed to hiring refugees, including WeWork.

click to enlarge The crowd at the World Refugee Day celebration on Wednesday. - SARA FLEMING
The crowd at the World Refugee Day celebration on Wednesday.
Sara Fleming
WeWork’s refugee initiative, in which it has pledged to hire 1,500 refugees in five years, is unique in that it also aims to help them develop their career paths to align with their goals and dreams.

While the initiative and others like it have been successful in supporting refugees who have settled in Denver, Wilson notes a troubling decline in the number of refugees getting admitted and resettled, even while conflicts all over the world are producing migrant crises. The Denver office of the International Rescue Committee opened on Election Day in 2016, and not coincidentally, it has received far fewer refugees than expected, as have other agencies that work in refugee resettlement. While Wilson says they are happy to have more resources to dedicate to each refugee, they “have a lot more work to do to reassure people, to make connection with the community, to ensure that they have volunteers and mentors in their life,” especially for those who may have family overseas whose visa applications have been denied.

“We want to lift up what refugees contribute, but also underscore the consequences of this policy,” Wilson says, referring to the decreased acceptance of refugees and a tightening of immigration in general. "We’re not only hurting people overseas who are in need of humanitarian assistance, but also our local community.”
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Sara Fleming is a freelance writer and formal editorial fellow at Westword. She covers a wide variety of stories about local politics and communities. A born-and-raised Coloradan, when she's not exploring Denver, she's on a mission to visit every mountain town in the state.
Contact: Sara Fleming