Some of Sacramento’s newest immigrants – Afghans who served the United States during the war in their homeland – heard advice and encouragement Tuesday from immigrants who came to Sacramento after the Vietnam War.
The exchange took place at a forum sponsored by The Sacramento Bee on Tuesday night at the newspaper’s headquarters at 21st and Q streets.
Chiem-Seng Yaangh, a member of the audience, said he came to the U.S. from Laos as a teenager. The obstacles facing immigrants from Afghanistan are similar to those faced by immigrants who came from Vietnam and Laos in the 1970s, he said.
“It is a struggle for every group that comes to the United States,” said Yaangh, who went on to earn a doctorate and now works for the California Department of Education.
About 75 people attended the event to discuss challenges facing Afghans who arrived here on Special Immigrant Visas. It was the second in a series of three community events sponsored by The Bee intended to inform the public and improve the lives of SIV holders.
The visas are awarded to people who served the United States during the war in Afghanistan along with their immediate family members. California has received more of these newcomers than any other state, and Sacramento County has more than any other county in California.
A June special report in The Bee, “No Safe Place,” chronicled the hardships they have endured in Sacramento, where they often have been placed in substandard housing and have struggled to find jobs despite having professional experience as translators, engineers and doctors in Afghanistan.
Tuesday’s forum focused specifically on jobs and education.
Panelists included Naimatullah Sultani, who began working as a linguist with the U.S. Army in Kabul when he was 18. He came to Sacramento in 2013 and now is employed as a workforce developer with Lao Family Development Inc., a nonprofit training and employment agency assisting refugees.
Sultani said finding employment for new arrivals from Afghanistan is a challenge, even though many of them speak English, have college degrees and professional experience. They find employers are unwilling to accept their Afghan credentials.
Sultani said he encourages people to accept jobs requiring lesser skills in the hope that they will prove themselves and have an opportunity for advancement. But employers often are reluctant to hire them for those positions because they are overqualified, he said.
The government could do more to help immigrants from Afghanistan find jobs, he said, though it mainly directs them to services and aid programs.
“The government can do everything if they want,” he said.
Joining Sultani on the panel were Holly Ramsay, parent liaison at Del Paso Manor Elementary School in Sacramento, and Heather Berkness, a counselor of special programs with the English Language and Multicultural Education Department in the San Juan Unified School District.
Ramsay and Berkness said educators also have faced challenges in helping Afghan students adjust. Many who are assigned to English-as-a-second-language classes have had little formal education before coming to the United States, and interpreters often have not been available to assist teachers.
It was not until this year that Del Paso Manor had the services of someone who speaks Farsi, Ramsay said.
Curriculum also has been lacking. Ramsay said teachers have had to come up with their own materials. This year the school is beginning to get volunteers to help students with their reading, she said.
It was suggested that Afghans who are multilingual could parlay their language skills into jobs in the education and medical fields. Ramsay noted, for example, that adult education programs offer training for medical assistants.
Adult education could be a solution for many in the Afghan community, Yaangh suggested, noting that it can put people on the path to college or provide technical training for a job.
Chaosarn Chao, president and CEO of Lao Family, encouraged educators and agencies assisting immigrants to prepare people to start their own businesses.
Adult education programs could teach people how to pay taxes and how to interact with employees. Stockton Boulevard, he noted, is filled with Vietnamese businesses that developed to serve the immigrant community.