By Kayla O’Neill

As the global refugee crisis drags on, a handful of innovative social initiatives are popping up to address the critical needs of the small percentage of refugees being resettled in the United States. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has registered 14.4 million refugees around the world, and of these refugees, less than one per cent of cases are submitted for resettlement in countries like the United States. Each year, the U.S. offers opportunities to refugee individuals and families to resettle in cities across the country. In 2016, the federal government increased its refugee resettlement numbers, providing more opportunities as the global refugee crisis reached a peak.

Those with the opportunity to come to the U.S. are fortunate, but they face many difficulties in resettling, including cultural, linguistic, and employment barriers. For adult refugees, finding a good job can be difficult because their skills may not align with the U.S. job market or because their academic credentials are not valued by U.S. employers. In June 2016, the White House launched the Partnership for Refugees, which highlighted three critical impact areas for organizations that wish to address the needs of refugees at home and abroad:

  1. Education: creating access to education and skills
  2. Employment: increasing employment opportunities for refugees and supporting refugees’ reentry into the workforce
  3. Enablement: strengthening infrastructure and access to resources needed for refugees to become self-reliant and to support countries that welcome them

Several social enterprises and initiatives are changing the face of refugee employment. They are fostering job training and job creation for refugee populations by forging connections between those who are working hard to start new lives in America and those with relevant skills and money to spend. Among the top case studies in the U.S. are Refugee Coding Project, which is pairing skilled volunteers with refugee youth; and Open Arms, which is linking budding seamstresses with the market for sustainable and fair-wage products.

Refugee Coding Project

Cotopaxi, a Public Benefit Corporation, creates outdoor products such as backpacks, jackets, and camping gear. They ensure strict standards for working conditions are met in the factories in which their products are manufactured around the globe and they give targeted grants to address global poverty. But recently, they found an opportunity to use their passion for good to impact communities in need in their own home base of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Cotopaxi is collaborating with the Utah Refugee Services Office on the Refugee Coding Project. This program focuses on building computer science capacity and providing pathways to jobs for refugees in Salt Lake City. Cotopaxi employees and other community members volunteer their computer science knowledge each weekend to teach 50 refugee youth a holistic, 20-week computer science curriculum. The curriculum is based around’s free resources and is supplemented with work site visits, hackathons, professional development trainings, and the potential for internships and scholarships.

There are more than 50,000 refugees in the state of Utah and often these individuals have limited access to higher education and white collar jobs. Computer science jobs are well-paid, opening doors for refugees. Furthermore, the program addresses a technology talent gap, where computer science skills are needed to drive innovation in the U.S. economy, but too few people learn the necessary skills in school.

While the program began with the Bhutanese refugee community in Salt Lake, it soon expanded to other refugee populations in the area, including people who left their home countries of Sudan, Burma, Congo, and Burundi. It has also expanded to include other partners such as Adobe, V School, and the Utah Department of Workforce Services. The future of this program and its students is bright and similar programs are thriving across the world including Refugees on Rails in Germany.

Open Arms

The Multicultural Refugee Coalition (MRC) is a 501(c)(3) based in Austin, Texas that creates opportunities for refugee livelihoods through job training, education, and community programs. Texas is one of the top states for refugee resettlement in the U.S., receiving approximately 4,500 refugees annually. Each year, approximately 500 refugee women are resettled to Austin, Texas from countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Burma, Bhutan, Cuba, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Like many refugees, these women face challenges when it comes to finding employment and supporting their families in a new country.

MRC developed a program called Open Arms to address these needs. Open Arms is a sustainable apparel and sewn goods manufacturer that is empowering refugee women through employment opportunities. In May of this year Open Arms launched a successful Kickstarter campaign with nearly 100 backers pledging close to $13,000 to jumpstart the project. The refugee women receive 12 weeks of training as seamstresses. Upon graduating the program, they receive their own sewing machines and can work from home or in-house for Open Arms to create products such as children’s shirts, quilts, and throw pillows that upcycle fabric waste and fulfill a demand for ethically-sourced goods. Open Arms partners with retailers such as IKEA, Newton Supply Co., Evan Brooke Ethical Clothing, and Noonday Collection to find resources and markets for their fair-wage textile products.

Open Arms is simultaneously addressing multiple impact areas by creating living wage employment for a refugee population, decreasing the amount of textile goods that end up in landfills, and fulfilling a growing desire among consumers to purchase products that are made ethically.

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