Mentors Offer Vital Support to the TASSC Community

A growing network of volunteer mentors is providing invaluable support to TASSC International’s community of asylum seekers as they look to transfer the professional skills and achievements they left behind in their home countries to work in the United States.

Many of the immigrants TASSC works with have achieved professional success in their home countries; they include lawyers, engineers, social workers, architects, accountants, medical professionals and film industry artists. They survived human rights violations (specifically torture) when they spoke out against unjust policies or the authorities in countries with repressive governments.

TASSC launched the Professional Mentoring Program to help the community reintegrate into society by finding a meaningful career again.  The initiative is part of TASSC’s Workforce Development Program, which includes one-on-one and group support for reaching professional goals, navigating the job application and interview process, assistance with resume writing and developing career search strategies.

The mentoring program was started in the fall of 2017. Survivors are paired with professionals (ideally in their fields) who can help them network in Washington.

“Regardless of where you come from, work is a vital part of life,” said Sara Allen, the former TASSC staff member who helped to oversee the mentoring program. “When our community members find meaningful work, their demeanor changes. They are uplifted. Sometimes the skills and professional experiences of a mentor are very specific to the community member’s background but this is not always the case. Our hope is that mentors can serve as a sounding board, professional guide and source of encouragement, regardless of their profession.”

Helping highly-skilled immigrants find work is a benefit to society at large. In 2016, The Migration Policy Institute (www.migrationpolicy.org) studied the cost of what it called “brain waste” among highly skilled immigrants to the United States. Among 45.6 million college graduates in the U.S. labor force, 7.6 million were foreign born and among these, one in four were either working in low-skill jobs or unemployed. When immigrants skills are underutilized, the study concluded, their families suffer, dependence on public benefits may increase, and their state and local communities are deprived of their higher contributions as taxpayers. In addition, immigrants offer employers a larger pool of applicants to tap into. Overall, making sure high-skill immigrants can use their training and experience benefits their families, their communities and the larger economy.

TASSC holds volunteer orientation sessions on a rolling basis and staff are on hand to offer support as the mentor-mentee relationship develops.

“The relationships that develop can have lasting impact, for both mentees and mentors,” said Allen. “We keep in mind that survivors have experienced a trauma. This can break their trust in humanity. Engaging with someone who is there simply to help them can be deeply meaningful to restore trust and hope.”

Alex Witt, a Washington communications professional who has volunteered with TASSC since 2017, said: “The survivors I've worked with have been so openly appreciative of any guidance I've provided, even though I feel that anything I've done is a mere drop in the bucket to how much I wish I could do for them. When I confided in my husband that I wished I could do more, he pointed out that just having a confidante in a new and intimidating country, where even simple daily tasks can be confusing and frustrating, is a valuable contribution to the cause of welcoming survivors. With every interaction, I believe that I'm truly making a positive difference in survivors' lives, no matter how small that contribution is.”

Employment counseling is one part of TASSC’s holistic approach to recovery from torture. This assistance also covers medical and psychological care, if needed, legal aid for political asylum, and education, and wellness guidance. Last year, TASSC worked with nearly 300 individuals.

TASSC currently has 11 professional mentors who are paired with survivors and four who are ready to be paired; their experience represents the full spectrum of employment in the Washington area-- the private sector, non-profits, academic institutions and government. TASSC hopes to expand its network of mentors to meet the community’s growing needs.

TASSC matches volunteer mentors with individuals in the TASSC community based on the mentees’ professional background, location, personality and job aspirations.

Mentors are asked to make a three-month commitment and to meet at least twice with their mentees. In addition to monthly orientation for new mentors, TASSC also works with corporate partners, such as Deloitte, which has provided pro-bono support. As part of its annual corporate Impact Day, Deloitte sent a team of 20 consultants to TASSC to offer workshops and one-on-one support for resume and cover-letter writing, job searching and interviewing skills. “Survivors left with increased confidence in their ability to find meaningful work,” said Allen. One of the Deloitte consultants even returned to serve as a mentor.

It’s often true that transferring professional backgrounds from other countries is not a straight path forward, because requirements for skills or education differ. In the meantime, individuals may try to find work in related areas or new careers they had not considered. Interpreting is one area, as many in the community speak multiple languages.

Jean-Luc is a new mentor in the TASSC program who volunteered because he found support as a new immigrant himself more than a decade ago and wanted to “give back.”

Jean-Luc attended high school in Texas, and college and graduate school in Washington. He earned a master’s degree in educational leadership and policy and works as an admissions coordinator at The Catholic University of America. At age 28, Jean-Luc is pursuing a second master’s degree in higher education policy and finance. 

As a mentor, he has worked with a mechanical engineer from Ethiopia who is looking to develop a new career in information technology.

“For me, it’s meaningful to be able to give back and support others as I was when I came to the U.S.,” he said.. “I’m very impressed by the work that TASSC does and I feel fortunate to be part of the community.”

The engineer who Jean-Luc is mentoring (he preferred to keep his name private out of privacy concerns) said the relationship was very helpful to him because it crystallized his thinking about the employment pathways available to him. “Initially I was focused on becoming a translator because I speak French, English and Amharic. But Jean-Luc helped me to see the wider opportunities in IT and now I’m looking at earning a certificate in that field.”

Alex Witt said she was surprised to find a community of torture survivors whose level of achievement went way beyond what she imagined.

I’ll admit I had a pre-loaded expectation of what a ‘refugee’ or an ‘asylum seeker’ was. I had no idea how many survivors not only speak excellent English and are very well educated but they also had been productive professionals in their home countries, such as doctors, nurses, accountants, union leaders, IT specialists, artist-filmmakers and so forth. It really drove home that political, religious, ethnic persecution is not just something happening in distant, developing nations; it’s happening in globalized countries to professional citizens who are no different than me.

As a first-time mentor, Witt said she volunteered because she wanted to make a “measurable difference” to support individuals in need.

Witt said: “Being a mentor—no matter how overwhelming the evils of torture and persecution can be—has made me feel empowered. We can't combat these evils alone, but if we each make that small, personal contribution together, we can do mighty things.”

Witt expected to offer guidance to someone looking for a communications job but her relationship with her mentee has developed into a creative partnership based on his background and an idea to create a stage production about torture.

“We have a great bond. Just working through the creative process and challenging him artistically has visibly encouraged and inspired him to continue to create and stretch his talents. Wherever we end up, I think we can both say with confidence that the journey is equally important, if not more so, than the intended destination.”

--Suzanne Trimel

To volunteer as a mentor, please check our our Professional Mentor volunteer page here.

TASSC International