A lot has changed in the last few years, but did you know there are more than 2 million fewer Americans in the labor force today compared to February of 2020? Well, that’s a lot of available jobs and opportunities for a lot fewer people. Many experts say this is an opportunity for America to embrace refugees while filling the gaps in this current workforce shortage.
With every swipe of her cloth and spray of her cleaner, Lily Okech is reminded of where she came from.
"1998, my mother was pregnant with me when they flee from South Sudan. I was born in a refugee camp in Uganda and we lived in a refugee camp for 15 years before my family had the opportunity to locate to the US,” Okech said.
It was that moment that forever changed her career path.
"The person who welcomed us to the US was a woman and when she walked to us, all I could see was her beautiful brown skin and black long hair and I never see (sic) a woman in a suit before, and for me, I promise myself right there: one day I would be in that suit,” Okech said.
Wearing her suit today, she is the owner of Cleaning for Hope. It’s a Des Moines, Iowa business attached to a nonprofit called Hope to Shine. They provide opportunities to other refugees like Okech. From teaching people how to drive to understanding banking to starting a business of their own, it helps refugees get started.
"I'm creating this environment where all these women can come in and we will mentor them,” Okech said.
When she tried to start her business, she was given little to no help. That made it extremely difficult to get started.
"Imagine coming somewhere and having absolutely zero idea of how to do anything. It's like being a brand new baby, except you know how to walk but you don't know which direction to walk into,” Okech said.
Okech’s right-hand woman, Erin Jones, points out the enrichment she and her business have brought to their community. Jones says this shouldn’t be a rarity.
"I think if everybody were to just look around them, and to see the value inherent in the people, that are around them, regardless of race, language, color anything, I think the world would be a much better place, but I also think our economy would be a much better place,” Jones said.
Forty-seven percent of the foreign-born population who arrived in the United States from 2010 to 2019 had a bachelor's degree or higher. However, many of them aren’t able to use their skill sets in this country. Regardless of the hardships, refugees and immigrants still continue to break barriers.
"They have a much higher percentage of opening small businesses or venturing out as entrepreneurs,” said Stephanie Moris, the executive director of the Refugee Alliance of Central Iowa. "We are a collaborative of all the different stakeholders who are invested in seeing central Iowa being a welcoming place for refugees and immigrants."
Moris explains the current workforce shortage is an opportunity for refugees like Okech to get jobs using the experience they bring from their home countries.
"There are a lot of rural communities around the state of Iowa that have shown an increased welcome tor refugee and immigrant communities have single handled revitalized their economies, have saved entire school districts from looking funding from their state, have increased open businesses and places of worship and increased the population as well,” Moris said.
As of April of 2022, there were 11.4 million job openings in the United States.
"The average amount of refugees that have been admitted per year is right around 95,000,” Moris explained.
Those numbers prove that refugees can have their American dream and the economy can benefit from it, too.
"Let me help you so that you can help us,” Jones said.
Cleaning for Hope is much more than a business for Okech; it’s an opportunity to show other refugees what is possible.
"If she is a business owner, then I, too, can be a business owner,” Okech said.