Kuwaiti refugees safe, but frustrated by lack of jobs, opportunities

November 21, 1990|By Jay Merwin | Jay Merwin,Evening Sun Staff

For years, Bader Shaat dreamed of moving from Kuwait, where he was a corporate manager, to Los Angeles, where he wanted to start a business exporting food to the Middle East. He had planned to do this in 1990.

Now Shaat and his family are living on government checks in a Perry Hall townhouse. And Shaat, unaccustomed to unemployment, is engaged in a job hunt that a social worker says is made more frustrating by a recession and his accented English.

"I have five children. They want food every day," said Shaat, a Palestinian refugee who is 40.

Shaat, his wife and their children, ages 3 months to 11 years, abruptly left their home in September after Iraq invaded Kuwait. They flew to Baltimore with a plane filled with refugees, leaving their belongings behind for likely plunder by Iraqi soldiers.

Shaat feels frustrated now because, after two months, he still has no prospects for earning his way in his new country.

"We feel we are not settled yet because we do not have a job," he said.

Most mornings, he takes the No. 43 bus downtown to look for hTC work -- as an accountant, a clerk, even a newspaper deliveryman. Unable to get past company receptionists for a job interview so far, he has been leaving resumes at front desks. At lunchtime, he strolls the Inner Harbor.

Despite his unemployment, Shaat said, he realizes he and his family are better off than they would have been in Kuwait, "because we are safe here."

The Shaats were part of a contingent of Palestinians living in Kuwait who were evacuated to Baltimore. They spent a few nights at the Sheraton at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport, plotting how to start their lives anew with a federal loan.

Shaat said he has has heard that many of the other refugee families share his plight and are still looking for work.

One of the refugees found temporary work as a restaurant cashier, however, while another is teaching math at the University of Missouri, he added.

Whatever the Shaats have acquired so far in the United States has been loaned by the government or donated by private groups. The Baltimore County Social Services Department helped them find a landlord that would accept such a large family, and the Shaats managed to furnish their $680-a-month townhouse off Belair Road with beds, chairs, a couch, kitchenware -- even a stereo and television -- with donations from a church, an Arab community group and two local women who wish anonymity.

The Shaats said they have about $2,000 left from the federal loan they received when they arrived here. They are living on food stamps and $701 a month in public assistance to cover rent and utilities. The $701 monthly grant, which comes through a federal refugee-assistance program, will expire Dec. 15, although an extension is possible, said Marci Kennai, a specialist with the county Department of Social Services.

The grant, like the money lent to them upon their arrival, is supposed to be repaid, Kennai said, unless the Shaats apply for a waiver.

But what Bader Shaat really wants is a job.

He has distributed about 50 resumes detailing his master's degree in business administration from Texas A&M and his business career, most recently as controller of a Kuwaiti-owned franchise of the Canada Dry soft drink company.

So far, he's received no job offers.

Shaat said he's grown skeptical of the help wanted sections of the newspapers because the jobs are always filled when he calls. "All the ads in the newspaper is false," he said.

One company that had advertised for accountants and other financial service people told him it didn't have any jobs. "I said, 'Why you make ad?' They remain silent," he recalled.

The only company that has responded to his inquiries wanted something from him -- specifically, $500 to buy a supply of its knives and kitchen filters to start his own sales career.

Shaat went to a few of the company's seminars in Glen Burnie, where he and other recruits watched motivational sales videotapes of people who said they got rich selling the same $500 package to others. But Shaat soon quit. "I had to buy, and I don't have any money," he explained.

Three of his children attend local schools, where the homework load is lighter and the discipline softer than it was in Kuwait, Shaat said. But he is pleased at the special attention his children have received in trying to understand their assignments in English.

When his third-grade son came home with school announcements about Boy Scouts and a soccer league, Shaat's wife, Fadia, assured the boy, "if it's free, you go."

Although he has no idea how the family will make its way, Shaat remembers that every opportunity along the way -- from leaving Kuwait to leaving the Sheraton -- arose all of a sudden.

The way it has been, he said, "we don't know where we go. In one hour, everything changed."

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