A new initiative led by a nonprofit that serves one of Iowa’s largest refugee groups is focusing on improving workforce opportunities for thousands of Burmese refugees who call Iowa home.  

Many Iowans are unaware of the work done by EMBARC Iowa, let alone its newest initiative, said Jill Niswander, the organization’s director of communications and development. 

“We’re the first and largest community-based ethnic organization in Iowa,” she said. “We’re specifically focused on the communities of refugees from Burma.” About one-third of the estimated 8,000 to 10,000 Burmese refugees in the state live in Greater Des Moines. 

The Southeast Asian country, which is also known as Myanmar, has been in a state of civil war for the past 70 years, meaning several generations have known nothing but life in refugee camps. Four distinct ethnic groups from Burma have found refuge in Iowa. 

Many Burmese refugees have historically worked in the meatpacking industry, and many workers commute from Des Moines to plants in Marshalltown or Ames, while others work at food processing plants in Des Moines such as Pine Ridge Farms and Loffredo. 

Through a new program sponsored by the National Commission for Workforce Education, Embarc Iowa is working with Des Moines Area Community College to provide targeted English as a second language (ESL) classes geared toward helping these refugees find jobs in the hospitality industry. 

“It’s taking the ESL setting and making it very specific to a certain goal,” Niswander said. She and the executive director of EMBARC  Iowa, Henny Ohr, studied a similar program offered in Westchester County, N.Y., in which Latina workers were trained to become independent home-care contractors. 

Through another program, called Refugee Rise, Embarc Iowa brings AmeriCorps volunteers to seven communities across the state to support the needs of smaller communities. As an example of a local Refugee Rise project, volunteers work with refugee families with young children at Monroe Elementary School to address chronic absenteeism. 

The Burmese refugee population has been successful in finding employment relatively quickly in the state; this initiative is aimed at broadening the types of work they can find. 

On average, within their first 90 days after moving to Iowa, about about 80 percent of Burmese refugee families have at least one family member who has found a job, Niswander said, “which is pretty amazing when you think about it. A lot of our families come here after having lived without running water, electricity, formal education or health care.” 

The DMACC hospitality training program will focus on providing skills needed for participants for jobs such as groundskeeper, hotel cleaning and prep cook positions. 

“We would actually love to target a culinary program to the community to support large hospitality organizations like Marriott,” Niswander said, noting that EMBARC is currently in discussions with the hotel chain. “The food prep jobs may be a natural fit, as Burma is an agricultural country.” 

EMBARC aims to train 15 to 20 refugees in the initial class, using a learning circle model in which those people in turn train others in the Burmese community. The organization has created similar learning circles for navigating the American health care system, and another to educate parents about what their children learn in school and how they should work with them at home. 

“We hope to have classes started by the middle of this year,” she said. “Part of our job is selling this program to employers. We think this is really a great model for DMACC. We’re hoping to leverage our community knowledge with their education skills to provide a program that benefits the workforce and employers in Iowa.”