WATERLOO — The metro area is home to a significant French-speaking population.
“There is a growing Congolese community in Waterloo,” said Patrick Osaka, a Democratic Republic Congo native.
He estimated the local Congolese community exceeds 500. While they all speak French, few speak English. This makes it difficult to find desirable, sustainable employment, explained Osaka.
“We hope to convince a few select employers to give jobs to those of us who speak a little bit of English,” he said. “Hire us as interpreters for those who don’t yet speak English, and you will benefit from many hard workers.”
He and other Congolese immigrants said this to Mayor Quentin Hart six months ago.
Hart, in turn, served as “the connector” with IowaWORKS of Waterloo, said Osaka. Together, the two groups hosted a job resource event for French-speaking Congolese immigrants. More than 150 workers were invited last week to explore opportunities provided by IowaWORKS, Hawkeye Community College Metro Center, the University of Northern Iowa Center for Urban Education and Iowa Legal Aid.
Many DR Congo immigrants have professional work experience in a range of backgrounds, said Debra Hodges-Harmon of IowaWorks. However, the language barrier and other factors limit prospects.
This includes cultural differences related to everything from holidays to child care, she said.
“Many have a high school diploma, and we recognize that here,” said Hodges-Harmon. “But there are many who have much more education than that, and it’s not usually recognized here. We haven’t figured out an easy transition for transferable skills.”
As a result, Congolese health care professionals, teachers, engineers and mechanics find they must start over — in English.
Barring that, the French-speaking immigrants see meat-packing plants as their best option, said Hodges-Harmon. For those who hoped to continue their career and find better opportunities, it’s a discouraging prospect.
Osaka believes Congolese immigrants, regardless of background, believe they must settle for lower-paid, unskilled work. If such jobs don’t satisfy career aspirations, they fulfill another goal: work in a stable economy and send money home.
“They see what the situation is for others, and they decide they are not able to get the jobs they had at home because of the language barrier,” he said. “They are not equipped to navigate the system here, so they decide that they themselves are not qualified.”
Osaka emigrated to Charlotte, N.C., nine years ago through the Diversity Immigrant Visa program or “green card lottery.” He moved to the metro area in 2015 and is a home visitor for Operation Threshold.
Hodges-Harmon hopes the event will help tap the potential of the immigrant workforce.
“There’s a lot of learning that takes place — a lot of conversation; education goes back and forth; that’s what’s needed,” she said. “We as Americans are set, set, set; everyone has to adapt to the American way. We put non-English speakers in jobs that are easy to transition them to. ... We don’t necessarily find a way to show them what they need to do to get the licenses and certifications in the areas they’re qualified for.”
For agencies on hand for the event, that includes being available for attendees with six-day work weeks.
“Sunday is their only day off to attend something like this, so we wanted to accommodate that,” said Hodges-Harmon.
Decades of war, corruption and political unrest drove Osaka and others to seek peace and economic stability. Many select the metro area because of family members here.
DR Congo, formerly known as Zaire, is in central Africa, north of Angola and south of South Sudan. It was once a Belgian colony, and French remains the language of business.