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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

East Africa: If you're Somali, don't bother to look for a job

The Chairman of Somali United Community, Mohamed Ahmed is escorting the Somali Commuinity in the the Parade of Australian Day on 26th of Janaury 2011, Photo by Babul Nor

Abdulkadir Shire and Ali-nur Duale are masters of disguise. The two Somali men, now in their 50s, have spent more than 30 years between them applying for jobs in Melbourne.
Their tactics have ranged from the shrewd (omitting their nationality and native language on CVs) to the downright devious ("de-Arabising" their first names by replacing them with initials). But their real skill is one that not many people would think of bringing to the job market: making themselves look unintelligent on paper.
They call it "downskilling": cutting from their résumés any hint of a qualification or achievement that might make them appear too smart for the jobs they're applying for. In Duale's case, that means a PhD in applied entomology and a distinguished career developing crop protection programs across Africa and India. In Shire's case, it's a Masters in petrochemical engineering and a diploma from Victoria University.
But for both men, the game is officially now up.
Last October, after 17 years and more than 300 failed job applications, Shire packed his bags and moved to Brisbane, where he is helping his wife start a family daycare business. Dr Duale is resigned to continue working as a casual interpreter for a refugee translation service.
"People say 'Why can't you get a decent job, with all your qualifications?'" says Duale, who is often described in his community as "the most qualified Somali in Australia." "And I have to lie and tell them I just want to do something to help my own people. I've even told my children this untruth."
No one has yet done a study to measure the lost potential to Australia in terms of professional achievements or international standing in allowing so many of our best and brightest residents to work as drivers, translators or cleaners.
The 'PhDs driving taxis' headlines have come and gone, but to this day, hundreds of experienced doctors, accountants and engineers are still driving cabs and doing menial part-time jobs to sustain their families and relatives overseas on fickle hourly wages. Hundreds more have given up entirely, resigning themselves to a perpetual life in the slow lane.
Africans, the newest, most foreign group in our cultural melting pot, are invariably suffering the most. Some say it's always been this way: that the waves of Greeks, Italians, Lebanese and Vietnamese who arrived between the 1950s and '80s all struggled just as hard to find sustainable jobs. But the evidence strongly suggests otherwise.
For Somali-Australians, being black and Muslim and with the additional stigma of coming from the world's most corrupt country, the chances of finding full-time work - let alone a respectable white-collar job - are arguably the lowest in the Western world.
In a country that lays claim to having one of the most robust and egalitarian job markets anywhere, the words "fair go" remain a mockery for hundreds of eternally unemployed Somali professionals.
When Lindsay Tanner, former Finance Minister and Federal Member for Melbourne, resigned last June, many members of Victoria's African community felt they had lost one of their own.
Not only was Tanner the most high-profile critic of the hardening of Labour's asylum seeker policies, he was also the most visible and vocal of the country's pro-African 'champions' - a regular guest at community events, and loud advocate for greater training and job opportunities among the country's least employed migrant communities.
Just a week before his resignation, Tanner launched a report by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) that found evidence of anti-African sentiment in virtually every sphere of public life.
Of course, you don't give up such conviction easily. Within weeks, Tanner was back to assisting two Melbourne-based projects he is particularly close to: the Corporate Leaders Network's (CLN's) African-Australian Project, through which 10 high-profile companies -- including NAB, IBM, BHP and Telstra -- have committed to develop training and placement opportunities for African-Australians; and the Horn-Afrik Employment, Training and Advocacy Project, a homespun initiative with 250 'Horn of Africans' -- migrants from Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia -- on its books.

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