A bell “dinged” loudly inside a crowded conference room at the Community College of Aurora’s Lowry campus on Saturday. Immediately, everyone cheered.
The bell represented another person being hired at a job fair the college was hosting for newly-arrived immigrants and refugees to the Denver area. One of the employers present, hotel company Extended Stay America, was hiring people on site and had a bell at its table that rang every time they offered someone else a job.
“We’re trying to beat San Diego,” district manager Jesse Soderberg said. A similar job fair had been held in the city earlier in the year, where Extended Stay hired 35 people. The Colorado branch was trying to reach 36. By about 2 p.m., it had made 20 offers.
Soderberg said Extended Stay has 18 hotels across Colorado and are hiring for a number of positions statewide. About a dozen Afghan refugees already work for the company, he said.
Like Soderberg, a number of employers said the job fair came at the perfect time as many companies are experiencing hiring shortages or hoping to take on extra employees for the holiday season.
State labor officials say the current unemployment rate has stayed essentially the same for several months, at about 3.4%, about the same as that nationwide.
Job growth in Colorado, however, has been remarkable.
“Since May 2020, Colorado’s private sector has grown by 435,400 jobs, compared to declines of 358,800 in early 2020,” according to a statement from state labor officials. “That translates to a job recovery rate of 121.3% and outpaces the U.S. rate of 105.3%.”
The job fair in Aurora over the weekend was organized by Welcome.US, an organization founded in the wake of the fall of Afghanistan with the goal of making it easier for individuals and corporations to get involved in helping people who have newly arrived in the U.S. from other countries.
The organization’s initial focus was on helping Afghan refugees resettle in the U.S., but expanded to helping Ukrainians following the start of the Russian invasion at the beginning of the year. Now, it’s gearing up to work with Venezuelans, after the Biden administration announced earlier this month that it would accept up to 24,000 residents of the troubled country through a humanitarian parole program.
Welcome.US has held hiring fairs at five other cities across the country so far this year, including San Diego, Seattle and Atlanta, and will hold another in Sacramento next month.
“We want to inspire employers to hire refugees,” said Maytham Alshadood, a director of partnerships for the organization.
Aurora, which has been a hub for immigrants for decades and where one in five residents is foreign-born, was the perfect location for the organization’s first event in Colorado. Multiple volunteers said that turnout was better than they expected.
Alshadood is no stranger to Aurora or its notoriety for being a place where immigrants settle and thrive. Before joining Welcome, he was deputy chief of staff in Rep. Jason Crow’s office, and he is married to Iman Jodeh, who represents Aurora in the Colorado House of Representatives.
Jodeh, a lifelong resident of Aurora, was also at the fair.
“I’m proud to live in the most diverse city in Colorado that can be the receiving community that welcomes our newest neighbors to Colorado to realize their American dream,” she said.
A native of Iraq, Alshadood arrived in the U.S. in 2008 on a special immigrant visa after assisting U.S. troops in Iraq as a combat translator for three years. Working at Welcome.US allows him to draw on a number of his personal passions and past professional experiences, he said, and he was glad he could bring the organization to his home.
“Aurora remains a welcoming community to newcomers,” he said.
Between October 2021 and September 2022, Colorado welcomed more than 2,700 immigrants from Afghanistan and Ukraine, according to the state’s Refugee Services Program. Colorado expects to receive as many as 2,000 refugees from Ukraine alone through fall 2023. Around 900 refugees from Cuba have also arrived in Colorado in the past year, the state’s website says.
The Aurora fair was geared toward refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine, but was open to everyone, Alshadood said.
One participant, Mohamed Nabizada, arrived in the U.S. three months ago from Afghanistan. He came to Aurora after first being sent to a military base in Virginia. He found out about the fair from an email from the school where he’s taking English as a second language classes. In Afghanistan he was a medical student for several years, and said he was hoping to get a job in a related field.
There were over 20 employers at the fair, including Target, UCHealth, United Airlines, Marriott International and Rocky Mountain Assisted Living. There was a crowd around the Target booth throughout the day, which an employee said was at the beginning of the hiring for the holiday season and hoping to bring in hundreds more employees at local stores.
David Mafe, chief diversity officer for UCHealth, said that the level of education and experience of people at the fair exceeded his expectations.
“There are lots of people that we would love to work with,” he said.
An immigrant himself, Mafe came to America from the U.K. decades ago on an athletic scholarship and never left. He said he was struck by how driven and hardworking the people he spoke with at the fair were.
One of the people he met was Maqsood Akbari, a doctor who had been in the U.S. for only 20 days. He and his wife Yalda Akbari left Afghanistan and spent months waiting in Germany for their special immigrant visas to be processed. They wanted to come to Colorado because Yalda had attended college at CU Boulder.
“It’s a beautiful state,” he said.
In Afghanistan, Maqsood was a general practitioner, but doesn’t currently have the right licensure to practice as a physician in the U.S. He said he was hoping to get another role in the healthcare field at UCHealth or another company while the family figured out plans.
Evheniya, who asked that her last name not be published for the safety of family members who are still living in occupied territories in Ukraine, came to the United States three months ago with her husband and six-year-old daughter.
The family is from Kherson, a port city on the Black Sea that has been occupied by Russian forces since early in the invasion and seen heavy fighting. Evheniya’s husband is a chef, and she said that several years ago the family put almost all of their savings into a restaurant.
“We came here with zero budget looking for a job,” she said.
She heard about the job fair through a Facebook group for Ukrainians in Colorado, but the couple is still waiting for their work authorizations to come through. After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Evheniya started working as a field officer for the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees helping people who were being affected by the invasion.
“And right now, we are refugees,” she said.
When the war first started the couple was volunteering a lot, using Evheniya’s connections to try to get people food, medicine and other necessities in the region, which had been cut off from the rest of Ukraine. But around them, she said that other people they were working with started to disappear. For the safety of their daughter, the family decided to leave.
“We understood that we needed to flee,” she said.
Around 250 to 300 people came through the job fair by midafternoon. Lyft partnered with Welcome.US to give people free rides to the college, and about 100 people arrived in the bus chartered by the North Denver Islamic Center. Vicky Bhogal, who helps coordinate volunteers for the organization, said that a lot more teenagers came to this fair than previous events, and many of them called their friends from the event and encouraged them to come.
All the organization’s events have gone well so far, she said, but “this is one that feels a little extra special.”
Along with transportation, the organization also provided childcare and interpretation services to make it as easy as possible for people to attend. The fair also had a resume workshop room where participants would work with a volunteer to strengthen or create a resume. Using a translator if needed, volunteers would help to input immigrants’ previous educational and career experience into a resume template created by resettlement support organization REACT D.C., which partnered with Welcome.US to host the fair.
Serina Khan, a senior project manager for Welcome who was helping people build their resumes, said that it was encouraging to see so many people come to the fair, including a lot of young people and women. One man who Khan had worked with for almost an hour on his resume had been hired on the spot by UPS for a job paying $27 an hour.
Khan’s family came to the U.S. from Afghanistan about 30 years ago as part of an earlier generation of immigrants. They weren’t always made to feel welcome.
Growing up in the post 9/11 era, “if I ever said I was Afghan, there was a silence in the room,” Khan said.
Khan said it was heartening to see how much support recent Afghan refugees are receiving, and credited the immigrant community and veterans for creating a more welcoming environment.
“I’m just really grateful for that as an Afghan,” Khan said.