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March 20, 2024

“Lift as we climb”: one refugee advocate’s motto for creating employment opportunities for newly arrived refugees

Lourena Gboeah is the Program Director for Upwardly Global, a national organization working to eliminate systemic employment barriers for immigrant and refugee professionals. She also serves as Chair of the Refugee Congress Board of Directors and on the board of Refugee Council USA. In December 2023, Lourena attended the Global Refugee Forum as a U.S. delegate and chaired a panel on meaningful refugee participation. She is a resettled refugee from Liberia who came to the U.S. when she was four years old.

Lourena Gboeah at the Global Refugee Forum

Q1: How are you helping refugees in your role as a Program Director for Upwardly Global?

My work at Upwardly Global centers on economic inclusion within immigrant and refugee communities. Oftentimes, internationally educated immigrants and refugees in the U.S. find themselves in what are referred to as “survival jobs” because they do not know how to navigate the U.S. workforce system. My team and I work with these job seekers to guide them out of those survival job and into roles that align with their skills.

Employment is not only an opportunity for refugees to contribute back to the communities that welcomed them but also a way to help themselves and their families continue to grow. While the work centers on economic inclusion, it’s really about autonomy and the ability of people to make decisions and grow professionally.

Q2: What does inclusion mean to you professionally?

I feel that as we climb, we should be lifting as well. Lift as you climb.

It’s a phrase I learned when I worked at Year Up. We used to always remind the young adults to lift as they climbed. Meaning as they grow in their careers, they should also be thinking about others behind them.

I consider myself a connector of people, places and things. I bring people along in a way that's going to be beneficial to them. And what that means is if, hypothetically, I meet someone and they tell me that they are struggling with something, my next step is looking within my network and finding who I can connect this person with to help. So I'm always connecting dots. That's inclusion within itself.

Lourena Gboeah hosts a panel at the Global Refugee ForumLourena chairing a panel at the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva, Switzerland, December 2023 on the topic of Meaningful Refugee Participation

Q3: What are other ways Upwardly Global is helping newly arrived people and is there a success story you can share?

Another pillar of Upwardly Global's work is building employer partnerships to help mitigate employer biases against immigrant and refugee populations. Upwardly Global partners with one of the largest hospital and healthcare systems in New York City. We have what is called a “returnship” model to help healthcare professionals who are trying to restart their careers within a healthcare setting. In this returnship program, job seekers get short-term contract assignments, which put them on a pathway towards a permanent healthcare career. Job seekers are then afforded opportunities to network within the hospital and ultimately transition into roles that align with their skills.

My team and I worked with a woman who arrived with her family from Venezuela. She was an anesthesiologist in Venezuela and was applying for lower-level roles within a hospital that Upwardly Global partners with. When the hiring manager saw her background, she was asked to interview for a managerial anesthesiologist position within the hospital. She successfully completed the interview process and got the job.

Q4: How do you balance your work, advocacy and being a mother?

It’s not a balance. It’s a juggle.

If I didn't have the support of my husband, I probably wouldn't be able to do this. I have Upwardly Global 9-to-5 and then I have Refugee Congress, and other Boards on a five to nine rotation, and then I have my children. So it's a constant juggle and it's just being able to know when to turn it off and when to keep going.

Sometimes, I have to dreadfully hear my daughter say, “Mom, you're on another meeting,” when she sees me on Zoom calls after hours. It hurts, but it's a sacrifice that I know ultimately will lead to something greater. I started working in refugee resettlement when my six-year-old was two months old. She was with me on the weekends or late at night, setting up homes for new arrivals. I'm a preacher's kid, so I always say I grew up in the church, and I think my children are growing up in this sort of global context that I've created. I feel that it is a responsibility of mine to give back in this way. And I hope that as they see me do these things, they understand that I also want them to have a global perspective.

Lourena Gboeah and Faith Akovi Cooper

Q5: Who is another woman in the refugee space who inspires you?

Being an African-American woman comes with many challenges, and being an African woman adds additional layers. When I see other African women who are leaders in this field, it inspires me. I met Faith Akovi Cooper [the Regional Director of the Southern Border at the International Rescue Committee] last year, and we come from similar backgrounds — refugees from Liberia. To see her growth in her career is truly inspiring. And she doesn't know it, but I consider her a mentor. I think she's amazing.

Q6: How has welcoming refugees changed in your lifetime?

When my family first came to the U.S. in 1992, it was a cultural shock for both us and Americans at the time. There was little cultural competency of refugees at that time. We used to get teased and called names. But seeing refugees who arrive now, you see there is more sense of community. You see bad rhetoric in the news, but you see people in organizations who are trying to dismantle those negative connotations.

From an integration standpoint, there are still barriers for refugees. But the good noise that advocates from organizations such as Refugee Congress continue to raise is really helping to increase the visibility of refugee issues, and their strength amidst chaos.

We've come a very long way, and I always say we're not where we want to be, but we have made a lot of progress.

Empower refugee women around the world…

This Women’s Month, you can help protect and empower refugee women around the world by becoming USA for UNHCR’s newest monthly donor. Your support will help provide refugees with critical assistance during their greatest times of need and help them rebuild for a better future.

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