Hi, my name is Deb Hartnett and I’ve been volunteering at Scalabrini through its partnership with Cross-Cultural Solutions. CCS is a US-based non-profit that partners with organizations around the world to place volunteers in local community service projects. I am a lawyer and am currently between jobs. A few months ago, I decided to return to South Africa, which I’d fallen in love with on a previous visit, as a volunteer. Ironically, given my own employment status, I was assigned to Scalabrini’s Employment Help Desk, where we assist our clients – refugees and other migrants – in their job searches. One of the overarching philosophies at Scalabrini is to help our clients help themselves, so on the EHD we help clients compose resumes and cover letters, and provide resources for job searching, but it is up to the client to find appropriate jobs and to apply for them.
Imagine, though, looking for a job in a country where you don’t speak the language and don’t have access to the Internet or a computer. Imagine, also, that your qualifications – your academic degree and prior experience and the contacts you made in your line of work – are of no use to you. That is the plight faced by many of Scalabrini’s clients.
Coming off an 18-year stint at the same law firm in the United States, I had not been forced to look for a job myself for a very long time. But I know that when I begin my own job search, I will have the luxury of a network of contacts and access to phones, fax machines and the Internet. I also know that my law degree will still be valid, that my electronic rolodex will help me get interviews, and that my friends and contacts will call me with leads for jobs.
Our clients do not have access to these modern tools of job searches. Today, of course, most jobs are posted on the Internet and job seekers must have access to a computer to compose CVs and cover letters, search for jobs and apply online. Without Scalabrini, these clients would not be able to apply for many jobs.
In addition, when I start looking for a job, I will not face a language barrier. At Scalabrini, the clients’ mother tongue is usually not English or Afrikaans, and most employers in the Cape Town are looking for workers who speak one of those languages. (Scalabrini also offers English language classes to help its clients on this front).
Finally, Scalabrini’s clients often arrive in South Africa to find that their qualifications and experience often cannot help them find positions similar to what they had in their home countries. Many teachers, lawyers and other professionals are forced to look for jobs as waiters and housekeepers — and they would consider themselves lucky to get one of those jobs.
Despite all of these handicaps, the clients often make the best of a terrible situation, patiently waiting for their turn at the Help Desk, poring through the job postings we make available to them, hoping that this time, they will land the waitering or nanny job for which they are both under- and overqualified.
Every day, I am inspired by their example. And by the staff at Scalabrini who stretch scarce resources to an unbelievable degree to help as many people as possible help themselves.