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Friday, February 14, 2020

Chicago's Luxury Hotel Community Welcomes Refugees

Due to the sheer number of entry-level jobs it provides, the hospitality industry is a large employer of newly-arrived immigrants (both documented and undocumented) and refugees. While the two groups are often lumped into one melting pot, they are not the same.

While an immigrant may have a variety of reasons for coming to the United States, a refugee is legally defined as someone who is forced to flee their country of origin due to persecution, war or violence.  In order to emigrate, they have to go through a long vetting process, often while living in a refugee camp.

While the United States has had a long history of bringing in refugees, the numbers have gone down dramatically in recent years. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the annual ceiling for 2020 is 18,000, the lowest on record. That compares with a cap of 85,000 in 2016, during the last year of the Obama administration. 

Even so, refugees are still coming in. That’s certainly what is being seen by Heartland Alliance, a global anti-poverty organization. One of the organization’s missions is working with refugee communities to provide help with the resettlement process.

According to Lea Tienou, director of Refugee and Immigration Community Services (RICS) for Heartland Alliance’s Chicago office, during the past two and a half years, the bulk of refugees have been coming from Africa, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Eritrea. Others trickling in include some from Afghanistan and members of Myanmar’s Rohingya population. 

One of the biggest issues in refugee resettlement, according to Tienou, is financial stress. “When refugees arrive, they are financially fragile,” she said. “The federal government gives such limited support--a $1000 per person grant for the first 90 days. So, there is a need to move to employment really, really rapidly, (yet) they have to find a job with limited language skills and no experience working in the United States.” said Tienou. 

That’s where Heartland Alliance’s hospitality training program comes in. The six-week course is designed to prepare refugees for jobs in the hotel industry. 

The course includes lessons on the types of jobs available within the industry, employer expectations, the concept of customer service and the vocabulary of hospitality. Guest speakers, ranging from former students currently working in the industry to hotel general managers, often come to address the class. Field trips include hotel tours, meetings with human resource directors and attending job fairs.

According to Tienou, “The program is unique both in its breadth of content and in terms of the caliber of hotels we work with.”   

Hospitality 101

That caliber is mainly luxury, thanks in part to Nancy Callahan. She ran Heartland’s hospitality program from 2008 through early 2020. Prior to onboarding with Heartland, she had been part of the concierge team at Four Seasons Chicago. In fact, she actually learned about the Heartland program through a hotel colleague whose husband was the head of refugee resettlement for Illinois.

When Callahan came to Heartland as the Hospitality Training Coordinator in 2008, she discovered a fledgling program, taught mostly by ESL teachers without hospitality industry experience. But over the years, Callahan worked to develop a full-fledged partnership with Chicago’s high-end hotel community. “We leaned on hotel partners to hone the curriculum,” said Callahan. Participating hotels also provide guest speakers, offer opportunities for job shadowing, and of course, provide jobs. Most of those jobs are in housekeeping, banquets or security. As their English skills develop, there are opportunities to move up the ladder. 

Over the years, about 50 Chicago hotels have participated in the program. They include Four Seasons, The Peninsula, The Radisson Blu and The Langham. The focus on the luxury sector is intentional.  Due to the competitive nature of Chicago’s hotel industry, starting hourly pay at luxury hotels was significantly higher than minimum wage. 

Higher-than-normal wages and the potential for upward mobility are two of the industry’s big pluses for refugee job seekers. Another is its reputation for, well, hospitality. As Tienou pointed out, a big issue for resettling refugees is isolation stress. An assistant human relations manager for a five-star hotel, who asked not to be named, summed it up well. “We are talking about people in difficult situations, who are often completely by themselves and lacking in social support.  We want to help them become part of a community, give them access to connections and to teach them what it means to be successful."

According to Randall Williams, general manager of 21c Museum Hotel Chicago, “Working in a hotel environment can help allay feelings of loneliness. Yes, there may be a language barrier, but fellow employees have a level of patience and compassion for what the person is going through.” Williams continued, “We want to make them feel comfortable. That’s half the battle--the feeling of inclusion and being part of a team.”

According to Susan Ellefson, a spokesperson for The Peninsula Chicago, “Hospitality is so welcoming and so multicultural that there’s an immediate comfort level. Plus, we try to create a family kind of environment. This is our home and we have people (both guests and employees) coming into our home every day and our role is to take care of them.” That’s why, she said, “I’ve seen a lot of people from a lot of different countries stay a long time because there is that feeling of belonging and being part of something.”

Class is in Session

On the day we attended the training, the class of nearly 30 students was about one month into the program. The group was preparing for a job fair at The Langham.  Positions available included steward, house attendant, room attendant, server and club lounge butler. The class worked on completing resumes, coming up with answers for potential interview questions and role-playing troubleshooting scenarios with guests. 

There was palpable excitement and camaraderie as the class discussed the possibilities. Christy Hruska, the current hospitality training director, challenged the students to answer questions like  “what is luxury?” and “how can you make a guest feel welcome?” She also provided information on what they could expect at the job fair.

Heartland staff will accompany the class to the job fair to ensure everyone attends and arrives on time. This is a practice for individual interviews as well. Staffers will, according to Callahan, always bring students to interviews while “cheerleading on the train on the way.”

The process seems to be effective. According to Callahan, the program has placed about 90 percent of its graduates, and participating hotels keep coming back for more.