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Jobless but Thankful - 2002-09-10

English Feature #7-35573 Broadcast November 19, 2001

The unemployment rate in the United States is the highest it's been in five years - at least partly as a result of the September 11th terrorist attacks. So this is not a particularly good time to be looking for work if you're a recent immigrant. Today on New American Voices we meet a refugee from Sierra Leone who has been in this country for ten months and is, at the moment, jobless -- but nevertheless, thankful to be in America.

"I think it's just destiny that I should be in the United States, because I never planned it. Even though I didn't know where I was coming to, what life was going to be like, but I was happy. Even right now I'm still happy, I thank God I'm here."

Jeanette Scrant, who is in her thirties, lived her whole life in Freetown, Sierra Leone, until about four years ago. She was working as a nurse in a Freetown hospital in May, 1998, when dissident members of the armed forces staged a coup, and rebels besieged the city.

"They just went into your house, and just do what they want to do. And by a stroke of luck I just managed to escape, and find my way out, and that was it, and I never went back until today."

Miss Scrant managed to get on an open container boat, crowded with Sierra Leoneans trying to escape the violence in the capital. After four days at sea with no food or water the boat reached Gambia, where the refugees were temporarily housed and fed and registered with the United Nations. To survive, Jeanette Scrant worked as a servant. After three and a half years, thanks to the United Nations and with the help of the IOM, the International Organization for Migration, she came to the United States. Ms. Scrant has an advantage over many immigrants because she speaks English, which is the official language of Sierra Leone. Even so, ten months after coming to the Washington area she is still looking for a job.

"An entry-level job, because that's what we were oriented by the IOM before we came, that in America, no matter what degree you have, no matter which country you get your degree from, if you want to be a professional you have to go back to school. So now I have to take any kind of job I can get."

For the time being, Ms. Scrant lives on support she gets from the Ethiopian Community Development Council, the resettlement agency that is also helping her look for employment. She also gets some help from local social services and friends she's made here. While job hunting she attends classes, preparing herself for a Nursing Board Exam.

"I need a job so that I'll be able to buy some more books and reinforce my studies from what I have learned, because nursing back home is not nursing in America. Here your studies have to be very intense, you have to know materials by heart to be able to answer objective questions correctly. So I really need time to go through books, it will take time, a lot of time, before I will be able to take the Board. Right now I can't guarantee that I could take it and pass it."

Once she does pass the Nursing Board exams, Jeanette Scrant will be licensed to work as a registered nurse. She hopes this will give her the stability she craves to build a life in this country. She has already joined a church, but she does not want to ask her fellow Christians for assistance.

"Well, I don't go there for help because I try to take my life as normal, like I was back home. Because at least, I'm here already. I have to think of ways to better my life, not to be too dependent on people. So, when I go to church I just pray to God and ask God to help me. But the people here are friendly, they're more than friendly."

In fact, Jeanette Scrant has had to revise the perception of Americans that she formed in Sierra Leone.

"Because when I was back home in Africa, we have this idea that white people don't talk to people. But when I came, everywhere I go in the streets, they're the first people to say, 'Good morning, how are you?' and they do it with a smile on their face. It gives me joy, it makes me happy, I know that I belong somewhere, I belong to a society that accepts me."

With no job as yet and no family, Jeanette Scrant will not be celebrating Thanksgiving with the traditional turkey dinner this week. However, she says she has a lot to be thankful for.

"Especially after the September 11th crisis, when all doors have been closed to people and there are thousands and thousands of Sierra Leoneans, over ten thousand Sierra Leoneans in Gambia waiting to be immigrated somewhere if they have the chance, and now they don't have the chance, because the door is closed for now temporarily so, so I thank God I'm here, I thank God for them that brought me here, and I want to say God bless America and the American people for bringing me here, I'm so happy. (cries)"

Next week on this program you'll meet recent refugees from a very different, troubled part of the world - Afghanistan.