Authored by Maggie Murphy and reprinted from Construction Executive, August 2, 2022, a publication of Associated Builders and Contractors. Copyright 2020. All rights reserved.
In the spring of 2008, 20-year-old high-school graduate Mohammad Rezaie had just finished a year-long English-language program near his home in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province. Friends of his were earning a living post-graduation working as translators for the British army in Helmand province, spurring Rezaie to enroll in classes to pursue the same line of work. The draw was clear. “The money they were paying was good—I could support my whole family with that money,” Rezaie says. For more than seven years, he did just that—providing first for his parents and eventually for his wife and child through his position as a translator for U.S. military forces in Kandahar.
When he first got started, Rezaie thought it was going to be like any other job. It wasn’t until roughly four years in that Rezaie’s family began receiving alarming threats from insurgents, warning that they knew of his involvement with the U.S. military and cautioning him to watch his back. “I was scared,” he says. Rezaie continued his work for another three years, but when the United States began withdrawing troops in 2015, he was forced into hiding, relying on his family to lie to the Taliban—saying that he had fled the country—in order to avoid death threats until he was finally able to get on a plane to the United States in December of 2015.
Today, life looks much different for Rezaie. He was granted a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) as a result of his work with the U.S. military and now lives in Houston with his wife and three children—and works full-time as a carpenter with Houston-based interiors contractor MAREK.
Why construction? The equation is simple enough. Refugees need work, and companies like MAREK need skilled workers. But still, recruiting refugees presents many challenges. Contractors can provide the skills training and jobs, but the bigger picture is even more important. Where do refugees find housing? How do they become acclimated to American culture? Where do they go to enroll their children in school or daycare? Who helps ensure they have proper documentation to work in the United States and, once they have it, how are they connected to employment opportunities?
MAREK has it figured out, and here’s the secret: No one can go it alone. Providing meaningful employment opportunities to immigrant populations is at the heart of the (still-family-run) business, as founding brothers John L., Bill and Ralph Marek were themselves second-generation Americans descended from Czech immigrant grandparents. “The simple truth is that we couldn’t have built the United States without immigrant workers,” says MAREK CEO Stan Marek—Ralph Marek’s son. “That’s just a fact.”
But providing jobs is just part of it. “We figured out a long time ago that we couldn’t just hang out a sign and they were all going to show up,” says Mike Holland, MAREK’s chief operating officer. “It’s not just a business thing you’re doing—you have to engage with other partners, with other people in the community who are also trying to help people.”
The first opportunity to connect with Afghan refugees in particular came through Houston-based NextOp, which links veterans and military service members, including SIVs, to employment opportunities as they transition back to civilian life. MAREK became aware of NextOp’s services through its connection to Associated Builders and Contractors Greater Houston chapter and jumped at the opportunity to collaborate with the organization. “The day we met our very first Afghan refugee through NextOp, I asked him to tell me his story,’” says Saied Alavi, managing director for MAREK and himself an Iranian immigrant. “I asked him, ‘Do you know somebody else like you that we can recruit and bring into our business?’” As it turns out, there were many others like him—and MAREK wasted no time reaching out, to date recruiting and hiring more than 20 Afghan SIVs, including Rezaie.
Before they ever step onto a jobsite, many other pieces come together in the refugees’ resettlement. Alavi serves on the board of directors for Interfaith Ministries, a nonprofit organization that supports vulnerable populations in the diverse greater Houston area and has done refugee resettlement work for more than 35 years. Many incoming refugees have no English-language skills and are completely unaccustomed to American social and workplace culture.
“Think of yourself moving to a new city and the challenges that come along with that, and then think about refugees who, due to circumstances beyond their control, are forced to flee their homes to a foreign country to find a safe place for themselves and their families,” says Ali Al Sudani, chief programs officer for Interfaith, who steps in the minute a refugee’s plane lands—picking them up from the airport, finding and furnishing apartments for them, helping them register for school, providing cultural orientation sessions (including language classes) and assisting with transportation to and from school and work. “Refugees are coming from different backgrounds, they have different challenges, they have different aspirations. But they all share one thing in common, which is that they are very optimistic and grateful for this new opportunity.”
With the huge, ongoing demand for labor, construction companies—including MAREK—are some of the most engaged resettlement employer partners. And if you ask Al Sudani, construction careers are often a perfect fit for refugees. “If you can point to something in the community and say, ‘I was part of building this bridge,’ or this factory or whatever it might be,” Al Sudani says, “that gives people a sense of belonging, that they are part of contributing something meaningful that will last for a long time.”
Once Interfaith has fulfilled those essential needs, enter SERJobs, whose mission is to “transform the lives of individuals through education, skill-based training, employment and long-term financial stability,” serving not only refugees but also reentering citizens and economically disadvantaged individuals. Sheroo Mukhtiar, CEO of SER, credits Stan Marek with involving SER in the refugee resettlement process. “Stan was able to foresee that, okay, once you’re done with the housing, once you’re done with the health care, once you’re done with educational needs, you’re gonna need workforce,” she says. “He got us involved and has been an incredible partner in helping us forge connections with other community organizations that can assist our mission."
Mukhtiar’s gratitude to Stan Marek is both professional and personal, having immigrated to the United States herself as a young Indian woman seeking a college education. When she landed in New York in the middle of a blizzard in her traditional Indian clothing and sandals, with no knowledge of the language, no understanding of the currency, no way to call home and no place to stay, she worried that she’d made a huge mistake. “You just have no idea about anything when you first get here,” she says. “I had to navigate all of that without a support system. Witnessing Stan’s work in serving this population has a very personal meaning for me.”
Most recently, MAREK provided capital donations in support of SER’s brand-new Workforce Training Center in Houston’s East End, which, among other things, will offer construction-specific skills training and allow SER to more than double the number of people it serves annually to nearly 12,000 individuals.
“There is no one who speaks more eloquently about the work that we do, and how we can really make a difference, than Stan,” Mukhtiar says. “He has been a fierce advocate for the work that SER does, and he is truly passionate about helping immigrants create a good life [in the United States].”
ON THE JOB
For MAREK, all of this collaboration comes down to one thing: providing individuals with the opportunities and training to be successful, creating a win-win for everyone involved. It’s the personal success stories that keep that mission afloat.
As Rezaie tells it, MAREK’s personal approach to training makes all the difference. After extensive safety orientation—a MAREK core value—he arrived for his first day on the job. “When I first started, I was thinking, ‘Man, this is kind of hard for me. Maybe I will never be able to learn this the way they’re working,’” Rezaie says. “Then the foreman put me with a coach who taught me how to frame, how to use all the tools and how to cut the sheetrock.” Having a personal mentor was crucial and, through the comfort of being able to draw on that resource, Rezaie grew to love construction work.
Today, he’s been with MAREK for more than seven years, and recently purchased his own home in the Houston area. “I’m pretty happy with MAREK,” he says, “and I feel that they are trying to teach and help me and other immigrants who are interested [in this line of work].”
In fact, that’s a lesson this collective group would like to impart to the broader construction community: Step outside the conventional, partner up and get creative, because working together is where the magic happens.
“The thing that I would promote is adaptability, a willingness to be in collaboratives and cooperatives and find partners, because every community has similar resources,” Holland says. “A majority of construction companies are small companies with under 100 employees. So, they’re really going to have to partner up with other organizations to get the job done.”
While the process isn’t uncomplicated, the mutual benefits are well worth the effort, according to Al Sudani, who as an Iraqi refugee himself has a keen appreciation for the open job market in the United States. “I think if you like what you do, if you have the passion and you work hard and you have the right attitude, then your peers and your supervisors notice what you can do,” he says. “And that’s the beauty of this program, of refugee resettlement.
“And this is the beauty, to be honest with you, of the United States,” Al Sudani says. “Regardless of who you are, what language you speak, what qualifications you have...if you can work hard and prove yourself, you have the same opportunity as anyone who has been born and raised here. That’s the mentality that we embrace, and that’s what makes us better.”
LAND OF OPPORTUNITY
When SERJobs opened its Workforce Opportunity Center in Houston’s East End in 2018 with help from industry partners like MAREK, Stan Marek noticed that there was land available for purchase just about a thousand feet from the center. “Stan is a visionary,” SER’s Sheroo Mukhtiar says, “and he could see the potential that existed in that space before it ever crossed anyone else’s mind.”
The vision? A state-of-the-art training facility, built to serve the workforce development needs of the greater Houston region. SER launched a $10-million capital campaign in early 2020—to which MAREK made a generous donation—and construction on the center was underway shortly thereafter. Encompassing eight classrooms, three instructional labs, office space and equipment, the 20,000-square-foot Workforce Training Center will provide critical space for hands-on training that is needed to empower workers with the necessary skills to fill high-demand labor positions in the region. The current shortage of skilled workers plays a substantial role in the city’s unemployment rates and continues a cycle of poverty for many Houstonians—something SER aims to change through its work at the center.
“Our goal is to double the number of people we serve [through the training center], but also to provide additional services to the community,” Mukhtiar says. “We are partnering with other agencies, such as Ronald McDonald House Charities, which has provided a ‘cheer room’ where children can relax and play while their caregivers receive services. The core industries we serve now are construction, banking and transportation, and we hope to expand to other high-growth industries, such as the medical field, in need of skilled labor. The center gives us the capacity to do that.”
Construction on the center is nearing completion, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony scheduled for September 2022.