It took Junaid Altaqi seven years to get a visa to leave war-torn Iraq, where he feared for his and his family's safety because of work he had done for U.S. government contractor Halliburton as well as for BP.
But when he finally arrived in Dallas from Basra in 2017 with his pregnant wife and young sons, he discovered his engineering degree from Iraq and his studies in the Netherlands meant nothing in the U.S. job market.
"Since I entered the United States, the first two weeks I started to apply for jobs everywhere," he said. "Actually everything, to be honest, because if you don't have work, you can't have food for your family. Everywhere they ask your history, what you did here in the United States. Even if I have eight years of experience in the oil and gas industry, they want to see what you did here. So it was really tough."
Finally, he started applying for entry-level jobs and was hired as a cashier at Walmart. Although he was glad for any work, he said, he was saved by a call from the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which helps refugees in their new lives, offering him a chance to participate in a hospitality training program sponsored by Marriott.
He is now working as an administrative assistant in the housekeeping department at the Adolphus Hotel in downtown Dallas, an Autograph Collection property, where he helps with budgets and other tasks.
"To be honest, moving from the oil and gas industry to hospitality is a really huge difference," he said. "You can't imagine. When I moved here, I was working as a performance manager for BP, dealing with billions and billions of dollars."
The Adolphus job, however, became a game changer for his new life. He said he is making enough money to support his family, feels welcomed and appreciated, understands the great potential for promotion within the industry, and, perhaps most importantly, he likes going to work.
According to the American Hotel and Lodging Association, the sector currently has more than 600,000 job openings. Marriott funds IRC Hospitality Link training programs in three of the seven cities where IRC offers them, resulting in some 200 job placements, the IRC said.
"Recruiting is one the hardest things we deal with, recruiting good quality people," said Caitlin Beveridge, marketing director at the Adolphus. "With IRC, you get really hard workers, people who love the hotel."
Altaqi is one of several refugees trained by the IRC who are now working at the Adolphus, Beveridge said, including a man who had been a political prisoner and now works as a steward at the hotel.
"He has a great story as well," she said. "He was a runner in his country and is now raising funds to go to the New York City Marathon."