Diversity: Refugees find new opportunities as Belmont employees
Editor’s note: This article is part of a weekly series hosted by the Belmont Vision to investigate diversity at the university. This series will include perspectives from students, faculty and staff of various religious affiliations, genders, sexual orientations, ethnicities, races, abilities and areas of interest as we work to build a comprehensive view of our campus at large.
Dil Lawati spends his nights preparing Belmont’s campus for each new day, and while most people shudder at the idea of night shifts, the Bhutan native is glad for his steady job and its stability.
Lawati is a refugee, more than 8000 miles from where he was born in Bhutan.
Like several of the men and women working as custodians for Belmont Facilities Management, Lawati came to the United States looking to start over. They left their homelands due to internal strife and unrest, hoping to find peace and stability elsewhere.
As of 2015, 65 percent of the Belmont University custodial staff is foreign-born, and 10 percent of those are refugees, Facilities Management Director Henry Lacher said.
Lacher said the facilities staff has grown incredibly diverse, encompassing natives from 16 countries speaking as many as 10 different languages.
“We have people from countries that I didn’t even know were countries until a couple of years ago,” he said.
These days, the 41-year-old Lawati works to ensure campus is clean and well-kept for the students who populate it. He enjoys working around students and said his age difference doesn’t at all affect the way students treat him.
“It’s a very warm feeling,” he said.
Lawati’s co-worker Zahid Sadozai agreed working on campus around mostly 18 to 22-year-old Americans is pleasant because students take the time to speak to the custodial staff.
Students often say hello to Sadozai as he’s working or ask the Pakistani native and the other custodians how they’re doing each day, which Sadozai said adds to the relationship he and the staff have with campus.
“Everybody asks the question ‘Are you good? Are you OK?’ I am feeling there is a good relationship between old and new,” Sadozai said. “Here, the feeling is good and the work is very good.”
Vacuuming the Beaman. Restocking toilet paper in the Wedgewood Academic Center. These may not seem like the most exciting jobs in the world at first glance.
But for Lawati and Sadozai, the routine of working at Belmont as custodians reflects the balance they’ve found in their lives. It’s a far cry from what they left behind in their homelands.
From Bhutan To Belmont
Lawati’s journey to Belmont began in 1990.
That year, the Bhutan Peoples’ Party clashed with the country’s ruling monarchy in a series of violent protests around southern Bhutan. Lawati, then a student in engineering school, participated in one such pro-democratic march near the Daina River.
“There was a big agitation,” Lawati said in his accented English. “You know,‘We want democracy, we want democracy.’”
The initially peaceful protest escalated when demonstrators began throwing rocks at the Royal Bhutan Army, which had been deployed to make sure the march didn’t get out of hand.
“Suddenly there was firing. Bullets started coming,” Lawati said.
The RBA drove the protesters back, forcing Lawati and his companions to run for their lives while any hopes of changing their country were swept away.
“I don’t know how many died there,” Lawati said. “We were scattered.”
After the fateful demonstration, Lawati left Bhutan for India as a refugee.
In 2008, the U.S. began admitting refugees from southern Bhutan, and Lawati joined the tide of new Bhutanese arrivals in 2013. The same year, he became the first person from Bhutan ever hired at Belmont.
By contrast, Sadozai left Pakistan to get away from the country’s constant upheaval brought on by government corruption and the shadow of terrorism.
“Life is never safe there,” Sadozai said. “In my country, government doesn’t care about the people.”
In Pakistan, Sadozai said, the government only cares for those with enough money in their pockets to be considered important. A rich man can get away with breaking the law while a poor man experiences a gross double standard, he said.
“Small people, with only one dollar in pocket, long time go to jail,” he said.
These conditions motivated Sadozai to migrate to Sri Lanka via a U.N. refugee program before coming to Nashville in 2011.
Sadozai started working at Belmont in July 2014, after seeing an ad for Belmont jobs and hearing from some friends about the facilities salary being better than most housekeeping jobs in the area.
“With housekeeping, you never get the $14 or $13 in any places,” Sadozai said.
Resettled At Belmont
At Belmont, the salary for entry-level jobs with Facilities Management is an hourly rate of $13-an-hour compared to the $8-an-hour starting wage for custodial positions in the regular Nashville job market, said Lacher.
This gives Lawati, Sadozai and the rest of the staff financial stability, Lacher said.
“These are good entry-level jobs for people who are just arriving in the country,” said Lacher. “These are people coming from places where they made a lot less money.”
Lacher began hiring refugees for custodial jobs in 2013 when Belmont entered into a partnership with the Nashville International Center for Empowerment.
NICE, as it’s known for short, is a nonprofit organization founded in 2005 by Sudanese refugees. NICE’s mission is to help other arriving refugees in the Nashville area with the resettlement process.
This includes everything from setting up family apartments, helping arrivals apply for citizenship, providing English classes and finding good work. As such, Belmont Facilities Management is one of the work sites where NICE sends refugee applicants during resettlement.
In addition to slightly higher pay, custodial staffers receive health insurance for themselves and their families under their job benefits. And, more recently, facilities management also began offering English classes for its employees.
The classes are taught by staff from the Tennessee Foreign Language Institute and are another way facilities tries to give back to its employees, Lacher said.
“We have a symbiotic relationship with these people. They provide a wonderful service for us. They’re good folks and they appreciate having a job and helping to be resettled,” he said.
While the higher pay rate and insurance benefits engender a sense of loyalty and quality, they also play into Belmont’s identity as a Christian institution, Lacher said.
“There’s a quality and an efficiency component to paying a higher rate, but there’s also a human justice component to it as well,” said Lacher. “I think that plays into what Belmont’s mission is about being a Christian community.”