Finding home: After serving beside U.S. forces, Iraqi refugee starts anew in U.S.

By Linda Dahlstrom / Starbucks Newsroom

Editor’s note: On World Refugee Day, June 20, as Starbucks announces a commitment to hire 2,500 refugees in Europe by 2022, we are highlighting stories of refugees and their journeys to find new homelands.

Cody Lane Rogers was sifting through job applications when she came across one that stopped her.

It was from a man with an accomplished background. He had a degree in linguistics, spoke three languages, had taught English and had worked for years as a translator with the U.S. Army in Iraq.

She brought him in for an interview at the Starbucks store she manages and was immediately impressed.

“He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met,” she said of Mo, an Iraqi refugee who came to the United States in October. His full name is being withheld for safety reasons. “I learn something new every time I talk to him.”

Rogers hired Mo in March, shortly after Starbucks announced its commitment to hire 10,000 refugees around the world by 2022 in response to the growing need.

“This is the worst global refugee crisis since World War II,” said John Kelly, senior vice president of Global Public Affairs and Social Impact. “More than 65 million people are displaced around the world, and many of them are highly qualified and undervalued.”

On Tuesday, World Refugee Day, Starbucks announced that as part of that commitment, the company will hire 2,500 refugees in the next five years in eight European markets – Great Britain, France, Austria, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Germany and the Netherlands. It will partner with International Rescue Committee, Refugee Council U.K. and other local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to help them match refugees with jobs.

In the U.S., the company is initially focusing on hiring refugees such as Mo who have worked as translators or support people for the U.S. armed forces on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. To identify those potential partners, Starbucks is partnering with No One Left Behind, a resettlement organization founded by a veteran and his translator.

While some interpreters concealed their faces when they worked with the U.S., Mo never did. Now he knows that if he was to go home, “if they recognize me, I will be in big trouble – they will kill me,” he said. “This is why I’m here. … To those of us in Iraq, America is the No. 1 country in the world.”

Understanding the risk that interpreters have taken and the bravery they have shown made Starbucks determined to help do right by them, Kelly said. It’s an initiative that was driven by many of the more than 10,000 U.S. military veterans and their spouses who work at Starbucks. (The company now has a commitment to hire 25,000 veterans by 2025).

“Our military veterans have educated us on the role of interpreters in their own careers on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan and how interpreters, as well as their dependents, risked their lives working for the U.S. government,” said Kelly. “In many cases, they saved the lives of U.S. servicemen and women.”

Stephen Chavez served in the U.S. Army Special Forces. On deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East during his 28-year military career, he saw first-hand how essential interpreters are.

“You come into another country and you don’t know who you can trust and it’s the relationship with that interpreter that really bridges the gap between military and civilian – and, even more importantly, to the culture of the region you are in,” said Chavez, a project manager in Global Coffee Engagement at Starbucks who is also a member of the company’s Armed Forces Network. “They can de-escalate violence before it ever starts.”

‘We have to be a family for him’

It was almost a year ago that Mo’s uncle and three cousins were killed by suicide bombers while at a holy shrine to observe Eid al-Fitr, a three-day celebration marking the end of Ramadan. “They killed 40 people of my tribe,” he said.

Mo, now 38, had begun the process of seeking refuge in the U.S. The day after the attack, he had his second interview at the U.S. embassy. His visa was approved and he arrived in Texas on Oct. 24.

Mo stresses how much he loves America, but when pressed, he says the hardest part of being away from Iraq is being separated from his family, including a blind brother he helped care for and hopes to bring to America. It’s still dangerous back home, he knows. Just last week he learned that two more of his relatives had been killed by a car bomb.

Rogers said as she and other partners at the store began learning from Mo what he’d been through and just how different life was in the U.S. from Iraq, “we realized we have to be a family for him.”

Chavez, the Army Special Forces veteran, said that just as interpreters help soldiers understand the culture and the nuances of their countries when they come to America, we need to do the same for them. “We’re returning the favor by bringing them into the country and helping them know not to step on toes,” he said. “There are so many things we would have been oblivious to if not for (interpreters).”

In addition to training him for the job, they also took steps to help him learn to navigate his new country, creating a “survival guide” explaining how to use the bus, go to the grocery store, how to open a bank account and more. When they learned that he was sometimes walking more than three miles to get to work on the days the bus wasn’t running, a partner sold him her car at a deeply discounted price.

“I love my coworkers,” he said. “They are great people. And Cody is so helpful.”

In turn, just as he was once a teacher in Iraq, he’s now become a teacher to his colleagues. “I have been humbled to get to work with him,” said Rogers. “He’s teaching us about his culture and his language.”

Mo has also become someone Rogers, 23, looks up to as a stable figure and an example of resiliency after trauma. Rogers had a tumultuous childhood and moved around a lot. “We were poor and not doing well,” she said.

She began working at Starbucks as a barista and worked her way up to store manager. “I can provide for myself in ways I’d never been able to before,” she said. “This is one of the reasons when I see people who this company can help, I have to hire them. It’s very personal to me.”

On the days when Mo is at work, everyone is happier, she said. “He’s created more of a homey feeling in our store. If he’s around, everyone is laughing. He creates a positive, uplifting environment.”

During a recent phone interview from work, Mo pulled over his shift supervisor to talk to a reporter.

“He’s teaching me to say ‘brother from another mother’ in Arabic,” said Justin Cannaday, before demonstrating it. In the background, Mo laughed and declared, “Good job!”

“He makes friends left and right,” Rogers said. He’s also helping build connections with customers.

One man came in regularly but only spoke Arabic so the partners in the store knew little about him. After Mo was hired and began talking with him, they learned he was from Kuwait and was in Texas while his son received medical care. “We learned his name and his story,” Rogers said.

Hiring refugees always adds value to a company, said Kelly, noting that Starbucks has done that organically for much of its nearly 50-year history.

“They are some of our most compelling partners and they bring a level of experience and diversity that is always beneficial to Starbucks stores,” he said. “Many refugees have a great educational background, they had careers, but what they don’t have is a home.”

Meanwhile, Mo is creating community in his new home. He’s learning how to find his way, a half a world away from everything he once knew. When he’s not working, he’s learning how to drive and is studying his fourth language – Spanish. And he’s finding home with the other refugees he’s met and the partners at his store.

“I consider them a great family,” he said. “I love this country.”

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Photo essay: Caps off to the class of 2024