Long road leads to new home, jobs for refugees

Employees at Aspire Cleaning Service, a Catholic Charities social enterprise program, clean the office at Catholic Charities’ Overland Park office. All of the service’s current employees are refugees who fled their countries for a better life and have now found hope through the help of Catholic Charities. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

by Moira Cullings
moira.cullings@theleaven.org

OVERLAND PARK — They escaped violence, discrimination and relentless fear.

They fled their homes and all they knew on only the hope of a better life.

Now, the refugees at Aspire Cleaning Service, a Catholic Charities social enterprise program, have a doorway to the American dream.

A second chance

Aspire was created by Catholic Charities employees Jasmine Baudler, Aspire Cleaning Service manager, and Rachel Pollock, director of refugee and immigration services.

“Our biggest mission is providing full time, stable employment at a livable wage for vulnerable or underemployed individuals,” said Baudler.

They hoped, said Pollock, “to work within our Catholic network to create jobs that allow families the consistency, pay and respect that they need to get on their feet.”

Both women had seen the struggles refugees faced and hoped to give them a better shot at life.

“They were placed in really low-waged, tough environments,” said Baudler.

“I really wanted to create a way for them to be employed full time, permanently, in safe work environments, with management that cared about them,” she added.

Aspire employees work 40-hour weeks, cleaning a variety of buildings Monday through Friday, and usually overnight.

The business currently employs eight people and has 10 ongoing contracts.

Employment opportunities for Aspire are now open to those that Catholic Charities serves in its Emergency Assistance Centers.

What makes the business unique is the fact that it’s a social enterprise, which means any profit it makes is reinvested into Catholics Charities programming.

“Aspire’s primary objective is to provide meaningful employment rather than churn a profit,” said Ken Williams, executive director of Catholic Charities.

“We pay Aspire staff above-market wages and offer full benefits, we provide free transportation to the job sites, and we do our best to provide full and consistent work for our employees,” he said.

Catholic Charities also works to connect the employees to career development and continuing education opportunities.

Those perks are rare in the cleaning industry, where the turnover rate tends to be high and job satisfaction low.

But Catholic Charities is determined to produce the best work environment possible for its employees.

Dream team

All of Aspire’s current employees are refugees.

“All of them are feeling persecution in some way, depending on what country they are coming from,” said Baudler.

That shared history gives the business a family feel.

“Our employees are very proud to be a part of the team,” said Pollock, “and we can tell this by the referrals that they give to their family members and friends.”

Baudler has a list of people hoping to work for Aspire, Pollock added, and people stop by her office regularly to show their interest in working for the program.

For now, Aspire’s employees work in teams of three, serving either as a janitor, lead janitor or team lead.

Their strong work ethic is perhaps due, in part, to the hardship they experienced in their home countries.

Several employees are from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where they fled war and discrimination.

In the chaos of his flight from the Congo, M, a teacher before coming to the United States, became separated from his wife and children.

“I ran away to Kenya,” he said. “I lived in a [refugee] camp for two years by myself [before] I met [up again with] my wife and children in the camp.”

Once reunited, M and his family spent five more years in the camp before being accepted into the United States.

For G, who has 10 children and another on the way, it took seven years of waiting.

“We left the village up to the forest and stayed in the forest with my family for one month,” he said.

G’s family was without food and other basic necessities during that time.

Fortunately, they made it to Uganda, where they stayed in a refugee camp for seven years before coming to the U.S.

But for the average refugee, said Baudler, it takes 18 years to get here.

“We are happy here,” said M. “We sleep, we drink and we eat without running.”

Two other cleaners are from Iraq, where one was a cleaning supervisor for the American military hospital and served as an interpreter for the military when they interrogated Iraqi suspects.

“He really has added so much value to this company because he’s very meticulous in his cleaning,” said Baudler.

“He trains everyone how to clean properly, which I think shows in our quality of service,” she said.

Baudler believes Aspire can become a top competitor in the cleaning industry thanks to the determination of these employees, and she has high hopes for even greater success in their individual futures.

“I truly hope that they’re self-sufficient — for themselves and their families,” she said. “But also I hope that they see their worth.”

“They’re able to do more,” she continued. “I want them to live the American dream that everyone has.

“I feel like if they’re given the resources, they’re going to thrive.”

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