Kofi Darku: 00:00 The war for talent is real skill. Skill up Build Up is a place to connect with business and community leaders to surface forward thinking solutions for a better skilled workforce to compete in the 21st century. On today's episode, we have Cole Varga, executive director at Exodus Refugee Immigration. Thanks for joining us today, Cole.
Cole Varga: 00:29 Happy to be here. Thanks for having me.
Kofi Darku: 00:30 Awesome. We're just gonna jump right in.
Cole Varga: 00:32 Let's do it.
Kofi Darku: 00:33 So, Cole, our audience is curious. They want to know more about you. Can you please tell us about yourself and what Exodus does?
Cole Varga: 00:39 Sure, so I'm the executive director of Exodus Refugee Immigration. We are a small nonprofit that serves the resettlement needs of refugees here in Indianapolis. So we're one of many agencies across the country that does this where the, effectively the organization on the ground thats there to welcome refugees at the airport. Uh, take them to their first new apartment in town, get their kids in school, get them their first jobs, get them into English classes, doctor's appointments, all the sort of core services in the first few months, up to five years even. Beyond those core services, of course we help with things like mental health needs. We have a women's program, a youth program, lots of ongoing services to make sure refugees adjust to their new life here in Indiana.
Adam Scholtes: 01:25 Cole, you mentioned that there's many agencies, you're one of many agencies?
Cole Varga: 01:28 That's right.
Adam Scholtes: 01:28 How many Exoduses are there out there?
Cole Varga: 01:32 Well, we're all sort of independent nonprofits that are part of this national system and it's actually a federal program. So refugees are invited by the US government. Um, I'm not sure the exact number, in years past it was around 300 agencies, but I think that's unfortunately declined recently with, uh, all of the policy shifts.
Adam Scholtes: 01:52 So as we're looking at companies right now, the labor market's really tight, right? So everybody's trying to think of different solutions and how to, how to bring in more people. I may be a different type of candidate into their company. Why should companies be thinking about the immigrant population as a potential solution for their hiring needs right now?
Cole Varga: 02:16 Yeah, that's a good question. I think there's a couple of reasons. One would be you're bringing in diverse groups of people that have many different life experiences in their past, right? So, uh, for example, I recently was talking to a guy, a young man from Eritrea uh, he came just a couple of months ago.
Adam Scholtes: 02:34 And where's Eritrea?
New Speaker: 02:34 Yeah, sure. It's sort of on the Horn of Africa by Ethiopia. Okay. So anyway, this guy has been through just, his story is incredible. He had some schooling in Eritrea, uh, self taught in many ways too, well-read, speaks a lot of English actually, which is somewhat unique to be that fluent in English when you arrived. But uh, this guy, it's just what he's been through. The resilience studies shown the life skills that you have just from being a refugee would be such a huge asset. It's the perspective he has on the world, perspective, he can bring to any team like those, I hate to use the word intangibles, but uh, that's kind of what I'm talking about here. Just different ways of viewing the world.
Adam Scholtes: 03:16 Could you, could you lump it in and under, like my mind goes to soft skills, right? But I don't know if you would call it soft skills, but it's just different skills that maybe experiences.
Cole Varga: 03:26 Clearly does have hard skills too, of course. So, uh, yeah, adding that in. So if you're, if you're brainstorming, if you're thinking about new processes, you've got people that have had experiences in their life, have skills. I know one guy who would, who became a coder at the JW Marriott and help work on an APP for them as they were thinking about how they're tracking the cleaning of the rooms and things like that. So just unique things that refugees can bring to the table.
Adam Scholtes: 03:54 So go ahead. Go ahead.
Kofi Darku: 03:55 So I love the example that you shared and as you referenced and we went into the soft skill side, you were quite clear that he has hard skills and a background that he comes with. Can you speak to what this gentleman's hard skills are too?
Cole Varga: 04:10 Yeah, he actually did some teaching when he was back in his home country. So he had some experience, you know, setting up lesson plans, things like that. So I'm not sure what I think if I recall, he wants to be a nurse perhaps, and it's in his future career, so he's got some, of course studying to do before then, but you know, just talking about team meetings and things like that, being able to, to lay out agendas and just being able to contribute to a different voice. Right. So further than that, I've got a few people just on my staff alone, uh, from the refugee community who were engineers in their country, a surgeon from Burma on staff. Just, it's incredible what people can bring to the table and what careers they end up in and if it's not what we studied, such as me, I was psychology and criminal justice undergrad and now I'm running a nonprofit that helps refugees.
Kofi Darku: 05:06 That's great. But what's really interesting in these examples is that they were actually practicing as engineers and surgeons in former life. But when they come to the US, uh, oftentimes they can be viewed as not even potentially having those skills. And oftentimes end up holding jobs were significantly less than status and also reflected in their, their wage or salary too, which I think is a story we need to be telling more because we can transition them to higher wage positions because I, I just fear oftentimes that we're putting our more disconnected or diverse populations in lower paid, lower paying positions when they really could be doing much more and unfortunately those community settle and just stay there too.
Cole Varga: 05:53 That's right. And you know, in the case of people coming as doctors for example, the accreditation is nearly impossible. You basically have to redo it. So it's, it's not a, it's not something that can be tackled by most people taking on another four years of schooling or more to become a doctor again in the American system. But yeah, there's other ways that they can help. There's other ways that the person I'm thinking of chose to help by giving back to the refugee community. So, um, yeah, there really is community is really inspiring to work with and I think you guys probably know that very well to their, um, as soon as they're able to take care of themselves or even before that there are probably reaching out to other people to help them to their new neighbors, their family members that are joining them. Um, it's pretty generous.
Adam Scholtes: 06:38 You mentioned you have a person on your staff from Burma that was a surgeon. Do you find that when those folks come over that are surgeons or have these degrees that don't, uh, the accreditation doesn't translate over, do you find that they want them to become a doctor here as well? Or do they or do these folks coming over today kind of go ahead and just set that aside and they're trying to just rebuild a new life in a different way?
Cole Varga: 07:07 Depends really on the person. I think it's sometimes it's fairly clear that it's not an achievable goal unfortunately.
Adam Scholtes: 07:15 Why is that?
Cole Varga: 07:17 Well, just because of the insurmountable amount of money and time to figure accredited. Yeah. So, and that's not to say there aren't other ways too that people can contribute and give back and they, and they do such as my colleague that I mentioned, but now most refugees that come of course aren't doctors and that's okay too, and we need people from all over the spectrum to help contribute to our companies and into our community. So most of the people we're getting now, we're starting to transition to refugees coming from Democratic Republic of the Congo, whereas in the past decade or so, Burma's been the primary group and that's a shifting nationally, not just here and with people coming from Congo, most of them have been in camps for a very, very long time, unfortunately. So like years, years and years, if not most of their lives. So working with this group is quite different and even case to case is different, right? Individual to individual people have different life experiences. But I'm seeing Congolese refugees come and their, in general desire to work quickly to, to help provide for their families, to help plan for future relatives that will come as well is really, um, inspiring also.
Adam Scholtes: 08:36 So if I'm a business owner, right, so I'll paint a scenario real quick. I own a business and I'm listening to this episode on the Skill Up Build Up Podcast. I'm going, wow, Exodus may, maybe I haven't heard of exodus before or I haven't thought about hiring immigrants to help help my labor, my labor needs. How would I go about doing that? What? Like what would be the top two, three steps that you would say here, here's, here's how you should go about that.
Cole Varga: 09:06 So one thing would be to reach out to our team and you can do that through our website, exodusrefugee.org. We have an employment team about six or seven people and their job is just to help connect people with, with job opportunities. Uh, but first we try to get people ready. So the refugees that come in, we're doing employment readiness training, we're doing English classes, we're doing cultural orientation, financial literacy, so people know how to manage their money and once they do get a paycheck, we're doing a lot of those skills,hopefully upfront before they're being placed in jobs. And a lot of our connections are coming from the community.
Cole Varga: 09:40 The team at Morales Group has been very helpful to us, of course, helping place people, uh, some of the pick and pack warehouses that we have partnerships with, the hotels downtown, a lot of employer contacts that we already have strong relationships with. So I would say reaching out with them to establish a first meeting, talk about our services, talk about our, I guess our pipeline of workers, um, and see if they're a good match. I will say, of course right now, uh, it has to be addressed is the fact that the pipeline is a lot slimmer than it used to be, thanks to policy shifts. So, you know, just looking back two years ago, the country brought in about 85,000 refugees, in this year, the US is only going to bring in about 22,000.
Kofi Darku: 10:26 That is such a steep cliff.
Cole Varga: 10:30 So that is a severe decrease, uh, thanks to the Trump administration's policies, um, and coming at a time when there's 25.4 million refugees, we actually have more refugees now than any time since World War Two. And we've just decided to welcome the least amount since that time also.
Kofi Darku: 10:44 As you were explaining earlier, there used to be roughly 300 resettlement agencies across the nation. You say the numbers decline, uh, you say two years ago, 85,000 refugees resettled. We know that with 2019 the limit will be 30,000.
Cole Varga: 11:02 That's right.
Kofi Darku: 11:02 Can you recall what it was in years prior to two years ago? Like what was the annual number for 2014 and 2015?
Cole Varga: 11:09 Yeah. So on an average since the Refugee Act, which is sort of the modern period that was 1980, about 95,000 have come annually and in the first year it was over 200,000. So we're quite capable of welcoming a number of refugees if we need to, if the circumstances arise. And I think they have, we have Congo, we have a, Somalia is still going on. We have civil war in Syria that is not going away anytime soon. We have a new genocide happening in Burma with the Rohingya. There's all these things building up and if we're not doing anything to relieve the pressure, who will.
Kofi Darku: 11:45 You also brought up a really good point that data wise and statistically I love comparing populations to see if they could help in combating a certain gap or deficiency that I know we have and I'm trying to still talk with the emotion and the passion as I started to talk about numbers, but our economy's doing so well that we have a large surplus of jobs and that number is just going to grow year to year for the next 7 to 10 years. I'm sure that the number is greater than 25 point whatever million that you cited in terms of the total number of global refugees. It's just counterintuitive that we would start restricting the number of people coming into our country when we have such a great need for people to fill jobs and you have a population that's in need and could could use the assistance. It's baffling, it's counterintuitive. Hopefully there will be some situation or development that happens that helps us reflect and say, Oh wow, we need to open that hopefully within the next one to definitely not more than sooner than the next two years, sooner than the next year.
Cole Varga: 12:58 One would hope and even looking at it on the smaller scale of the Indiana situation, we're in some real trouble in terms of population staying here. So of 92 country or excuse me, out of 92 counties, I think more than 30, maybe 37 or so I've had flat population or negative population growth, so who's taking all these jobs, not just in Indianapolis area, but in Fort Wayne and Evansville and even rural communities and there's no one net moving into the to the state. Why don't we bring some people that need help?
Kofi Darku: 13:30 Well, I know we do have some successes here and I'm glad that we brought it back down to the state level. Are there any community efforts that are happening within the state of Indiana or within the Indianapolis area that are happening right now that will help skill up our immigrant and refugee workforce? And when I say skill up, we're trying to lead talent to thrive. We're very focused on that, so skilling up is helping them learn the skills that can help them secure a higher paying job.
Cole Varga: 13:59 Yeah. Well we do what we can at Exodus to help people find their initial job. And that's, that's uh, I'd say one of the core missions of our employment team. It's just grabbing that first rung of the ladder. And we, we are sure to tell people your first job is not your last job. This is just the first part of a long ladder. So work there, work for six months, get in the groove, get some income for your family. If you want a new job, come back and we'll talk and we'll, we'll find you that next job. Work on your English, work on your skills, work on your, you know, getting some employment references from your first job because they don't have work histories here unfortunately, um, so that's sort of where we're at as an agency. In terms of external partners, I know some of the local schools have tried to reach out more to the, to the population, specifically the Burmese population, of course, uh, which is around 15 to 17,000 here in Indianapolis and another 12 or 15 in Fort Wayne. So I think getting, most people are focusing then on the second generation, but the younger generation of, of refugees, so maybe those that came when they were 10 and now they're getting into high school. They're good, they're looking at colleges. There's been some efforts to make sure that they're, they're gonna be able to apply for college on an equal footing right and be ready to take those jobs that can support their community. So I know several young kids in the Burmese community that have gone into nursing for example, and want to support the community through, through healthcare.
Adam Scholtes: 15:29 Cole, what does success look like to you on a daily basis? So you have a refugee that comes in, what, what, what is, what is success? You getting them into that job? You getting them to have their own, their own home, them getting the next job? What, how do you guys gauge success at Exodus?
Cole Varga: 15:50 I think there's a lot of small points of success. So the first point I would say is just having refugees joining us here at that moment. They step off the airplane and they're finally home again or home for the first time you might even say, yeah, um, they're, they're here, they have an apartment that they're going to be welcomed into. They have a community that's going to help them. Uh, they're going to have schools, they're going to have healthcare, they're going to have resources and a community to back them up, um, for maybe the first time ever, so just that in itself is a success. In terms of other services we provide, of course, picking up some words of English, being able to say a full sentence, being able to write your name for maybe the first time ever. Those are little successes that, that push people towards longterm success.
Adam Scholtes: 16:37 That's great.
Kofi Darku: 16:37 All right, another tough question. Okay. But this subject, uh, how we're engaging our immigrants and refugees dear to my heart. So I, I'd like to ask these questions. Can you speak to any anti or pro immigrant sentiment that you've experienced as you're doing your work at exodus?
Cole Varga: 16:57 Sure. Well, um, most notably in on the anti refugee side, of course we'd have to bring up our old friend, governor Mike Pence, now VP Pence of course. So he, um, and a few other governors across the country a couple of years ago decided that they were going to try and ban Syrians from, from entering the state.
Kofi Darku: 17:19 I'm sure many of us remember.
Cole Varga: 17:22 Yeah. Well, besides that being an awful idea, it, it didn't go over well in the federal court, so we were able to stand up to them with the help of the ACLU. But that was, I would say, kind of a turning point for our agency and how we approach outreach, um, in the community about talking about refugees. So it did a couple of things. One, it, it for the first time that I'm aware of in my history, we had political pressure from outside really fighting back against refugee resettlement and of course it only got worse unfortunately in the past two years.
Cole Varga: 17:57 Um, but what actually happened, the response to that, not just the legal case against him that we ended up winning, but the response from the community here in Indianapolis or wider in Indiana and even from other cities across the country was overwhelmingly positive and pro refugee. So Evansville, Bloomington, Lafayette communities from those cities all reached out to us and tried to say, actually, we want to help welcome refugees too can we start an office here? How can we get involved? So, um, I think within a couple of weeks of the, all the initial dealings with Pence, we had about 400 people sign up to volunteer with us. Uh, just overwhelming support from the community to try and meet the needs of refugees and continue to welcome them.
Kofi Darku: 18:42 Yeah, that's a great example. Thank you for that. Are there any events or volunteer opportunities that we can connect our community with that could help Exodus? How would they go about learning about these? How can they connect with you to participate?
Cole Varga: 18:57 Sure. Uh, there's a couple of different ways. One is coming up in November on, I believe it's Sunday, the fourth, there's a family dance night, which is a, the proceeds from that night are going to benefit Exodus Refugee. So this is going to be at the Speak Easy in Broad Ripple and I think you can find it on our linked on our Facebook page. It's called Fam Jams. So I'll be there dancing with my four year old. He's really into Call me Maybe right now for some reason.
Kofi Darku: 19:25 Oh that's, it's very interesting. There's a reflection on the parents there. I like that. That's cool. Fam Jams on November fourth.
Cole Varga: 19:32 And then of course, uh, it's getting into the cold weather season, so we're trying to collect donated coats, scarves, hats for our new families that are stepping off the planes. So from about this time to April of next year, we'll be giving out a coat and gloves and a hat to every new family that comes to us. So. And then of course the kids grow like crazy. Uh, so we're going to need new sizes for everybody to a, for people from last year. So, um, if you want to put together like a bin of coats. You're cleaning out your closets, things like that, you can drop it off a down Exodus office which is on east Washington street downtown.
Kofi Darku: 20:08 Awesome.
Adam Scholtes: 20:11 Cole, we'd like to get into some personal questions on, on our podcast just to, to kind of learn more about you and things you like and kinda kinda how you work. So, um, with that I wanna I wanna throw a really hard hitting question to you and this is, this is probably harder than what we've talked about today. What's the last book you've read?
Cole Varga: 20:33 Completed? I'm in the midst of a Ben Rhodes book right now and he was one of the speech writers for Obama. So kind of the Internet, the behind the scenes, international politics of the administration...
Adam Scholtes: 20:50 Ben Rhodes? R h o...
Cole Varga: 20:52 R h o, d e, s. Yep. So really fascinating to hear sort of how foreign policy was developed behind the scenes and how some of the most, you know, important events in the last eight years really came about.
Adam Scholtes: 21:05 Which, what's the, what's your most favorite book you've ever read?
Cole Varga: 21:07 Oh Man. Uh, I, I often tell people Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut's my favorite book. It's certainly up there for me.
Kofi Darku: 21:19 All right. We keep the hard hitting questions coming. Say you get the day off. What are you going to do with that day off?
Cole Varga: 21:29 As little as possible.
Kofi Darku: 21:30 You do have a four year old, I understand.
Cole Varga: 21:32 I do have a four year old. So actually yesterday I had the day off with him, uh, because IPS, his pre k was closed, so we went to the park and the library got some Halloween books, went out to lunch and uh, I thought that was going to be a real cool thing, but he only, you know, decided to eat the cheese off of his grilled cheese. And that was it. I bought a gallon of chocolate milk too. So thats a real special daddy day.
Adam Scholtes: 22:02 So that's a perfect segway, then. Favorite lunch spot. And here's what, here's what, here's what we're going to do. Favorite lunch spot by yourself. Favorite lunch spot with the family or the four year old. What's the four year old's name?
Cole Varga: 22:14 Owen.
Adam Scholtes: 22:14 Owen, ok so there's another two contrasting answers there. So
Kofi Darku: 22:18 I like that.
Cole Varga: 22:19 Well his, let's say his favorite restaurant, which by extension becomes our favorite restaurant as a family, is the Mug in Irvington. Yes. So it could be because they have ice cream there also in addition to food.
Kofi Darku: 22:33 I'm sure that factors in.
Cole Varga: 22:35 Yeah. Um, and then my, my personal lunch spot, I'm really into Milktooth these days, which is more brunch, like super good food.
Adam Scholtes: 22:45 So I live here. I've never heard of either, for all of our out of state listeners. Give us what's, what's the Mug was like, what are we thinking?
Cole Varga: 22:53 Mug is like a burger joint, ice cream.
Adam Scholtes: 22:56 I'll be going to The Mug right after this recording.
Cole Varga: 23:01 It's pretty tasty and they have beer, so
Adam Scholtes: 23:01 I'm there.
Kofi Darku: 23:03 For both levels of the fam.
Kofi Darku: 23:05 That's awesome.
Adam Scholtes: 23:06 Okay. And then, uh,
Cole Varga: 23:09 Then milktooth is a, is a cool brunch place over kinda Fletcher Place area, Fountain Square ish.
Kofi Darku: 23:16 Milktooth.
Adam Scholtes: 23:18 Got it.
Kofi Darku: 23:19 This has been such a fun episode and very informative. Uh, we are working as hard as we can to help more people know about how we can support our immigrant and refugee populations, how we can embrace and welcome them as well. Um, as we wrap up, are there any other ways that people can either donate or contribute or support the Exodus cause can you tell us more about that?
Cole Varga: 23:42 Yeah. So, uh, if you check out our website, exodusrefugee.org, we've got some volunteer opportunities up. If you're part of a business or a community group or a faith group. Uh, we often take co-sponsors so a group of maybe 10 or so friends, community members could get together and kind of wrap around a family and be there first friends in the community. Um, we're, we're doing the winter coat drive of course right now, but we always need other supplies too. So if you're interested in helping out and coming up with some pots and pans that you're getting rid of, or just some clothing, some, uh, a dinner table that you want to bring by our office, we can always use those items because then we're not having to use funding out of the refugee families budget. We can stretch their funds further, so any donations help.
Adam Scholtes: 24:31 That's great.
Kofi Darku: 24:32 Awesome. Well thanks again. We really appreciate how Exodus is helping our refugees here in Indianapolis come home for the first time and uh, we'll be in touch and we'll be talking more about this soon I'm sure.
Cole Varga: 24:45 Thanks so much for having me guys.
Adam Scholtes: 24:46 Thanks Cole. Wow. Great conversation with Cole Varga today. One of the things he touches on in that episode was the pipeline for refugees is smaller right now due to the current climate, but it doesn't mean that they, uh, that they need less help right now. I think we have to be very aware of that. I also liked when I had asked him about what does success mean, and he talked about the refugee coming off the plane for the first time and being home for the first time once they land on, so I thought that was a great illustration.
Kofi Darku: 25:15 Yeah really deep points during this episode and back to that main way you can help Exodus and our immigrant and refugee populations could really use donations as winter approaches, so please go to exodusrefugee.org to find out how you can help and donate. Another strong point from this conversation is that we did a pretty deep dive on diversity and ways that we can engage our immigrant population in this episode. I really loved that he emphasized how Indy is a really inspirational community for this type of work, so we should take heart in that and really do as much as we can to support them. Please stay in touch with this conversation by checking us out on skillupbuildup.com.