World Relief rejects job applicant over his faith
An Iraqi refugee who works as an interpreter with World Relief is encouraged to apply for a job as a caseworker helping other arriving Arabic-speaking refugees, but then is told he doesn't qualify after all because he's not a Christian.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Saad Mohammad Ali had volunteered for six months at World Relief, helping the agency resettle arriving Iraqi refuges, when a manager suggested he apply for an Arabic-speaking caseworker job.
The 42-year-old SeaTac resident had been an interpreter for the U.S. government in Iraq before coming to the U.S. two years ago — himself as a refugee.
With a degree in statistics, strong English skills and basic knowledge of American culture, Mohammad Ali, who now works as a baggage handler at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, could help his arriving countrymen temper their typically high expectations of life in America.
But a few days after he applied for the position last December, the Muslim and father of three got an unexpected call from the same manager at World Relief: She was sorry, she told him, but the agency couldn't offer him the job because he is not Christian.
The response may have surprised Mohammad Ali and others who hear his story, but the practice is not new: World Relief is well within its right to reject him for employment.
Recognizing the need of faith-based organizations to maintain an atmosphere of shared values and principles, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 permits them to hire based on religion. Such groups, largely philanthropic, range from soup kitchens and drug-counseling services to refugee-resettlement agencies.
Among these are organizations like World Relief, which provides aid to some of the world's most vulnerable, and operates in the U.S., helping resettle refugees from all cultural and religious backgrounds.
Grounded in evangelical faith, the Baltimore-based organization receives up to 70 percent of its funding from government sources, with the rest from private donors, including churches seeking assurances that the religious values of those carrying out the agency's work are similar to their own.
Staff members at the agency also say the work they do can be stressful and so they pray during meetings to help ease that stress — a practice they believe might make non-Christians uncomfortable.
While there's little debate that faith-based organizations should be allowed to hire based on faith, some civil-liberty groups argue that public funds should not be used to subsidize those that do.
"There is saying in these circles: With shekels should come shackles," said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar with the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va.
And while other refugee-resettlement agencies across the Puget Sound region could also hire based on faith, most say they choose not to.
Placing religious limitations on who can and cannot work at Jewish Family Services, for example, would "make it more difficult to find culturally appropriate staff to serve the refugees you are resettling," said Shane Rock, the agency's director of refugee service.
And Jan Stephens, with Lutheran Community Services, said he doesn't ask the religion of job candidates.
To Mohammad Ali, it seems unusual that he could serve as a volunteer and later as a paid contractor for World Relief but can't be employed.
His frustration is not with local workers who advocated for him and even sought an exception on his behalf from the agency's headquarters, he said, but with a policy he finds in conflict with everything he's learned about this country.
"I've heard over and over again that in the U.S. discrimination in any form is not accepted," he said.
"So it was a disappointment."
Started in 1940s
World Relief was started in the 1940s by evangelical leaders to clothe and feed victims of World War II. In later years it expanded to serve needy people around the globe and now has one of the largest humanitarian operations in Haiti.
In the U.S., it is one of a dozen or so resettlement agencies that have agreements with the State Department to resettle tens of thousands of refugees the country welcomes each year. Those agreements prohibit proselytizing.
Stephan Bauman, its senior vice president of programs, said the organization's Christian-only hiring has been practice but not formal policy for many years.
"Some people started to say we were hiring as a faith-based organization without a clear policy," he said.
So in recent months, the agency formalized its policy, which he said "allows us to preserve our core identity and value. It has nothing to do with the people we serve or work with."It also began requiring employees to sign a statement of faith, affirming the organization's mission, vision and values, which, among other things, include using the life of Jesus Christ as an example for doing good.
Volunteers, interns and contractors, like Mohammad Ali, are required to acknowledge an understanding of these principles, Bauman said, though they are not required to sign a statement.
Julianna McWilliams, the agency's Seattle spokeswoman, said the local staff values Mohammad Ali's services.
"This is not something we've confronted in the past because the people seeking employment here have always been Christian," she said, adding that five of the agency's seven Seattle managers are former refugees.
She said prayer is common at staff meetings. "At times we feel a lot of hopelessness so we spend a lot of time in prayer," she said. "So and so can't get a job, we can't find them one and we ask God to lift things up in prayer."
McWilliams said while faith is a key part of the group's mission, workers at the World Relief offices in Seattle are careful not to evangelize.
"If someone is coming in as a Muslim from Iraq or Somalia, we never talk about religion," she said.
Among metropolitan areas nationwide, the Seattle region is among the top 10 in the country in the number of refugees it resettles. In recent years, the number arriving from Iraq has steadily grown.
Many come with high expectations — in part because they have cooperated with the U.S. government in Iraq and also because they may be better educated than other refugees.
When World Relief wouldn't hire him, Mohammad Ali, who ran a business in Iraq, quit volunteering for the organization but returned days later, knowing he was well suited to help his countrymen adjust to the realities of life as a refugee.
"It's about knowing the culture and what to expect — the good and the bad," he said.
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or email@example.com
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.