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Great Lakes Cheese finds talent and potential in hiring refugees

Company has doubled in size in the last 5 years
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Posted at 4:23 PM, Mar 17, 2022

HIRAM, Ohio — It might look like heaven to some people — Great Lakes Cheese in Hiram, Ohio. A place where, everywhere you look, you find every type of cheese.

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Great Lakes Cheese.

Sliced, diced, raining down mozzarella. But for some, this place is a new beginning.

Like Waisuddin Habibzai, who arrived in the United States from Afghanistan six months ago, fleeing his homeland for his family’s safety.

He came with his wife, two young daughters, a few thousand dollars in his pocket.

“It was a shock and disaster for me, leaving,” Waisuddin said. “But we had no other choice. We left it all behind.”

So he set out to get a job and despite being educated and experienced in an office setting, Waisuddin believed he needed to start all over again — interviewing for factory jobs at first.

“We saw the talent and potential that Waisuddin has and said, ‘Let’s take a chance,’” said Mara Kamat, vice president of Human Resources at Great Lakes Cheese.

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Great Lakes Cheese provides 25% of the cheese in America — and has doubled in size in the last five years — 4,000 employees and growing.

Kamat said they have made a conscious effort, for years, to hire refugees, like the many Hmong refugees they brought in years ago to their three Wisconsin facilities.

“They’re very loyal and committed, like many of our other employees as well, so we’ve seen the benefit of that,” she added.

And having a diverse workforce means adapting to the workplace.

Multicultural spaces, prayer rooms and wraparound services to offer transportation and different schedules for break times are some of the ways Great Lakes Cheese adapts to a diverse workforce.

The company holds donation drives to help refugees get what they need to get their lives in America started.

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Great Lakes Cheese.

And according to the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services, our state has welcomed roughly 1,600 Afghan arrivals in recent months — many of them, coming straight to Cleveland.

Evan Chwalek is the economic integration coordinator at US Together, a refugee resettlement agency.

Translation - he helps people find jobs.

“I’d say first and foremost they are incredibly loyal employees,” said Chwalek, who served as Waissudin’s case manager. “There’s a huge influx of people who are really eager to work and give back to the communities that are hosting them.”

People like Waisuddin.

Instead of getting the factory job he applied for, Great Lakes Cheese created a position for him in their human resources department, to take advantage of his experience and skills.

It's proof that refugees and immigrants don’t need to start from the very beginning when they come to America.

“Sometimes when there are challenges, difficult times, there’s always an opportunity,” Waisuddin said. “I tried to make the best out of the worst.”

There are currently about 40 openings at Great Lakes Cheese in Ohio. You can search for jobs by clicking this link.