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Communicating Culture

Helping international refugees become part of the community

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In a basement in downtown Boise, a bustling room filled with the hum of various languages. Refugees from Bhutan, Burundi and Burma shuffled in their chairs as interpreters explained how to fill out American job applications. Kids in glittery T-shirts tugged at their mothers' traditional, brightly colored sarongs. After the International Rescue Committee's weekly job-training class was over, Ganga Ram Gautam, a Nepali-speaking torture victim from Bhutan, asked an interpreter to explain how excited he is to finally be in America. Gautam—who was an interesting blend of east and west dressed in a black polo shirt with a South Asian red streak on his forehead—said that he used to be a farmer, but after being scarred by hot irons on his back, he is no longer able to do the heavy lifting required for the job. He's thankful to be learning English and hopes to get a job at a place like Wal-Mart.

Bhutanese refugees take a break ot the IRC's job-training class. On the far right is Ganga Ram Gautam, a torture victim. - JOYCE ALEXANDER
  • Joyce Alexander
  • Bhutanese refugees take a break ot the IRC's job-training class. On the far right is Ganga Ram Gautam, a torture victim.

"He is very happy to be here and wants to thank the IRC," explained interpreter Raj Shrestha. "Now he can sign his name and knows some of the alphabet so he can try to get a job."

With refugee families arriving year round, there are always new faces—and new languages—that need help assimilating into Boise's increasingly complex cultural tapestry. Though this can seem like an insurmountable task at times, the handful of dedicated community leaders and volunteers who work to educate incoming refugee families are completely committed to the cause. As the first people refugees meet when they get off the plane and the first people they turn to for help acclimating to their new homes, this group of agency directors, case workers, volunteers and community members work closely to ensure refugees are equipped with the necessary skills to pursue the American dream.

Right now in Boise, 93 languages are spoken from 101 different countries, with the majority of this dizzying diversity coming from the refugee community. Unlike migrants, who choose to come to America seeking a better life, refugees are people with no other choice.

According to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is defined as someone who, "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."

In most cases, refugees are either returned home from the camps where they seek asylum, or resettled permanently in the country hosting the camp. Only 1 percent of all refugees are approved for resettlement in a third country like the United States. But before any of these people can set foot on American soil, they must maneuver through a complex system of verification. Asylum seekers who meet U.S. criteria for resettlement are first interviewed in their country of refuge by an Immigration and Naturalization Services officer. If they are approved, they are then matched with one of 10 resettlement organizations in the United States and assigned to a city. Boise is home to three non-profit resettlement organization offices: International Rescue Committee, World Relief and Agency for New Americans. Though all refugees receive some sort of formal American cultural orientation before they depart for the United States, the majority of cultural education—everything from reading clocks to navigating the health-care system—is provided at the local resettlement agency level.

Handling the Influx

"There's a natural cap in the town with the three agencies [handling] resettling here. There's only so many apartments, doctors' offices; the infrastructure can only handle so much flow," said Larry M. Jones, affiliate director of World Relief in Boise. "It's like putting water through a pipe. You can only get so much through."

Refugee populations in Boise fluctuate depending on international crises as well as local availability of trained interpreters, jobs, housing and medical facilities. Presently, Boise agencies are settling large numbers of Burundians, Burmese, Iraqis and Bhutanese, and late summer is their busiest time of year.

Steve Rainey, director of the English Language Center, pauses in the school's donated computer lab. - JOYCE ALEXANDER
  • Joyce Alexander
  • Steve Rainey, director of the English Language Center, pauses in the school's donated computer lab.

As the federal government scrambles to spend the money earmarked for refugee resettlement before the end of the fiscal year, local agencies are struggling to handle the surge of refugees who emerge wide-eyed and exhausted from the Boise Airport terminal. Though Boise has been distinguished as a city that can provide for the needs of these specific populations—with a low cost of living, available interpreters and ample religious institutions—resettlement staff and volunteers are still working around the clock to keep up with the weekly arrivals.

"Each agency has its very own unique personality and philosophy about how refugees are resettled. But in the end, we all receive the same federal funding and we all have to adhere to the same standards and requirements for resettlement," said Leslye Boban, director of IRC in Boise.

Federal funding for refugee resettlement flows into the Idaho Office of Refugees, a private contractor that is a part of the larger Mountain States Group. In addition to the money dispersed to the agencies, each refugee is granted a one-time amount of $425, a small sum referred to as "welcome money."

Ten years ago, refugee resettlement funds in Idaho were controlled by the State Department of Health and Welfare, but moving to a private contractor has helped shed the myriad layers of bureaucracy that can often clog state systems.

"Because of the smallness [of IOR], it gives us the ability to be a little more progressive and creative in providing services," said Steve Rainey, director of the IOR's English Language Center. "Frequently, Idaho is on the cutting edge of refugee services in the whole country."

Another thing that local agencies have in their favor is their incredibly close working relationship. Each of the agencies' directors meet once a month with Rainey to discuss successful resettlement strategies and to bounce around new ideas for combating problems. Whether it's finding solutions to apartment shortages for large refugee families or discussing employment opportunities for largely illiterate populations, the agencies rely heavily on one another.

"Generally, we have a very collaborative relationship," said Christina Bruce-Bennion, local director of ANA.

Home Away From Home

When refugee families first arrive, an agency staff member and an interpreter greet them at the airport and take them directly to their new, furnished apartments to sign a lease. Though there aren't any complexes in town that are designated solely for refugees, there are a few that have established close partnerships with the agencies to provide affordable housing.

"We are, I'm sure, one of the mainstays of their income because the three agencies are placing 400 to 500 apartments a year, Jones said. "[The refugees] walk in the door tired and confused, and there's sheets on the bed, there might even be flowers on the table, there's food in the refrigerator ... Their education starts the moment they get off the plane."

Some refugee populations, like the Burundians and the Bhutanese, have lived in refugee camps for the majority of their lives and have little or no experience with running water, modern appliances or even carpet.

Kary Burin, a volunteer with IRC, has spent the past few months assisting the Piyos family from Burundi. For a few hours every week, Burin teaches them English, takes them grocery shopping and helps answer general questions they have about American life.

"[IRC] likes the volunteers to go over to the house and look around and see if there are any problems," Burin explained. "Check the refrigerator, make sure that they're properly preserving their food, that they don't have any food sitting in cupboards. Because they're refugees, they don't waste any food, so they're never going to throw it away."

Before they get established and have a steady source of income, refugee families like the Piyos receive a food card from their resettlement agency with a monthly limit for groceries. Burin has taken the Piyos to WinCo a number of times and helped the family fill their cart with bulk basics like beans, rice, potatoes, bananas and meat.

"A real challenge is comparison shopping because the refugee camp always handed them stuff," Burin said. "They have no more concept that two similar things could sit side by side on the shelf and that, for some reason, you'd be paying twice as much for one as the other. So trying to explain that and to see if they understand it is very difficult."

Volunteers Ronna Parish (left) and Jamie Delavan (right) instruct refugees on human rights. - JOYCE ALEXANDER
  • Joyce Alexander
  • Volunteers Ronna Parish (left) and Jamie Delavan (right) instruct refugees on human rights.

But not all refugee families in Boise are entirely unfamiliar with modern living and a capitalist economy. Laura Corollo, an IRC volunteer who works with an Iraqi refugee family, explains that her family is adjusting rather quickly to their new way of life.

"Once I taught them the bus schedule, they were on the bus all the time. When I would come over for my weekly visits, they weren't saying, 'OK, can you drive us to the grocery store? Can you drive us here?' They had already done it," Corollo said.

The Iraqi family was forced to flee Baghdad after the father, a mechanical engineer, was persecuted for working for a U.S. company. Though Corollo describes the family as having updated cell phones and clothing, she notes that they still sometimes need help navigating cultural intricacies and adjusting to their new country's social norms.

"I was over [at their apartment] and somebody came by to sell them a cable plan. It was funny because they opened the door and they welcomed him in ... they thought that he was just a friend or neighbor," Corollo said.

One important cultural assimilation mechanism for refugees is television. By watching TV, refugees are able to observe American culture and pick up on English colloquialisms without the pressure of direct, face-to-face communication. Though some refugee families, like the Piyos, were unfamiliar with TV before resettling here, they have quickly taken to the entrancing technology.

"Television is a really great way to learn English, except—and I've heard this about other refugees, too—they like the Spanish language channel," Burin said with a laugh. "I speculated it had something to do with the over-the-top soap operas. Someone else said that they think it's because it's the soccer channel. The other day, one of the refugees said to me as I was leaving, 'manana.'"

Learning the Language

One of the main federal requirements for refugees is attending mandatory English language classes. Refugees from all three agencies attend class daily at the English Language Center near Jefferson and 16th streets until they find full-time employment. Since every refugee varies in his or her educational background and previous English experience, the ELC provides seven different levels of English classes ranging from a class for refugees who are illiterate in their native language to an advanced class that accommodates refugees with highly developed English skills.

But teaching English to refugees is more of a lesson in the nuances of American culture than it is a flash-card-filled romp through sentence structure and split infinitives.

"Most people, when they think of a language class, think grammar and vocabulary. For us, language is being able to navigate your environment. Whether it's riding the bus, whether it's finding out about a concert, all of that really is language," Rainey said. "A person can't become culturally integrated or culturally adept without language and they can't get the language without the culture."

To reinforce the language skills the refugees have learned in class, ELC teachers often take trips to neighboring North End stores and banks. From distinguishing between shampoo and conditioner at Rite Aid to making deposits at U.S. Bank, all of the vocabulary the students learn has practical and immediate applications in their everyday lives. The ELC hopes that, by structuring their learning environment less traditionally, the refugees will feel more comfortable appropriating and utilizing their newly acquired language skills.

"Our classes are very informal, in that, as much as possible, we'd like for them to reflect a social gathering and not a formal classroom. The type of language we use every day isn't academic. It's more like composing music than it is doing mathematics," Rainey said.

One of the major barriers affecting all aspects of refugee assimilation and education is the often unspeakable trauma that drove refugees from their homes in the first place.

"If you're just looking at language acquisition, nothing else, because of the trauma refugees have been through, and because they didn't choose to come here, it creates a different set of needs than any other language learner has," Rainey said. "A lot of times people will seem disinterested, not motivated to learn the language, and that's a very common symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder."

Though all of the resettlement agencies in town provide resources for refugees to cope with their mental anguish and trauma, IRC has developed a unique pilot program for smaller children that they hope can be expanded and used with their parents also.

"There's a technique called EMDR—Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing. It's a simple technique that activates both sides of the brain," Boban explained. The technique has patients focus on their trauma while an external stimulus, like tapping, is applied to the head. "We're combining it with art therapy to help them release traumas without actually having to talk about the trauma. We're working with a counseling group to also do the same technique with the parents, because you can't work with the kids and open them up like that and go home to a chaotic, unstable environment."

Another community member working closely with refugee children is Ann Farris, director of Boise School District's English Language Learners school. The school, which opened in its new location this year in the old Jackson Elementary, specializes in education for refugee and immigrant students who don't speak English as a first language.

"We're right at 200 [students] already. We found last year that we were at about 66 percent refugees, so it's probably close or might have crept up even higher to 70 percent this year," Farris said.

Students in seventh through 12th grades are eligible to attend the English Language Learners school for four semesters. The students then transition into their neighborhood schools, where interpreters assist them in integrating into the required curriculum. Elementary-aged students, on the other hand, transition into the regular classrooms soon after they arrive.

"The kids become what we call 'cultural brokers' and they become the helpers of their families in so many ways, helping them navigate how things work and, of course, they're acquiring the English language, typically at such a rapid pace," Farris said. "Some of the parents, they're taking English classes, too, and certainly trying, but [the children] really are the information sharers."

Rights and Responsibilities

In addition to daily language classes at the English Language Center, refugees also attend a weekly job-training class offered by their agency. Because of the limited amount of funding and staff support at the agencies, economic self-sufficiency is their most pressing goal. Each agency spends a considerable amount of time instructing refugees in the expectations and skills required to succeed in the American workplace.

At a recent job-training session held by World Relief at Crossroads Church on Cole Road, the conference room bustled with an assortment of refugee populations. Each time job developer Lindsay Keban explained things like how to look for jobs in classified ads or proper phone habits when speaking to potential employers, the room blossomed with a litany of languages.

With seven interpreters at this session, translating for populations ranging from Arabic-speaking Somalis to Karen-speaking Burmese, the church sounded like a break room at the United Nations. Just like the English language classes, job-training classes tend to have a wider scope than just employment.

"At some point in the last few years, we had had refugee groups that were so far removed from American culture that we realized we just needed to spend that much more time with them. So the classes have become 12 weeks," Keban said.

Other agencies in town have also noticed an educational divide with recent incoming refugee populations. IRC developed a job training program specifically for Burundian women, many of whom are pre-literate, pre-numerate and have never been employed.

The program works with local hotels like Shiloh Inn and Hotel 43 to train these women in the skills they would need to be housekeepers—everything from working the hotel's elevators to identifying various cleaning chemicals.

"Eighty percent of refugees are women and children. A lot of the women that are coming are single moms. These women have to work, there's no choice and there's no support network for them. So the faster we can get them employed, the less vulnerable they are, the less vulnerable their children are," Boban said.

Though ANA has a similar program for Burmese women, it also focuses on helping more highly educated refugees get new credentials. People who were history teachers or doctors before they were forced to flee their country often have a much harder time adjusting to the more menial jobs they're required to initially accept as refugees.

"We have a lot of Iraqis coming, some of them are very highly educated, speak English very well and have very high expectations of employment," Bruce-Bennion noted.

Each of the job training classes offered by the agencies covers a specific topic, from riding public transportation to filling out job applications to the importance of punctuality. Though these lessons are covered at the English Language Center's cultural orientations, which happen every eight weeks, repetition is regarded as the most important way for refugees to solidify new information.

"Everybody agrees that the more times the information is given, in different ways, at different junctures of someone's experience when they first come in, the better it is going to be for them. They're going to be better prepared," explained Jamie Delavan, a volunteer who has partnered with Idaho Women's Network to put together a new, agency-spanning Refugee Education Training Program.

Delavan has worked closely with Ronna Parish, Pam Twilegar and Erika Molchan to develop a cultural training manual for refugees and the volunteers who work with them. Though they initially began working on the program with IRC, the group hopes their five-part "Know Your Rights" program will soon be integrated into the cultural orientations of all three agencies.

The program places a strong emphasis on culture-specific education, dividing classes into single-language groups so that the usual cacophony of interpreters isn't so distracting. The group's program also focuses heavily on human rights, stressing that all people are guaranteed certain rights regardless of their sex, race, religion or nationality.

"We wanted to set it up so we could focus on, 'Here are the rights that you have living in the United States,' and then, 'Here are the responsibilities that go along with those rights. So, you have the right to religious freedom, but you have to obey the laws. You have the right to an education, but here's the system that you have to work within in order to get that education,'" Parish said.

Another part of the group's program is an orientation to Idaho law. For this session, Boise Police officer and refugee liaison Shelli Sonnenberg explains everything from what to do when a police officer pulls them over, to how much it costs to call 911. Since many refugees are accustomed to dealing with corrupt cops who operate on a system of bribes and kickbacks, it can be hard for them to accept police officers in a non-threatening role.

"When the new Americans get here, I teach them about the laws of this country and focus on the ones that are really different from where they're from. The big ones are probably domestic battery, child abuse, statutory rape. Depending on the countries that they come from, those are completely different laws that don't even exist," Sonnenberg explained.

She has been instrumental in creating understanding between the police department and refugees. Sonnenberg developed a refugee orientation class for new police hires and instructs them in cultural sensitivity for the various refugee populations living in Boise.

Though a lot of the police calls Sonnenberg receives from refugees don't fall under her traditional jurisdiction, she's happy to respond to all the calls that she can, if only to show refugees that the police department is there when they are in need.

"Maybe they didn't have running water, or maybe they didn't have electricity, which may not be a police problem, but when they think that their landlord has turned off their power, not realizing that maybe a light bulb has burned out, then they call me. I had one little boy call 911 because his mom wouldn't make him pizza. To him, that actually was an emergency," Sonnenberg said.

A Permanent Home

Though each agency aims to have refugees settled and self-sufficient within six to eight months of arrival—when food stamps and Medicaid start to run out—they are now working with community organizations to develop educational programs with a more long-term reach. Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center received a $500,000 grant to open a center to provide reproductive health and infant care for non-English speaking women. The center is called Care Maternal and Child Health Clinic and will open in St. Al's next year.

"Our desire is to get health advisers from every cultural group so they can give us input on how we can improve services within their culture. We're working with different community agencies to solidify and make sure that we are doing what we can and not reinventing the wheel," said Judy Hobbs, manager of the St. Al's Family Center.

Also, the Boise Police Department is developing an interpreter program in which refugees who speak English and are familiar with American culture will be trained to accompany police officers on some of their more serious calls. The interpreters will be able to act as liaisons between non-English speakers and the police in times of crisis.

"They'll go through law enforcement training so that they have an idea what's expected of them. Using those individuals as our interpreters, then maybe we'll get to have some insight into the way their culture works and how—in those high stress situations—how we can handle it better," Sonnenberg said.

By becoming interpreters, refugees are given the opportunity to help those in need. Most of the interpreters who work with the three agencies in town have gone through one of the resettlement programs. As more refugees acclimate to American life, become proficient in English and train to be interpreters, they open doors for other refugees to resettle in Boise.

"Many times, former refugees become interpreters. Maybe they've gone through the resettlement process or they might have [spoken] good English to begin with. Each of the agencies really engages bilingual people and provides training opportunities for them to become effective interpreters," said Jan Reeves, director of the Idaho Office of Refugees.

Raj Shrestha, a Nepali interpreter from Bhutan, is one of those who has successfully made the transition into American society. At IRC's job-training session, Shrestha was the interpreter for a long table of Bhutanese refugees. Dressed in casual western clothing, Shrestha explained the nuances he's learned since he's been here—like shaking his head from side to side is a sign of disagreement, not approval like in his culture. He's also mastered the art of looking into people's eyes while they're speaking, an action that is seen as highly disrespectful in Bhutan.

When Gautam approached to tell his story of torture due to mistaken identity and to show the painful scars that run down his back, Shrestha interpreted his words. As Gautam spoke, Shrestha waited patiently for him to finish, then said:

"Everything the IRC is doing is really helping [the Bhutanese refugee community] get where they need to be. He wants to thank them for all they do."

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