If someone approached me six months ago and asked what I know about the refugee situation in my community, I would confidently reply that I know very little and have no awareness of their presence in Rogers Park. That was certainly the case when Dr. B first introduced me to his work with refugees of the area. Startling at first, issues of their resettlement however became ordinary to me as my experience grew. Fortunate in my immersion into the life of a family from the Ivory Coast and observing its extraordinary culture, I have met some of the most amazing people and have come to battle any preconceptions I have had at the beginning. Reflecting back on this amazing opportunity, I have narrowed my observations to conclusions that cultural adjustment varies on an individual basis but reflects a range of social and economic factors, that ethnic communities play an important role in, and that befriending programs succeed in their goals yet continuous improvements within the VOLAGS are needed to make up for the dynamism of refugee resettlement.
One of the major things that struck me as it was contradictory to my expectations was how widely cultural adjustment varies among members of a family. My Western ideologies led me to assume that faced with the equal opportunities, anyone can succeed and make something of their life. However, as I have come to learn more about my family, I realized this was not the case, and the level of adjustment varies directly with simple demographic characteristics like age or gender (Haines 30).In fact, children adapt more quickly whereas elders are less prone to full integration and more towards isolation. This latter option seems to be more prevalent among the youngest of refugees whose way was paved by their parents, uncles, and aunts. Their language competency for instance is obtained more quickly, which only further allows them to acclimatize effortlessly to the new surroundings (33). Additionally, as I gathered throughout my multiple conversations, adults young or middle in age exhibit a practice of adjustment that is of a bi-cultural blend. As David W. Haines states in his book Safe Haven: A History of Refugees in America:
They are no longer operating in an unknown environment, but rather trying to access traditional goals, to utilize this new environment to meet these goals, and often to modify those goals in the light of changed circumstances. (41)
Clear among young to middle-aged adults, this unique tolerance led them to realize they have no intentions on going back in the nearest future and accept this new socio-economic environment they found themselves in. Particularly at this age, additional factors such as prior occupation and their human capital vastly contributes toward a successful cultural adjustment (31). Nevertheless, this complexity of adjustment came as surprising but leads me to believe that despite fully integrating, they are capable of becoming quality members within their community.
Another aspect that surprised me as imperative toward successful resettlement of refugees was the presence of an ethnic community. Working with a family that does not have an opportunity to live within a community of their own kin made me realize how important it must be for one who is trying to start life anew. A sudden isolation from fellow countrymen and all else associated with it such as advice, entertainment or even cuisine makes the refugee experience much more complicated. As Haines points out in his work:
The economic expansion of an immigrant enclave, combined with reciprocal obligations attached to a common ethnicity, creates new mobility opportunities for immigrant workers and permits utilization of their past investments in human capital. (43)
However, one of the strongest attributes of the refugees I worked with was the family itself. All of its members developed a strong connection between each other that it would be safe to presume that having a large, supportive family could substitute an absent ethnic community. In fact, Haines proposes just that. He says families “furnish a sense of belonging and the basis for a positive self-identity, as well as making contributions to the economics of a new life in America” (43).Being surrounded by relatives thus greatly contributes to refugee success at assimilation. Further, it also shows how significant is a correct choice of who should become a refugee.
The final conclusion I have arrived after finishing my experience of befriending refugees was that programs like these accomplish their goals but continuous improvements are needed to make up for the dynamism of refugee resettlement. With the aid of these programs refugees more quickly overcome the culture shock and begin to show clear signs of independence (41). These programs also contribute to dispelling myths about refugees and are an unmistakable sing of showing support to new comers. However, among other institutions, the VOLAGS need to continually adjust to the continually accommodate for the ever changing refugee demographics. Additional help and resources are needed during the second phase of refugee adaptation where health, housing, education, and employment remain problematic. On tops of that public policy of time affects how refugees and their needs are perceived. It is therefore crucial for the VOLAGS to advocate for and receive more resources that will allow a more appropriate response in the face of a constantly growing refugee population.
After six months of working with my refugee family, I have concluded that cultural adjustment varies on an individual basis but reflects a range of social and economic factors, that ethnic communities play an important role in, and that befriending programs succeed in their goals yet continuous improvements within the VOLAGS are needed to make up for the dynamism of refugee resettlement.
Finding themselves “midway to nowhere” (44) but extremely strong and independent individuals they are, refugees depend on volunteer support from their communities. It is only through exposure of their issues are we able to understand what these people went through and how great they are. Therefore in order to help, we must first make the effort to understand them.
The disadvantages that refugees face affect the course of their longer-term adjustment to the United States, making their frequent successes more impressive and their difficulties more understandable. (41)
Haines, David W. Safe Haven?: A History of Refugees in America. Sterling, VA: Kumarian, 2010. Print.
Will We (Be)friends?
As a complete novice, I anticipated almost every possibility but expected very little from the first meeting with my family of refugees. To be completely frank, I did not even know what to expect. With no past experience and knowing little about what I am immersing myself into, it was a hugely poignant experience that demanded a broad leap of faith. Among a multitude of other worries, our ability to communicate and understand each other appeared to be most frightful obstacles I was anticipating. Although looking back at this silly inauguration, I wonder how I in no way contemplated the other side of the coin, that is the family’s perspective on me. It never crossed me to question whether they will approve of and accept an outsider into their household and vice versa. From the beginning, I unconsciously treated this experience as a mutual relationship – a support system, in which my partner and I will help the refugee family at adjusting to a new society. Only after a few weeks, have I discovered the concept of befriending and realized that my approach has partially resembled it proving it effectiveness in refugee interactions.
The very characteristic of friendship as we know it lies in the voluntary nature of it. When meeting new people, it is only the genuine feelings that are appreciated and noticed in relation between two people. A premonition of friendship as an imposed relationship then seems strange to any person under any circumstance (Behnia 16). “Another characteristic of friendship is commitment into the future” (16). People establish friendships with an intention of to keep contact for years and sometimes for a lifetime. In comparison, a concept of befriending is quite opposite and does not resemble any pillars of friendship. Foremost, befriending is an arranged relationship between subject and volunteer. As an aftermath of refugee acclimatization to new society, these relationships are established to ease the transition for the newcomers. Secondly, befriending is a time-limited relationship. By its very nature, volunteers are independent to move on irrespective of involvement. Lastly, whereas friendships are erected between people of similar status, befriending is an asymmetrical relationship. In such case, one party seeks assistance whereas the other is to offer it. All of these thus paint a clear distinction between friendship and befriending. Consequently, to realize that my approach indicated concept of befriending seemed quite surprising as not to say disturbing. I presume my worries about communication and understanding each other were typical of befriending experience in sense that they focus at maximizing benefits and transparency of the relationship.
Nevertheless, whether it is plausible to argue morality of befriending, to consider it simulated companionship is a trivial understatement. Regardless of individual opinions, befriending emerges as the most efficient method at assisting refugees upon arrival in a new country. By establishing certain rules and restriction in the interaction between volunteer and subject, greater amount of individuals will accept the conditions of befriending. In other aspects, it allows for more freedom for decision and actions on part of the volunteer by protecting his or hers recognized rights as a volunteer. In my personal experience but with utmost humbleness, I notice how beneficial and important our work is. Besides the obvious of bringing us greatest joy, we notice how individual family members gain by meeting with us. Anywhere from helping with homework, assisting at talking to employer or simply spending time playing board games and exploring the map of the world, the family seems to enjoy our company. “The literature indicates that befriending programs improve health, increase levels of happiness, reduce the effects of social isolation, and cause the remission of depression (3). At the same time, it must be remembered that the likelihood of so many volunteers working would be decreased if the concept of befriending were not adapted. Despite the fact two entities are at different asymmetrical statuses or relationship is time-limited, befriending programs maximize volunteer outreach.
Following a period of transition, the experience of working with a refugee family has been an astonishing privilege I am glad to have undertaken. It oscillated from a uneasy beginning to a genuine interaction between the family and me, which often can be argued against. However, thank to the concept of befriending, I was able to slowly immerse into maximizing my abilities at serving my refugee family.
Behnia, Behnam (2008) An Exploratory Study of Befriending Programs with Refugees: The Perspective of Volunteer Organizations. Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies 5(3): 1-19
Immersion into new experiences is always exciting but also bears a certain level of uncertainty and foreboding. However, one thing is immersing oneself into an adventure and another when the experience involves working with other human beings. In such case, the degree of emotions elevates dramatically. This then closely represents my feelings before starting the work with the refugees.
Despite it being my first experience with refugee families, it will not be the only encounter I have had working with individuals that at first seem to be total strangers. Lately, specifically during my college years, I have been a volunteer at various clinics and hospitals having the privilege to shadow doctors and sometimes even play the role of an language interpreter between patient and physician. I think this however will be different. I will be meeting and crossing these people’s thresholds, entering a space that is not neutral in any sense and revolves around their individual rules and customs. I imagine that what seems normal at my or my friends’ homes would not be so obvious where I will be visiting the families. In that sense, I very much share Mary Pipher’s feeling during her first visits. “I wasn’t quite sure how to talk or touch, what behavior was appropriate in what settings, and when I might inadvertently offend” (Pipher 16). However, I will simply have to wait and see and enter the experience with a clear, open mind. At the same time, the encounter I am so privileged to experience is an experience of service. I will not be spending time with the family just to have some content to write into my reflection paper or receive a good grade in class. Just to quote Pipher again, “I didn’t want to turn anyone’s life into an anecdote” (15). Her words seem like a very powerful statement, one that has real texture, real meaning behind it, one that explains the initial trepidation.
At the same time however, along with all this caution and uncertainty, I feel a certain level of excitement to meet my refugee family. I can only imagine that I will be able to bring out a lot of positive experience from interacting with these individuals. I think it will be a humbling encounter that will reveal facets of my life I have not noticed yet. As Mary Pipher wisely points out in her book The Middle of Everywhere: “Refugees talk about contrasts … Looking at America through the eyes of the refugees, I have seen a very different America than the one I’ve inhabited for fifty years” (20). I wish I would be able to come to similar conclusions after my encounters with the family. Never having a chance to meet one yet, I assume refugees are people of great strength. Events they have gone through and reality they face might put all of our problems into perspective where as their resilience is only to be admired. At the same time, I hope that my efforts will be sufficient and useful for the family I will be working with.
The initial emotions I am experiencing prior to the beginning work with the refugee families can be largely explained as confounded. The mixture of foreboding and excitement is quite daunting. At the same time, it evokes a definite eagerness to begin meeting the family on the regular basis. With no prior acquaintance with refugees I enter this challenge on a clean slate, which can be a little tense but is certainly not discouraging. I understand that mistakes and misunderstandings will be made initilly but they cannot avoided, but only minimized. I hope however I will be able to look back and proudly say I made great friends from this experience. As Pipher puts it: “Giving never makes anyone poorer” (23).
Pipher, Mary B. “Hidden in Plain Sight.” The Middle of Everywhere: Helping Refugees Enter the American Community. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2003. 1-109. Print.