Too often, people only consider service learning as an opportunity to help others; they see it as an avenue to be a good citizen, and more importantly, a good human being. I have taken a different approach, however. As I will be discussing, I view service learning as just as big of an opportunity to figure myself out and who I am just as much as helping others.
Working with a refugee family will be a mutual learning experience, where I will reflect upon my own culture, and also gain insight into a culture outside of my frame of knowledge. There is absolutely too much to learn from an experience like this, but I have narrowed it down to three points I really hope to take away from service learning:
1. I want to contrast two cultures. Having never left America, I feel that it is imperative for me to get a taste of how my destination’s culture is. I hope to be a good listener, and hear out any concerns that my family may have. Living in a big city like Chicago has been a culture shock to me at times, so I can only imagine what its like for someone who has come here with little to no knowledge of how everyday systems work. One concern I have is: will I be able to draw upon my experience here to help me serve in communities abroad? I also hope to have good communication with my family, despite language barriers.
2. I intend to play off of my strengths and weaknesses. I consider myself to be a very open person. I wear my heart on my sleeve and always intend to relate to any emotion a friend or colleague shows me. I understand that this will be quite a challenge, but this is the perfect opportunity to improve my weaknesses. At times I may be a bit shy, but I have no doubt that forcing myself to be in this position will do wonders for my confidence.
3. I look forward to not only relating to my family, but also feeling a sense of friendship with them. There is already so much that I look forward to exploring with them. I want to see the city with them in a new light and take on opportunities to enhance and embrace American culture.
My biggest concern is the social injustices that refugees face. Whether it is learning English, access to quality health, housing, or education, I want to feel like I have a better understanding of these issues and how to handle them. I cannot say it will be easy, and I am positive that I will want to do so much for my family, however certain issues may be out of my hands.
I’ve often thought about what a normal day will be like for each of these refugees. I intend to learn just as much from them if not more, than from what I can share with them. It is also important for them to learn about me — jobs, educational differences, social activities, and so much more. I hope that when this is all said and done, I will have made memories of a lifetime.
Refugee Resettlement Spring 2013
Working with my refugee family this semester has been an experience of personal growth that allowed me to take value in my ability to connect and build strong relationships with perfect strangers. With each meeting, we shared more stories, taught one another about our cultures, and bonded over universalistic qualities of family, working, and aspirations. What I have come to learn is that however starkly contrasted our backgrounds may be, we had more in common than not. I became a part of this family as they allowed me in their new life here. They lovingly refer to me as Jasminka, with Russian dialect, and share secrets like the mother’s habit of smoking a cigarette on the back porch when she thinks her husband will not notice. This has also been a troubling experience that has left me feeling that the problems these refugees face are never ending and the realization that they are truly the most resilient of humanity. I tell everyone I meet about my family and praise them for their accomplishments and desire to make their place in American society. Unfortunately, much of the US is misinformed and harbor negative feelings toward refugee and immigrant populations. In light of the Boston bombings, some one actually had the nerve to tell me that it was the fault of the people I am working with; their home country is Chechnya. Despite such backward thinking, hope remains for refugees who are warmly welcomed by those concerned with quality of life for all humanity such as the Voluntary resettlement agencies, and other non profit organizations that help create an easier transition into American life.
One issue refugees must tackle and that I dealt with personally with my family is the complicated process of our healthcare system for newcomers. On our first few visits, my partner and I were bombarded with questions and medical sheets. The father desperately voiced his concerns to us that after a dozen vaccinations he feared he might die in the hospital. He was insistent that his family was screened and vaccinated while in Moscow and he was unable to comprehend notices from the school nurses to update his children’s vaccines. The only thing we could offer them was our consolance and explanation of high standards of health here in the states. This involves pre-screening: each refugee applicant is required to have a medical examination in their country of origin by a panel of physicians selected by the US state department. Upon arrival to the United States a review of overseas documented health evaluation, completion of medical history, review of vaccination status, and a brief mental status examination is required and necessitated by VOLAGs (voluntary agencies like Catholic Charities and Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago).
The need to visit multiple facilities on multiple occasions, often without easy access to transportation can extend the process to several weeks. Living in a city is beneficial because of public transportation, but I was told by my family that they only receive one transit card per household. One can see where this could become pricey especially for large families. This affects the refugee family and also puts VOLAG’s funding at risk if the screening is not completed within the required time frame. We had to reschedule a lot of our time spent together due to numerous medical appointments. Also, there is a lack of cultural knowledge and competence not only for newly resettled refugees but for some mainstream health care providers who may not have experience working with interpreters and may not have knowledge about the circumstances from which particular refugee groups come from. Working with interpreters requires more time than standard medical visits. Also not all health care providers are trained to identify signs of PTSD. My family often complained of dizziness and headaches after leaving the hospital, but they worked through it and now concerns are more focused on job procurement and speaking English with as little Russian accent as possible.
Medical providers may often use only western allopathic concepts to define the health of new arrivals. Developing providers’ ability to understand different cultural systems of beliefs about health gives them a broader capacity to provide care that works. Medicaid and Medicare are provided for refugees but they typically lack dental care. Dental problems are diagnosed in up to a quarter of refugees. My refugee mom and dad often warned their kids about eating American hard candies and coated nuts, fearing they may break a tooth. I think it would be beneficial in the future for advocates to attend medical appointments with interpreters if for nothing more than to be a friend and source of comfort in a foreign process.
VOLAGs and other organizations help meet the needs of refugee populations where the state is lacking. Heartland Health Outreach annually serves thousands of medically underserved Chicagoans, filling major gaps in the region’s health care system. They provide diverse programs and services that set the standard for inclusive, multidisciplinary treatment. These culturally competent services are designed to prevent illness and improve physical, mental, and social well-being through advocacy that promotes the human right to comprehensive, integrated systems of care.
Aside from the benefits these organizations provide, my partner and I, through our advocacy have given a unique gift to our refugee family in terms of befriending. They know that they can call us or chat on Facebook and we cherish our quality time together. Moments such as a shared laughter at American television shows together can be informative; they previously held Chuck Norris as being the epitome of what it means to be “American”. Spring time was significantly memorable for me. The family seemed to have a renewed spirit and curiosity toward all that Chicago had to offer them. I learned about the celebrations for Muslim New Year called Nowruz. In return, I shared how Americans celebrate Easter by making them a basket with chocolate bunnies and gifts. We all have busy lives but have promised to set aside time to go to the beach this summer and grill outside. This course sparked my interest and I plan to do more in the way of advocacy and readjustment for the refugee population in Chicago.