I’ve decided to upload all of my reflections in one post. Please respond with comments or questions! Thanks.
September 4, 2012
My initial thoughts before meeting the refugee family are mixed. Of course I am really excited to meet everyone and to have this amazing opportunity to get to know a refugee family. However, I am also afraid that I may offend them or that I will not be able to help them as much as I would like to. I am sure once I get to know them I will really enjoy meeting them, but for now I do not know what to expect. My partner and I have been matched with an Afghan family of eleven, including children and adolescents, so there will be lots of people to meet.
My previous experience working with refugees has been through my volunteer role at LIFT. We usually meet with the clients for an hour a week, and there is no way to know if we will meet with them again, so I have not really been able to get to know a refugee and really hear their story. I’ve worked with two single men, one from Vietnam and from Western Africa, and with each you could really tell their frustration. Both were living in homeless shelters and both were looking for work, but there is such a lack of opportunities and aid that they told me they often became discouraged. When I was working with the client from Vietnam I became really frustrated because we were trying to get him a job in a restaurant, but finding little success; it bugged me because he spoke Vietnamese and also some Mandarin, Japanese, French, and Spanish, and yet he was applying for dishwashing positions. But he kept trying and was excited to be in this country, even though he had to start at the bottom.
Additionally, I had the opportunity to work with a woman from Togo for several months, and I got to know her a bit better. We of course had some cultural misunderstandings and some language barriers (we spoke in a mix of English and French) but she was such hard working, funny person. I discovered that if I asked her more about her life in Togo and Benin that we could end our meetings on a more positive note, despite the frustrations we had getting bus passes, finding jobs, and working with administrators at her daughter ‘s high school, etc. She even taught me a few words in her first language, Ewe, which was really fun. She seemed surprised that I was interested in Ewe, but was excited to teach me. She always impressed me because she spoke three languages fluently and was supporting her two children by herself.
So despite my nervousness, I am really excited to get to know an entire refugee family. I hope that my partner and I can at least listen to their stories and be a welcoming presence. I cannot really imagine what they have been through, but I feel really honored that they are willing to welcome two strangers into their home. So in that way I guess I could think of my role as welcoming them, but in reality this family will be doing a lot more to welcome us. I really have not had any opportunities to know such a different culture. So I already feel grateful that I am going to have this chance.
I’ve always wanted to travel abroad and to get to know different cultures, but when I was reading Mary Pipher she talked about how her time with refugees has helped her see America in a new way. I had never thought about that before—that through the experiences of refugees in America you could realize how this country appears to an immigrant. We have always been taught to see the U.S. in terms of the American dream, but I bet that image changes for a refugee who has to navigate our bureaucracy and culture.
So in conclusion, I am a little nervous but very excited to work with this family. I’m hoping that we can share a little of each other’s cultures, that Angie and I can explain some things, and maybe find a concrete way to help them in their transition. I think this will be a humbling and enlightening experience, and that I will probably learn a lot.
October 31, 2012
Halfway into the semester I have found myself greatly enjoying my time with the refugee family I have been assigned to. I am always impressed by their friendliness and the effort they put into embracing their life in America. We’ve built our friendship by exchanging gifts of food and trying to learn each other’s languages. Of course, there are limits to my partner and I’s befriending efforts; in a family with ten children, many of whom are around our age, we have taken on some of the duties of older sisters in tutoring the school age children. Our family decides what they want us to work on with them taking the needs of the youngest children into account.
My partner and I spend the majority of our time tutoring the youngest children, ages 9, 10, 12 and 14, on math and science. Usually only the youngest children are home and the elder children are at ESL classes or at work. This limits our ability to communicate as the oldest girls are the ones that speak a lot of English. Nevertheless, when studying gets too tedious or frustrating we often discuss what things are like at school or they teach us words in Persian. At the beginning and end of our visit we greet the older children and their mother, and occasionally they sit in and observe how we are doing. I think this provides a chance to spend time together without the pressure to communicate constantly. During our meetings everyone is oriented towards a common goal, helping the youngest children succeed in school. While I wish I could get to know everyone it’s unfair to criticize the family in their choices; it seems like the older children have more important things to worry about and can solve their problems without our help.
Recently, as my partner and I have become more familiar presences in their living room and as all of us are getting to know everyone’s personalities, we are getting to the opportunity to talk more with the family, rather than just tutoring. Everyone seems more relaxed and knows what to expect so both my partner and I and the family members feel freer to ask questions. Occasionally, the second eldest son has expressed some frustration as he did not have the opportunity to go to school when they lived in Afghanistan and Pakistan and thus he is much further behind in his English than his sisters. He is taking ESL classes but must also work downtown full-time, and while it may seem like he is jealous of his younger siblings I think it is more just frustration at his slower progress, and what is perceived as success for a refugee, learning English. However, he is working at a restaurant downtown even though he knows very little English, and I think this is quite successful. It also gives us the opportunity to talk about his past job experiences and how he wants to become a taxi driver. We even get to talk about the Spanish phrases he is learning from his co-workers!
Probably the most poignant interaction was last week when the topic of death came up. As the twelve year old was practicing math problems the mother came in to pray and then was joined by an elder sister. As we discussed someone who was attending a funeral, the mother asked me about what Americans do when someone dies, through her daughter. Not only was this important because the mother, who doesn’t speak any English, was initiating conversation, but also because the family’s father died a little over a year ago. As I described what Americans do for the dead we all got teary-eyed and it was a moment of shared feeling that hadn’t really happened before.
When reading Behnam Behnia’s overview of befriending practices I saw a lot of similarities with my role as a volunteer through Catholic Charities. I really do agree with Behnia on the importance of befriending programs for refugees; they can help refugees feel accepted by their new society and give them a new ally in their struggles to build a new life. While my role is more limited than many of the volunteer programs Behnia describes, I believe that I still help my family in giving them the opportunity to ask questions about America and just as a gesture of support from the community. I think it means a lot to have someone from your new society treat you more than as just a refugee. Which is why I disagree with the concept of “new humanitarianism”, as described by DeLuca, “that emphasizes benevolence over justice, charity over obligation and generosity over entitlements” (page 17). When you decide to give emphasize benevolence instead of justice are you treating them more or less like an equal? For me it is less; justice especially in America rests on an idea of equality, so that you recognize that someone is deserving of justice because that could have been you. With benevolence one has a greater chance of being condescending or paternalistic. Most importantly, the shift from obligation to charity is rather misguided. For my part, I see my work with my refugee family not as an act of charity or good-heartedness, but as the opportunity to do my part. When there is someone in our society that lacks resources or is vulnerable there is an obligation from other members of that society to help them. Besides, focusing too much on my charity towards a family and not on society’s duty to help those in need gives me way too much credit.
Finally, as I have been talking about my amazing experiences working with a refugee family more and more I have noticed what Dr. Steimel discusses in her article about America’s presentation of refugees. Most of the people I talk to do not reciprocate my enthusiasm about this opportunity, in fact, most do not see it as an opportunity. Instead I am “helping out the needy”, “teaching someone about life in America”, or “working with helpless victims”. It is often uprising to me how much this family is embracing American culture, when I really shouldn’t be surprised anymore. I email them the photos they took using my phone because their mother does not want them putting them on Facebook. This brings up an interesting aspect that I haven’t touched on, that they are Muslim, but this is not really an issue and I am also getting to know more about the family through their religious traditions. I really appreciate being able to get a glimpse into this family’s experiences.
December 11, 2012
After spending an entire semester visiting with a refugee family I am still amazed by how rewarding an experience it has been. Not only do I look forward to my weekly visits with the family, but I also tell everyone about my awesome refugee family during the rest of the week. I feel very lucky to be able to work with such a wonderful family.
Of course there have been some issues that my partner and I have had to deal with. As expected, the language barrier continues to cause frustrations, especially when tutoring the kids. It is really hard to explain math concepts like algebra or even division when the children do not know that much English still. There are also several children with different levels of knowledge and different learning styles; this can be a challenge when all of them are working in the same room and often commenting on each other’s homework, but luckily all of our children get a long relatively well and feelings are not hurt. A related problem is that without a lot of formal schooling before coming to America the older children are quite behind; starting out in 7th grade algebra when you are still shaky on multiplication and division can be incredibly difficult. The younger children, who are starting at an easier level, have found it much easier to learn new concepts and catch up with their peers.
My partner and I use several different tactics to overcome these challenges. When we ask the children to do basic math equations we do so in Persian and we also count with them in Persian. Basically, when working on mental math we have found it easier to speak in Persian so that there is one less step in finding the answer. I have found that this allows us to focus on practicing multiplication, division etc. without having to translate. We also use our hands when the children get stuck on a problem, which not only makes it more interactive but also involves the other children, depending on how high the numbers are. Since we only meet once a week, Angie and I have also given the children flashcards so that they can practice multiplication and division at home.
We also have a lot of fun overcoming language barriers. In between lessons and homework we draw each other pictures and exchange them as gifts. The children also like to teach us new words in Persian, or we combine English and Persian words to make jokes. My partner and I also teach them words in Spanish, French and Italian, which we then practice saying. The benefit of having so many people in the room is that there is always someone to help with translation.
My partner and I mostly tutor when we visit, since there are so many children in school and most of the adults work full-time. Yet this is also a way of befriending the rest of the family, as they really value education so they also value the time we spend with the children. We usually have time after homework to talk with the older girls about their classes and work, and also to complain about how silly the kids are, or how the boys do not practice their math. Additionally, the mother has started sitting in on the tutoring for a little while each week, which has actually become very helpful as the children have become a little less disciplined as they have grown more comfortable with us.
Overall, it seems like the family has been doing well. None of them talk about family problems with us, but one-on-one some of the older girls have expressed frustration with working. One of the girls is taking CNA classes, but says she finds it hard to find time to study when she works so much. There is also the problem of finding a job; although the older daughters have good English they still are not getting call backs after interviews, and wearing a hijab surprisingly limits their job prospects a great deal. It is really unfortunate that the only jobs that they can find are far away from home and very low pay. They must also deal with unsympathetic supervisors who do not really care about them as people. They have been through so much as refugees, and the only opportunities we have for them are these jobs that further stigmatize and isolate them.
David Haines addresses the issue of employment in his book, Safe Haven? : A History of Refugees in America, when he asks whether these immediate, low-skill positions offer long-term careers that can ensure success (Haines, 13). The topic of careers has come up during a few visits with our refugee family; the youngest children are very proud of their older sister for taking CNA classes to become a nurse. When we asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up the two youngest girls said that they wanted to be doctors, the second youngest boy wanted to be a police officer, and the youngest boy initially said he wanted to be a police officer, but then changed his mind and said he just wanted to stay at home and do nothing! In a previous conversation the second eldest son told me he wants to be a taxi driver and as soon as his English is better his friend will help him prepare for the exam.
Working so closely with a refugee family and putting so much effort into learning about each other’s cultures and backgrounds puts a different face on the topic of refugee resettlement. It creates a conflict between general perspectives and individual stories which makes you think about how policies and practices could be changed to better suit refugees’ actual needs, but also challenges the notion that one individual can represent the plight of the refugee.
Overall, I have found that in working with my family it has not so much been an experience of learning about refugees, as it has been of learning about a different culture and a different family. Working with the children has been particularly rewarding, and have begun considering teaching ESL as a career option. I hope to continue working with my refugee family next semester.