By Flora Zempleni
Drew Miller is supposed to work with refugees for only 90 days, the official amount of time for Catholic Social Services of Southern Nebraska. However, he often finds himself involved in their lives for years.
“Refugees come back with small questions seemingly years out,” Miller said.
Miller is a caseworker at Catholic Social Services. During the first 90 days he works with refugee families for 10 to 12 hours a week. As the 90 days go on, Miller decreases the amount of time spent with refugees, pushing them to be more self-sufficient.
During these first three months, he is responsible for a variety of things, including legal work and providing cultural orientation.
For Catholic Social Services and Miller cultural orientation is usually part of that one-on-one, as case workers, such as Miller, explain the nuances of life in the U.S. to the refugees that they work with.
If the refugees Miller works with have any questions, they call him and he explains.
Sho Say Gay is a Karen refugee who moved to the U.S. on Sept. 16 this year and has worked with Miller a few times.
“Everything is changed,” she said, reflecting on the differences between her life here and in the refugee camp she came from. “But I have to adjust myself, because living here is more comfortable.”
The Karen are a group of people from Burma, who have fled as a result of a civil war there.
Gay has never been to Burma. She was born in a refugee camp in the north of Thailand, very close to the border between the two countries. The camp was surrounded by mountains, with a small stream running through it.
“We lived a simple life,” she said. “We wake up in the morning and we cook and we eat. We prepare the breakfast and then we go to school. Our house is not good as here. We have a bamboo house. The roof was made of leaf.”
The 23-year-old left behind her dog, Tah Chi Chi, her friends and an uncle when she came to the U.S with her family: her father, mother and three sisters.
Now she is working to adjust to life here, which Gay said has not been easy.
“I have to adjust a lot,” she said.
Thomas Bowman, a case manager for Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska, another refugee resettlement organization in Lincoln, said that the initial 90-day process is fairly basic.
The first meeting and instance of cultural orientation is the day of arrival, or if the refugees arrive very late, the next day. Case managers take the refugees to their new homes and go over some essentials, including where the nearest telephone is, how to call 911 and how to use a thermostat, the shower, the toilet, kitchen appliances, door and window locks, the smoke detector, fire extinguisher and mailbox. They also discuss what lead paint is and how to go about supervising their children in the U.S., if that is applicable.
They then work to apply for school for children, take the refugees to health appointments for immunizations and set up Social Security and disability if the refugees qualify.
“We’re (also) a dating service,” Bowman joked, explaining that Lutheran Family Services helps people meet and get connected with the community. Though this is not intended for dating, Bowman said it sometimes ends up like that.
Case managers also enroll refugees in English classes.
Around a week later longer orientation begins.
Case managers at Lutheran Family Services have a three-page guide of information that needs to be taught, in categories such as education, employment, transportation, health, hygiene, housing and U.S. laws.
Often, case managers elect to show a video explaining these processes during the first longer orientation allowing refugees to watch a video in their own native-language, before talking with a case manager and translator. Each of the next meetings at the 30-, 60- and 90-day marks goes back over this information, in an attempt to reinforce these ideas and cultural norms as best as possible.
Bowman said that case managers slowly start to ask questions, such as “how do you pay your bills?”
Or, “how do you use the bus?”
Or, “do you know how much assistance you receive?”
At the 60-day mark there’s a little assessment to see how much of the information the refugees remember.
Gay said that this cultural orientation has been helpful.
“The lifestyle is different,” she said. “So when we live here we have to know the American culture so that we can live with American people.”
Gay said that there were a lot of differences that she learned about.
For example, she said that greetings are different.
“American people, they shake hand and sometimes they hug each other,” Gay explained. “But we only shake hand. We don’t hug each other. I will hug only the girl.”
She also had to adapt to how people are referenced.
“In my culture I don’t call the name,” Gay said.
Instead, she refers to people by their role in her life. For example, “sister,” “brother,” “uncle,” “auntie” or “grandpa.”
Gay continued to list off differences.
• Having to use a washing machine.
• Learning to take a shower, instead of washing with water from a bowl or in the stream.
• Living in a house with electricity.
• Cooking with electricity or gas, as opposed to charcoal or firewood as she did in the refugee camp.
Lea Sheets, a refugee support program coordinator with Lutheran Family Services, said retaining everything is often hard to do.
“They’re coming from a high stress situation into a high stress situation, being in a new place with a new culture,” she said. “They’re so overwhelmed. There’s so much information that comes at them and there’s so many things that are new.”
Bowman agreed. “It’s definitely confusing, or scary I guess, too.”
Bowman said that one of the biggest barriers he sees in success with cultural orientation is mentality or mental health.
“If they don’t have that mentality of ‘I’m going to work, I’m going to figure things out,’ like a strong desire to learn English, to rebuild your life. That might be the biggest barrier,” he said.
But this, he said could also stem from the trauma refugees suffered in their home countries.
Beyond that, Bowman said that one of the hardest parts of cultural orientation is to get families to say what they would like to do with their lives here, which is one of the initial questions asked.
“It’s hard to transition from not really having the ability to go after something long term, or to have dreams I guess, to then (being asked) ‘what do you want to do with your life,” he said. It takes a little bit for people to transition.”
However, Bowman said that throughout the 90 days it’s possible to watch the refugees get more and more comfortable.
“Lincoln is like a small, safe community,” he said. “There’s no gunshots, some of the stuff people are used to.”
Throughout this work, Bowman said that he it’s easy to build relationships with these families. He said his favorite part is the home visits where he is almost always offered tea and food.
“Even with as little as they have, people are very friendly,” he said. “Just very courteous.”
The families often share their stories of life before they moved to the U.S. with him as they spend time getting comfortable with one another.
“When the little kids are sad that I leave, then I know that I’m doing something right,” Bowman said.
Miller started his own organization, Lincoln Friends of Refugees, to continue cultural orientation after his initial 90 days with refugees is done.
Lincoln Friends of Refugees is a volunteer organization that pairs up refugees with university students and other Lincoln community members.
Miller said these pairings generally lead to mutually beneficial relationships that allow for the continuation of cultural orientation.
Occasionally Bowman continues to see refugees he has worked with as well and remains available for help with small issues.
“It’s good if we don’t have to see them,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is get people integrated into the community and we’re also community members, so I am not your case manager anymore, but I am here.”