“My first year and a half in America was a rollercoaster ride,” said Senada Alihodzic, who is now an American citizen. With help from the United States government, Alihodzic started a new life in Erie, Pennsylvania after she fled her war-ravaged Mediterranean hometown in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1993 and sought asylum on American soil. She arrived in this country without any knowledge of the area and unable to speak English, unable to communicate with anyone around her, unable to understand anyone trying to communicate with her. Alihodzic experienced a natural phenomenon of the human mind known as culture shock.
Take a minute and imagine departing from your native country and stepping off of a boat or a plane and touching your feet down in a country you’ve only maybe ever heard about. You take your first breath as a New American. You look around, and you realize there aren’t any friendly faces waiting to greet you. You don’t recognize anything. Every single thing you perceive, down to the smell of the air, is unfamiliar. Unless you speak English, the vast majority of America speaks a different language than you. They have beliefs and traditions that are different from yours. They don’t eat the same food as you do. They most likely don’t listen to any of the music you like. They don’t even laugh at the same jokes. Your initial social encounters can be painfully difficult and awkward as you learn the ways of the American in this fast paced society.
It will take time to adjust to your new surroundings. This is all a normal part of the assimilation process. As culture shock sets in, you realize some aspects of your old ways of life are not considered normal here in the United States. Even once you learn to speak English, your thick accent will be obvious. Clothing from your home country may attract some attention. Even a country’s authentic cuisine may be looked at as exotic and unappetizing to the average American. Driving a car on the United States’ infrastructure will take practice as well. You must drive down the right side of the roadway in America, as opposed to the left side of the road, like in Great Britain and some other Middle Eastern countries.
Cultural differences aren’t all just superficial. There are differences between all cultures in social-norms and political or religious beliefs. For example, any refugee from a Middle Eastern country may be shocked when they find out the boss at their new job is a female. They would quickly need to come to terms with the fact that men do not have the same inherent authority in this country as they do in Middle Eastern societies.
American society can be intimidating to someone but there are ways to help alleviate this mental phenomenon. Perhaps you could play “tourist” for a few days and explore the landscape of your new environment and become familiar with the culture of your new city. Map out important locations around town and get as familiar with your surroundings as possible.
Picking up a hobby such as playing an instrument, exercising, or playing video games is a beneficial way to spend your free-time. Bosnian refugee, Senada Alihodzic, says that bicycling and walking were some of her favorite things to do when she first moved to America. She was able to exercise, clear her mind, and explore her new neighborhood simultaneously.
Alihodzic says the language barrier was the most difficult and stressful thing for her to overcome in her process of adaptation to America. You can practice your English by watching TV, listening to radio, and reading. This helps break down the language barrier, finally allowing you to express yourself, as well as socialize, make connections and search for companionship. It would be comforting to find people of the same ethnicity as you so you could share experiences and gain insight from one another regarding how to feel more comfortable in your new homeland. Any type of problem or issue feels less intimidating when you know you aren’t alone.
New citizens usually notice the same common differences between America and the rest of the world. The act of tipping your server at restaurants is unique to the United States. America’s citizens are seen by the rest of the world as very friendly, and willing to spark conversation with strangers, as opposed to the more introverted Eastern cultures of the world. Grocery stores and the American food industry can be shocking to new citizens due to the fact that the majority of our food is processed and tastes different in America.
Many refugees share similar experiences regarding culture shock. Symptoms may quite literally make you feel ill, physically and mentally. Indicators of culture shock include extreme depression, loneliness, aches and pains, allergies, insomnia or excessive sleep, changes in mood, feeling vulnerable, anger, irritability, loss of identity, lack of confidence, obsessions over cleanliness, longing for family, and/or feelings of being lost or overlooked. The intensity of the feeling becomes stronger or weaker as the individual learns or fails to cope with his or her new environment. Most new citizens claim these feelings last around three months, depending on the individual’s level of education, the area of settlement, and country of origin.
Some studies have divided chronologically the experience of culture shock into stages. Author, Paul Pedersen, outlines these theoretical phases in his 1995 book, “The Five Stages of Culture Shock”. The honeymoon stage begins on arrival to the new country. This stage could be compared to the feeling somebody would have while on a vacation to a foreign country. The disintegration stage is when the frustrating reality sets in and the individual realizes they must adapt a new way of life or get left behind. The reintegration stage occurs when the person comes to terms with the new changes and begins making adjustments to their old lifestyle. In the autonomy stage, the individual may confront any deeper personal issues they may have. Finally comes the interdependence stage, the new citizen finally adapts and assimilates into their new society.
Last year, 69,933 refugees came to America, according to data from the State Department’s Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System (WRAPS). This is very close to the number of refugees in 2013 (69,926) and 2014 (69,987), but a significant amount higher than in 2012 (58,238). Iraq, Burma, Somalia, Bhutan, Cuba, and Dem. Rep. Congo are the countries where the highest amounts of refugees travel from. Iraq and Burma have traded the number one spot back and forth since 2013. This data shows proof of nearly 70,000 different humans fighting nearly 70,000 different battles with culture shock each year since 2012. The acceptance of refugees into America sparks heated political debates particularly in this year’s presidential election. GOP candidate Donald Trump took heat for his stance on the refugee crisis in Syria. Trump proposed a ban on anyone of the Muslim faith from entering the United States.
Unfortunately, even in the year of 2016, these individuals and their families are sometimes met with racism and stereotypes. Out of 2015’s nearly 70,000 refugees, 10 percent were settled in Texas (one of the nation’s most conservative states), nine percent settled in California, six percent each in New York and Michigan, and five percent in Pennsylvania.
Out of the 3,497 new American citizens settling in Pennsylvania in 2015, 526 settled in the city of Erie. This northwestern, lakefront city is considered to be one of the areas in Pennsylvania for refugee and immigrant settlement. The largest groups of new citizens in Erie are currently of Russian and Ukrainian decent.
The United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) is run by Dylanna Jackson. This Erie facility is called the International Institute. It is responsible for managing programs to help new citizens, as well as provide a safe haven to unaccompanied migrating children and victims of human trafficking. USCRI has provided assistance programs to new Americans since 1911. The organization accepts donations and the basis of its work is carried out by volunteers. Helpers provide transportation, instruct new citizens how to find jobs, mentor families, help tutor children after school, show families key locations in town, and overall, teach them the basics of life in the United States. One of this organization’s key goals is to help alleviate the burden of culture shock.
“Refugees are normally shocked by a wide variety of things.” Jackson said. “It’s the overwhelming effect of dealing with all of these individual things at once that is most stressful.” Jackson says the weather is the first thing that shocks nearly all newcomers. This region of the country is notorious for long, harsh winters and record-breaking snowfall. Refugees find this shocking when they arrive to Erie, as most of them are coming to the United States come from significantly warmer climates.
Jackson says each ethnic group experiences different hardships upon arrival to America. The difficulty of a new citizen’s cultural transformation will vary depending on the literacy and education of the individual. Refugees from areas of the world with higher standards of education are able to ease into American life easier than ones who aren’t. Imagine trying to learn in an environment where you can’t understand what anybody is saying. Accommodations can be arranged if a child of a refugee family wishes to attend public school. Interpreters are provided in some inner-city schools for students who don’t yet speak English. Unfortunately, many students also experience trouble with hazing and bullying from their peers.
Most refugees are also not used to the type of healthcare system America offers. The United States’ health care structure is unique when compared developed industrialized countries. America does not operate a uniform healthcare system and offers no universal health care coverage as compared to the majority of other industrialized nations.
A global refugee trend from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) shows 59.5 million people displaced by war in 2015, an all-time high. This figure increased by 8 million from 2014. With the amount of refugees growing, the need grows for organizations such as the Erie International Institute and the programs and services they provide.