“The basic idea of welcoming immigrants to our shores is central to our way of life — it is in our DNA. We believe our diversity, our differences, when joined together by a common set of ideals, makes us stronger, makes us more creative, and makes us different,” said President Barack Obama on July 4, 2014.
A refugee is a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country because of a “well-founded fear of persecution” due to race, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, religion, or national origin. Throughout history, the United States, as a whole, seems to take pride in its ethnic diversity. Although America welcomes new citizens with open arms, the road to official citizenship is a very long bureaucratic process.
Refugees are required to live in the United States for five years until they may legally be considered an American citizen. When a refugee is cleared to enter the United States, the U.S. Department of State works with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement and other local nonprofit organizations and voluntary resettlement programs. This system helps streamline the assimilation process of new citizens into our fast paced culture.
On November 21, 2014, President Barack Obama established the White House Task Force on New Americans, according to www.whitehouse.gov. “The New Americans Project” is a government-wide effort tasked with better integrating immigrants and refugees into American communities. Its’ individual programs, along with other efforts, are placed in communities as tools for minimizing effects of culture shock and helping to aid the assimilation process.
The Building Welcoming Communities Campaign (BWCC) encourages efforts of local governments to help new citizens and their families find peace at last in their new communities. The “Made It in America” initiative gives new citizens their shot at the “American Dream.” The program stimulates entrepreneurship amongst new citizens by holding “SBA 101” courses for any aspiring tycoons.
According to the Global Friends Coalition (GFC), citizens who come to America can live in refugee camps waiting for someone to call their family’s name for as long as up to 20 years before they finally are systematically assigned a place to call home. However, once a refugee takes asylum in the United States, they realize how vast the cultural differences can be. American lifestyle is unique compared to the countries where many refugees come from (Burma, Iran, Syria, etc.). Our country is like another planet to the majority of refugees.
Refugees are confused by the simplest things which we just take for granted. Our simple household appliances, electricity, running water, and plumbing are immaculate luxuries to them. In America, 68 percent of adults own a smartphone, providing them a nearly infinite amount of information at their fingertips. These everyday items of convenience appear as magic to a former resident of an impoverished nation.
Aside from the unyielding obstacle of learning English as a second language, most refugees can’t initially fathom some of our social behaviors in America. Foreign cultures usually place a stronger priority on the sense of community within their populations than Americans do. For example, it would normally be seen as strange to knock on a stranger’s door in any American community while it is normal in other societies. They also trust one another enough to let their children roam free throughout their villages, whereas in America someone would be likely to call the police or children’s services on any stray child wandering through the streets. New families have hard times adjusting to this aspect of our social behavior, as well as dietary and weather changes.
Federal policy brings to light certain issues, but can only go so far in terms of helping the average refugee or immigrant on a local level. The responsibility to provide direct relief to refugees and immigrants is placed on the nonprofit organizations in metropolitan areas of the country. Many organizations and institutions have been established for the sole purpose of making these first five years in America as easy and stress-free as possible for new Americans. There are 19 such organizations available in the major cities of Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Erie, Pittsburgh, Allentown, and Scranton.
Pittsburgh is the second largest city in Pennsylvania in terms of population. When refugees first arrive in this metropolitan jungle, caseworkers welcome them and help them adjust to the initial hardships of being displaced from their home culture. Most of the time these case workers are bilingual, allowing them to communicate with the refugees on a personal level. These workers, most of which are volunteers, get the opportunities to give hundreds of new Americans a good first impression of our country.
The Jewish Family and Children’s Service is a Pittsburgh organization that offers wide varieties of assistance to new citizens. Translation services are provided to bridge the communication gap between the two cultures. Housing assistance programs help families find safe and affordable housing. With many individuals coming from warm climates, Pennsylvania winters can make for an extremely uncomfortable transition. Clothing drives provide necessities like coats, hats, and gloves to families to keep warm during winter months. Career search programs are also available to provide a starting point for the “American Dream” of each new citizen.
The Jewish Family and Children’s Service also provides adoption services, and helps complete the naturalization process. Acculturation workshops take place to address issues about culture shock and help explain American society to new and confused refugees by teaching them English as a second language and presenting the basics of everyday American life in ways they can understand and relate back to their home culture. Volunteers explain the importance of proper hygiene, social etiquette, and other common knowledge in America.
The Erie Catholic Charity, located on West Tenth St. in Erie, is another organization working toward the best interests of new Americans. Joseph Haas, executive director of the Erie Catholic Charity, says most refugees normally find the most work within the agricultural and manufacturing industries. They can work efficiently at these types of jobs without completely mastering the English language. Learning to speak English is the most difficult barrier to overcome for every new citizen. The workers help one another learn how to speak English by translating for each other.
Counseling and therapy services protect the mental health of any new citizens with traumatic memories from their previous lives. Some refugees have lost loved ones, experienced the harsh reality of war, and have even been tortured. These humans escape life as they know it to come to America so it is essential to provide them safety and treat the sociocultural differences with a sense of tolerance and understanding. Acculturation workshops play a role in alleviating any shocking cultural differences by immersing groups of new citizens into American culture in the presence of people of the same ethnicity, as to make friends and connections to make it so they don’t feel as if they are all alone.
All of these organizations, nationwide, work full time year round to help the families of refugees and immigrants to become accomplished American citizens by helping them meet their basic needs while they overcome culture shock. In order to research this issue further, a closer look will be taken at some individuals and their own personal stories.