California ranks third in the nation in the number of refugees resettled in the US. Approximately half of these adults and more than half of the children, i.e., more than 1,000 refugees per month on average, are resettled in San Diego County. These individuals come from more than a dozen African countries, as well as from throughout Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and the Middle East. And, while they are a highly diverse group there are some important commonalities. They are all given eight months of support and after which they must fend for themselves. As refugees, they have no say in where they are resettled and often have little knowledge of the country, its rules, regulations, customs, etc. they are resettled in. In addition, once an individual or family is chosen for resettlement, they have little to no time prepare and are often resettled within two weeks.
Again, while the refugee community is highly diverse, there are common challenges they face as they attempt to adjust to their new home. Consider for a moment that you have no knowledge of English and you have lived in a refugee camp for more than a decade providing you with no experience with institutions such as banks, schools, healthcare, public transportation, and so on. A leader of the Bantu community often speaks about his experience attempting to lead a group of a hundred refugees down an escalator upon their arrival to the United States. A young member of the community who was twelve at the time says she still doesn’t go on escalators after being in the US for twelve years.
The adults, having given up everything and risked their lives to get their children out of harm’s way, now find themselves struggling to fulfil their role as a parent where they have little to no understanding of the culture their children are being raised in. School-aged children are placed in school almost immediately upon resettlement and, being youth, they begin to learn the language and absorb the culture around them almost immediately. In a very short time, the children are able to maneuver the “American” system better than their parents. This cohort of refugee, i.e., those who are old enough to remember the journey but young enough to attend at least high school, play an extremely important role in the community. They are the bridges between the old world and the new. This role is both a blessing and a curse. In most cases, these youth take on this responsibility with pride for being able to help their family. In some cases, the burden takes a toll. For older youth, being the cultural navigator is their most important role, often requiring them to sacrifice their education. When role of student and that of being a navigator conflict, the navigator role is always selected. Some youth are crushed by the load they are asked to carry resulting in their dropping out school, getting caught in the juvenile justice system, etc.
While the challenges are many, there are four that these communities have voiced as their greatest challenges.
In a very short time the parents understand the importance of education in the United States, making their children’s education a family priority. As parents, they also understand that their engagement in their children’s education is vitally important to their success in school. The challenge is in playing that parent role. As a result the conditions that led them to become refugees and the length of time spent in the refugee camps, there are many adults and even more children who have never been inside a school, never interacted with an educational institution. As described by member of the community in in a presentation to the School Superintendent in San Diego, “They come from tents. They have never held a pencil.”
The challenge with the educational system in San Diego County is having the Districts recognize that the refugee community in the County is too large to be addressed as though their main challenge is language. It is a community with its own unique set challenges. Lumping them with those challenged with English as Second Language results in those other challenges being lost. California has received just over a half-million refugees between 1983 and 2015. A quarter million live in San Diego County.
Access to Healthcare
The Global ARC’s Participatory Action Research project on Access to Healthcare for African Families conducted in 2012 revealed that nearly 70% of the women surveyed did not understand their healthcare provider nor had any confidence that their healthcare provider understood them. The Council of Community Clinics in an evaluation of interpretation services three years earlier indicated that 65% of the staff at the clinics viewed the interpretation services as “highly effective.” In the present system, it is the older children who become the medical interpreters for their family.
This difference in assessment of the interpretation services is the challenge. A system that believes it is operating in a “highly effective” manner is generally not open to changing how it does business. The community describes their experiences at health clinics as places of conflict and competition rather than a healing place as describe by the clinics themselves.
Achieving Economic Self-Sufficiency
With public benefits guaranteed for only eight months, refugees are under great pressure to find gainful employment, the success of which is dependent on the state of the economy.
The challenge in this area, like the others, have multiple levels including learning English, accessing the resources necessary to generate income and build assets, access to education and training, etc.
In general, the youth are placed in schools and then left to their own devices to integrate into American Society. Schools focus on the youth’s education but not their adjustment to the surroundings or dealing with any trauma experienced in their journey the United States. Most of the youth were born in refugee camps which did not equip them for their adjustment. Their natural teachers, i.e., parents, cannot fulfil that role as they depend on the youth to help them navigate the system.
The challenge is to create intentional programs designed to address the unique needs of these youth as they work to be successful in their new surroundings.
Role of the Global ARC
The mission of the Global ARC is to “facilitate local communities and institutions in developing . . . sustainability solutions.” This mission is built on the Global ARC’s firm belief that it is the refugee community itself that knows best how to address these challenges. In fact, these challenges cannot be successfully met without the refugee community leading. Based on this belief, the Global ARCs works as a partner with refugee-run organizations to assist them in articulating their issues. In particular, our process includes working with such organizations in:
- Naming: Giving voice to issues as experienced by the refugees themselves.
- Documenting: Having named the issue, support the community in documenting the issue so that it can be addressed.
- Strategizing: Facilitating the community developing a strategic plan for addressing the issues as named and documented.
- Creating: Working with community move its strategic plan into action by providing ongoing technical assistance
- Evaluating: Evaluation developed in the early stages of a program not only provide evidence of success, but also provide a feedback mechanism that allows the project to make course corrections as they move forward if needed. The Global ARC develops and oversees this evaluation.
Experience shows that refugees who are resettled in an area where there is a community for them to be integrated into significantly increases their capacity to successfully adjust to life in the United States. The Global ARC’s role is to support the communities’ capacity to self-organize and bring their issues into the public dialogue.
- City Heights Youth for Change: A project of the Global ARC, City Heights Youth for Change operates a Youth Leadership Academy for East African Youth. Understanding the role youth play in the community, this project provides support in playing that role by providing the participants with education and training on issues of importance to their community. They also receive training and support on how to share that knowledge and information with the rest of the community so they may be informed participants in the public dialogue.
Parent~Student~Resident Organization: The PSRO is an organization of refugee and immigrants who live within the "Crawford Cluster," i.e., an area of a community served by a particular high school and all its feeder schools that actively advocates for equity in educational outcomes . This organization has become the voice of the refugee and immigrant community within the school district and was founded based on the recommendations of a Participatory Community Assessment guided by the Global ARC and continues to receive technical assistance from the Global ARC.
United Women of East Africa's Support Team: As this organization was forming, the Global ARC provided training and technical assistance on community organizing and has continued to work with them as they have grown and developed including: facilitating the development of an afterschool program, partnering on the creation of a parent support network, supporting their youth development, etc.
Somali-Bantu Community Organization of San Diego: The Bantu are an ethnic minority from Somali who were displaced with the collapse of the Somali Government. In 2004 nearly 700 Bantu were resettled in San Diego shortly afterwards founded this organization as the voice of their community. The Global ARC partners with the SBCO-SD on projects such as City Heights Youth for Change, the PSRO and development of the parent support network.
Somali Family Services: A social service agency that grew out of the refugee community, Somali Family Services has developed into a multi-service agency that is particularly equipped to serve the needs of the East African community. The Global ARC's partnership includes providing technical assistance in areas of program and community development.