A family of seven Somali Bantu refugees had just arrived in Fort Wayne, Ind., and without an interpreter on hand, volunteer Terry Taylor was doing her best to communicate with hand gestures. She took them to a three-bedroom apartment the relief organization Catholic Charities had secured for the family, but when she came back to check on them a week later, she found two of the bedrooms empty.
“I realized that they didn’t think those bedrooms were theirs,” Taylor said. “They were all huddling in one room and sleeping together - a family of seven.”
Taylor, who now works full-time for Catholic Charities, said that was just one of countless instances of dramatic culture shock she has seen since she began working with the refugees.
“They time warped 200 years into the future when they got off the plane,” she said. The problems begin at the most basic levels, Taylor said, such as, “Not recognizing at least 90 percent of the food they see at the grocery store. They’re used to getting rice and oil and sugar and a couple other things.”
Now Fort Wayne, already short volunteers to handle the thousands of African and Southeast Asian refugees living there, is preparing for an unprecedented influx of refugees from Thailand: Hundreds of members of the Karen indigenous group who fled their homeland of Burma, in order to avoid death at the hands of the military junta in power there, are headed to Indiana.
The government there has for decades waged a merciless campaign of subjugation against the indigenous Karen tribe, who were once among the best-educated and highest-paid members of Burmese society. After Great Britain granted Burma independence in 1948, the junta took power and the greatly resented Karen people’s prosperity ended abruptly, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a 120-nation consortium that assists refugees and monitors global migration trends.
Facing torture, death or at best a life of forced labor, the Karen fled into isolated villages in the country’s jungle-covered mountains. After decades of living in the largely self-sufficient villages and warding off the Burmese army, some 150,000 Karen fled into Thailand some 20 years ago, where they were placed in refugee camps. There they have remained, prohibited from entering the rest of Thailand to pursue a better life. Another 650,000 Karen remain displaced within Burma, according to the IOM.
Both the United States and Canada have accepted thousands of Karen refugees, and Taylor said organizations like hers have been overwhelmed. More than 450 Karen have been relocated to Fort Wayne between July and September, and another 600-800 are expected in 2008, she said.
“Catholic Charities normally resettles 150 to 200 refugees total in one calendar year, so this has been amazing,” she said.
After brief, often baffling orientation sessions during which they cover dozens of legal details regarding their residency in the U.S., the refugees are cut loose. They are given food stamps and a few hundred dollars per month with which to subsist, and because they arrive financially illiterate, the money often goes quickly.
Their financial struggle does not end there, Taylor said. Those who open checking accounts frequently overdraw them, incurring fees and leading them to believe the bank has stolen their money. Many people are so afraid of the banks, she said, that after three years in the U.S. they’re still paying their bills with money orders. Also, the refugees are left with the financial burden of repaying the government for their flight to the U.S.
Taylor said any sort of cultural orientation activity is helpful for refugees of any nationality, from helping them learn English - which can be a lengthy process since many of them arrive illiterate in even their native language, she said - to helping them learn to drive or understand a checkbook.
Additionally, because from their perspective simple tasks such as purchasing paint or cleaning supplies can seem daunting, many of the families’ homes and apartments are in need of basic repairs, and working on those projects would present the opportunity to teach the refugees how to handle such tasks themselves.
Experience Mission is offering summer 2008 mission trips to Fort Wayne to work with the refugees. Learn more at www.experiencemission.org or by calling the EM Office at (360) 554-8060.