Connecting Through Cultural Orientation
The International Rescue Committee is unique in that it is the only international humanitarian organization that operates international and domestic programs that help at each stage of the refugee’s journey from crisis to stability. For refugees selected for resettlement in the U.S., cultural orientation is an important component in both international and domestic programs.
This year, the IRC in Baltimore staff made it a priority to develop a better structured and more comprehensive Cultural Orientation Program to ensure refugees had consistent and accurate information upon arrival. As part of the process for creating such a program, Sara Bedford, a former case worker and now cultural orientation coordinator, was seconded from Baltimore to the Refugee Support Center (RSC) run by the IRC in Thailand. The RSC serves as a transition and processing point for thousands of refugees from Southeast Asia. Sara was sent to Thailand to increase collaboration with international programs staff, examine the effectiveness of the cultural orientation refugees receive before coming to the U.S. and return with knowledge to build the capacity of US Programs curriculum.
During the secondment, Sara observed approximately 70 hours of cultural orientation classes and met with staff in Bangkok and Mae Sot, Thailand and visited the cultural orientation program in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She spent the majority of her time in the Mae La camp on the Thai-Burma border, which houses nearly 50,000 refugees from Burma primarily of Karen ethnicity. Refugees from Mae La Camp and many in Thailand are housed in temporary bamboo homes, their kitchens and bathrooms are outdoors and refugees have no outlet through which to work or provide for themselves or their families. Mae La is set in the midst of a hilly jungle with common water depots and weekly food distribution throughout the camp.
Sara also observed classes in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where Burmese refugees, mainly of the Chin ethnic group, are located to witness the challenges of urban refugees. Unlike Karen refugees in Thailand, Burmese Chin refugees in Malaysia continually face the threat of arbitrary arrest by the Malay government because of their lack of legal status. They live in overcrowded ‘western’ apartments with often 20 to 30 people living in two bedrooms. Due to their lack of status in Malaysia, Chin refugees are unable to access basic government services such as education and healthcare, though community based organizations help in these areas. Many Chin, despite these barriers and threat of imprisonment, choose to work illegally to support themselves and their families.
Refugees at the RSC receive five days of cultural orientation class prior to their travel to the U.S. The classes, through activities, games and interactive presentations, attempt to present an accurate picture of what refugees will do and see once they arrive in America. “The differences between life in the camps and the U.S. that are presented to refugees is really dramatic,” said Sara. “Refugees learn about paying bills for electricity, which they don’t even have in the camps. And they are taught they must maintain their home in the U.S, but in the camps they are living without indoor plumbing in bamboo structures which are torn down and re-built yearly.”
Now back in Baltimore, Sara will begin piloting a multi-day orientation for newly arrived refugees containing many topics that are especially new and unfamiliar upon arrival, such as employment, housing, finances, and services at the Baltimore Resettlement Center. The curriculum has been specifically designed for refugees in Baltimore and will provide invaluable information to Maryland's newest arrivals.