Cultural Orientation for New Americans
Plastic coins, subway maps and empty cereal boxes; these are some of the teaching materials used at the IRC in New York’s Cultural Orientation class for newly arrived refugees. Many of us born and raised in the United States take things for granted that go far beyond the obvious, whether it is knowledge regarding zip codes, when to call 911, how to write a check, or how to use a NYC Metrocard.
Newly arrived refugees and asylees attend the IRC’s intensive Cultural Orientation class to familiarize themselves with the practical skills and knowledge that will ease the transition to their new home. Seasoned New Yorkers may consider knowing how to read a subway map mundane, but for a new American it is a vital skill for surviving in New York City. Cultural Orientation classes cover everything from communicating assertively with a landlord to making a doctor’s appointment.
Emily Scott, Adult Education Coordinator at the IRC in New York, teaches the classes with a team of volunteers. “Every week is different since we tailor the instruction to meet the needs of the client”, Emily says. “We create an open forum where refugees can feel comfortable asking questions and talking about the challenges in transitioning to the US.” When asked about how she deals with a spectrum of language abilities or when there is no interpreter, Emily responds: “sometimes we just have to go with pictures. We use videos, gestures, picture dictionaries and translated materials.” The teacher’s enthusiasm for non-verbal communication shows as she runs across the room to demonstrate “fast”, when explaining what is fast food. Even when the class is adept at English or there is an interpreter present, gestures and motions are still very much utilized by the teachers and students. As part of the curriculum, teachers re-create real life situations: the class visits the library, the post office and a subway station. These situations provide vital skills to help refugees survive in their new home.
Refugees who have been here for a little while and who are considered “veterans” will often help out and assist the newly arrived. They help translate the classes and explain concepts that can be difficult to do without language capacity, like paying taxes and writing a resume for example. During the classes, things about America jump out that don’t always make a lot of sense. One man asked why the dime was smaller than all the other coins, if it’s worth more than a penny and a nickel. Why does America call it ‘soccer’ when everyone else says ‘football’?
There can be a wealth of cultural differences between the U.S. and the countries that the IRC’s refugees hail from. The IRC serves clients from all over the world and prior knowledge of American culture varies greatly, depending on clients’ country of origin, educational experiences, and access to Western media. For example, a recently arrived refugee from Iraq who worked with the U.S. military tends to be more familiar with American culture than a refugee from Burma living in Malaysia. The teachers are aware of these differences and customize the class so everyone is able to learn something new.
Amidst these challenges you can see a community form and a diverse group of strangers bond in front of your eyes. When there is no family, one is created. Besides the help that the IRC offers, the refugees themselves offer one another immense support and assistance. And these are the things that translate into a universal language.