International Rescue Committee (IRC)

IRC in Silver Spring Readies its New Cultural Orientation Program

You may remember an update a few months ago from IRC in Silver Spring staff member Katherine Rehberg, who wrote from Thailand where she was working with the IRC-run Resettlement Support Center in Bangkok. Check it out if you missed it: Here is another update, this time with more information on our new-but-growing cultural orientation activities here in Maryland.


“Will I have to live under a bridge in America?” “What will I do for work?” “What if I lock myself in the bathroom on the airplane?”   The myriad of questions raised by refugees preparing to depart for resettlement in the United States may not be surprising, but they are still daunting! That word “daunting” is also a fitting description of many things I’ve been exposed to here in Southeast Asia while working with and learning from IRC staff at the Resettlement Support Center based in Bangkok. The small “Cultural Orientation” team, spread across three cities in two countries, is responsible for preparing departing refugees to be successful in the transition to life in America. They schedule classes, train and supervise teachers and interpreters, and constantly assess and revise curriculum and materials used in the classroom. Though most classroom teachers are not American, their knowledge of America and the US resettlement program is astounding.   “No, you won’t have to live under a bridge in America. Your resettlement agency will provide you with safe and sanitary housing upon your arrival. But you should focus on finding a job quickly, be willing to work, and be on time with rental payments.”   “Refugees get all types of jobs in America. You will be legally eligible to work in America and can apply for any kind of work. However, finding a job is difficult! You should be prepared to work hard and willing to take any kind of job, even if it is ‘too easy’ or ‘too difficult’ or outside of your educational background.”   “If you lock yourself in the bathroom, press the emergency button and the flight attendant will come to help you…let’s watch that part of the ‘travel to America’ video again.”   In addition to the work required to make classes possible, cultural orientation staff is always striving to make sure that the classroom is both a place for information to be given and a safe place for class participants to discuss their feelings about the upcoming transition to the US. Lessons are conducted so that participants are able to interact with the subject matter and draw conclusions on their own. They literally pack real luggage with real contents to learn about the “dos” and “don’ts” of flight luggage restrictions. They look at photos, watch videos, have small group discussions, and role play.   Though we learned many things during the approximately 70 hours of classroom observation in Bangkok and Mae Sot, Thailand and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, these lessons were perhaps most instructive. I imagine that our own curriculum development in Silver Spring will be heavily influenced by these training “best practices”…clear evidence of the importance of information sharing and partnership across programs!   As curriculum continues to develop and an increasing number of trainings offered, we expect to rely heavily on the local community for support! Interested in being a part of this work? Email, and check the IRC in Silver Spring web page for more updates. We will continue to post requests for more specific needs as they arise!