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Cultural Orientation re-oriented to a virtual environment

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Danielle Parker, an AmeriCorps member, facilitated cultural orientation for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Salt Lake City.
Danielle Parker, community integration & participation AmeriCorps, facilitated online cultural orientation to provide important information to recently resettled refugees. Photo: Tatjana Andrews/IRC

Danielle Parker, community integration & participation AmeriCorps, recently recounted her efforts over the past months to adapt required programming to continue serving refugee families during a time of physical distancing. For many newly arriving refugee families, digital literacy and access are challenging to overcome, but connecting virtually is vital to complete service provision in a world restricted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about Danielle’s efforts as she recounts her program pivots over the past eight weeks:

After months of planning and organizing, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Salt Lake was ready to radically change our Cultural Orientation (CO) procedures. Within the first 90 days of arrival, recently arrived refugees have an overwhelming amount of information to learn: how to live in their Utah apartment, shop at the grocery store, getting around on public transportation and much more. Practical settings, from bus orientations to visits to local grocery stores or health clinics, are used to teach this information. However, some topics don't have applicable environments and so presentations are, normally, given in the office. These in-person sessions cover the role of the IRC in their resettlement journey, housing, employment, transportation, education, health, money management, rights and responsibilities as a resident in the U.S., and cultural adjustment in their new community.

In February 2020, I began overseeing the process to develop a refreshed, three-day CO, a coordinated series of lessons including presenters from across IRC programming in Salt Lake City and community partners. Just three days before our first day of a newly outlined, in-person, group CO, COVID-19 forced us to temporarily close the office. Just like that, we had some rapid changes to make to continue meeting resettlement program requirements and provide newly arrived refugee families with the information they needed to begin their life in a new community.

We had to find a new way to deliver these topics, quickly. As I was facilitating the in-office CO, my new task was to rework our monthly cultural orientation to fit the new virtual environment.

Since February, the IRC in Salt Lake City resettled 26 refugee families, with a total of 40 adults that needed to attend CO. Most of these new arrivals did not yet have a laptop and some still didn't have access to the internet in their homes. These factors, coupled with the increased risk to staff leaving their homes to meet at clients' homes to help set up virtual infrastructures, such as hot-spots and email addresses, made "easy" Zoom calls nearly impossible.

After piloting a few different platforms with newly arrived refugee families, we determined that WhatsApp was the most successful way to contact families through a video call. For those that required interpreters, or still didn't have internet, telephonic CO was our best option.

During this time, the Cultural Orientation Resource Exchange, or CORE, quickly produced and facilitated a four-week virtual practicum helping train refugee resettlement staff to facilitate remote COs.

Through this course, I learned from colleagues across the world who were facing the same challenges that we were. With the help of Carine Foly, resettlement manager at the IRC in Salt Lake City, I quickly adapted our local curriculum to the most concise version possible. Sessions with families were scheduled more frequently to accommodate their language needs. Sometimes, that meant we would have one person on the call; other times, we would have up to four. After navigating scheduling challenges with interpreters, fellow staff members, and families, we were ready to go.

The start was slow, with only one or two sessions a week. However, in May, we completed 11 sessions and crossed the finish line. Though we faced complications along the way, we will take every lesson back to the office with us. The downside to virtual, and especially telephonic, CO is that clients have less time to digest the materials presented to them initially, though their caseworker will continue to answer questions and help them navigate their new community here in Utah. The benefit, though, is that we can have a personalized discussion with each family, not often available in a group CO. They can ask more questions and tell us about their fears and goals as they begin the process of rebuilding their lives in the Beehive State.

This change is a fantastic example of collaboration across teams at the IRC in Salt Lake City. It truly demonstrates the way that our staff always steps up to work together. The never-ending efforts of each caseworker must be recognized since they are our first line of interaction with clients. Being a part of that world was the best thing that could have happened to my role, especially participating in over 30 hours of CO calls. I was able to deliver real-time coaching and hope to newly arrived refugee families. For me, that is the most powerful feeling in the world.

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At the IRC in Salt Lake City, staff and AmeriCorps service members, like Danielle, continue to pivot programs to meet the needs of thousands of refugees and immigrants living in Utah. Your partnership in this effort is vital. Continue to support our work by contributing a gift today or becoming a monthly sustainer by visiting Rescue.org/GiveSLC.