7 Things to Know About Working with Refugees

Refugees face many challenges when they arrive to the US. The cultural, linguistic, and institutional differences can create significant barriers for them, but as Christians, we can help them overcome those barriers and adjust to their new lives. Welcoming refugees in our city is the first step, but here are some tips for communication and compassion for those looking to get more involved.

1) Nonverbal cues are often more important than words.

While some refugees might speak a little bit of English, most are coming to the US knowing very few words, if any. That means many interactions will be through an interpreter, either in person or on the phone, or even through gestures and very basic English, if you aren’t lucky enough to know the language that they speak. Through both gestures and interpreters, a lot of the emotions and nuances in what the person is saying can be lost. Watching for body language and facial expressions and paying attention to the tone of voice can be extremely important in understanding what they are really trying to communicate. While refugees might be giving an answer that they think is what they should be saying, their actions and body language might show something completely different, which is important to see when you are working closely with a family and investing in their lives.

2) Be prepared for a lot of resistance.

Factors like PTSD, misunderstanding of services and culture, and even just the circumstances that most refugees are coming from often lead to struggles for control for volunteers, especially in the home. It’s important to set boundaries, roles, and rules at the beginning and to go over those boundaries continually. Set the agenda and stick to it, for both your sake and the sake of the family. Guide the conversation but let them come to conclusions and solutions on their own about what they want and need. Refugees are coming from situations where they had all control taken away from them, and part of working with them involves putting that power back in their hands in a healthy, effective way.

3) Half of your role will be advocating.

Services tailored to refugees are still pretty few and far between in the US, although they are growing. In many cases, the role of a volunteer working directly with refugees involves advocating to service providers and community members about interpretation, equal rights, and cultural sensitivity. While laws exist to protect and help people like refugees, many are still unaware of the rights refugees have. With language and cultural barriers, refugees are often vulnerable to service providers who tend to move quickly through a system without much thought for the individual. As someone working one-on-one with refugees and seeing the ins and outs of their families, you are in an important and effective position to help advocate on their behalf.

4) Self-sufficiency will be much more valuable than hand-outs.

This isn’t always easy to remember when you’re dealing with vulnerable people who are in need. Refugee resettlement agencies typically provide everything refugees need to furnish their homes and even pay for rent and utilities for the first few months. After that, though, families will still often have a lot of needs to be met, and most of them will immediately look to those working closely with them to get what they need. The best solution for those working with refugees, especially volunteers, is always to take the time to provide them with the skills and resources they need to thrive. This work is not glamorous; it usually involves tasks like showing families how to take a bus route to the doctor or helping them find the closest thrift store or even simple things like showing them how to write out a money order. Some families will insist that they will be best served by having things given to them, at least at first, but helping refugees take back control and power by gaining skills and resources is one of the best ways to make sure that they will live well.

5) Learn how to provide trauma-informed care.

Learning about how to provide trauma-informed care is extremely important for volunteers working with refugees. Find trainings that can provide information about how to deal with mental health crises, how to respond when someone breaks down emotionally, and how to act sensitively towards refugees without tip-toeing around them. Refugees have been through a lot, and some of them tend to panic when things start to go wrong. Keeping calm and talking them through situations to show them that they are not really in crisis is a useful skill. And keeping calm during an actual crisis is also really important to help them feel some level of control. Even if you don’t know someone’s story, acting with care and sensitivity and providing structure through your time with them will be a key piece in helping them succeed. Refugees need an environment that allows them to be vulnerable while still nudging them forward as they begin to build their lives in America. Trauma-informed care can help those working with refugees understand the best ways to interact with them and how to motivate them to move forward with their lives.

Refugees need an environment that allows them to be vulnerable while still nudging them forward as they begin to build their lives in America. -Allie Reefer @allienicolereef Click To Tweet

6) Speaking of trauma, mental health is something to take very seriously.

Mental health is a touchy subject in any culture, but it tends to be an especially delicate topic in cultures that refugees are coming from. Women are more likely to accept help from a therapist, but men are extremely vulnerable to untreated mental health issues due to cultural standards. This is where trauma-informed care, along with picking up on nonverbal clues, becomes extremely helpful. Most cities have places that will offer a mental health first-aid course for free, and this training could be helpful for anyone working with people who have been impacted by trauma. Even when refugees are going to therapists on a regular basis, they aren’t necessarily addressing all of the relevant issues. External stressors like money, weather change, housing issues, family problems, and even culture shock can push them into a crisis. Helping refugees understand that mental health is an important thing to talk about and encouraging them to seek professional help is necessary for volunteers working in refugees’ homes.

7) Learn how to care for yourself.

As with most human rights issues, working with refugees can be physically, mentally, and emotionally draining. One of the best things you can do for yourself and your time with your refugee family is to take time to refresh and relax. It’s easy to lose site of time boundaries and emotional boundaries and “take work home” emotionally. Leaving stress and emotions at the door is important for yourself, your friends/family, and the refugees you work with. Spend weekends catching up with friends, exercising, going to events, etc. See a counselor or therapist if you need to. Leave room for yourself to process, destress, and express. Find a balance between removing yourself from reality and delving too deeply into it. Burnout is easy for volunteers working directly with people, and it’s especially easy while working with people who have experienced immense and prolonged trauma, so taking a break, taking vacation, learning to express artistically, and being able to process through emotions are extremely important for volunteers working closely with refugee families.

Helping refugee families adjust in the US has challenges, but it also presents the rewards of watching families thrive and succeed in a place where they finally have control and freedom. Learning how to interact with them, what their needs are, and how to avoid burnout are just a few important skills needed to do culturally appropriate, sustainable, and effective volunteer work in refugee communities. And above all, continue to pray for the refugees living in our city, our nation, and our world—that they find safety, peace, freedom, and communities who will welcome them with open arms and open hearts to make a new home.

The writer’s original version of this article was posted on humanrightscareers.com.

By Allie Reefer, Service Coordinator for the Immigrant Services and Connections program (ISAC) at Northern Area Multi-Service Center (NAMS) and freelance writer for humanrightscareers.com.

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