Finding ‘home’ in the United States

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Every once in a while, I come across a story that really makes me feel good about the world. Now is one of those moments.

Making America ‘home’

A local refugee family from Burma came to the United States in 2006, a trip nearly halfway around the world and spanning two cultures that are similarly worlds apart.

Hai Doo and his family became the 200th refugee family in the Phoenix area to become home owners thanks to the International Rescue Committee’s resettlement program.

With the help of grants and other aid, these Burmese refugees are able to start a new life in the United States under a roof that they can call their own. In an IRC news release, Hai Doo was quoted as saying:

“When I was living in the refugee camp, I didn’t think it would be possible to have a home again. Now I feel like my dream has come true.”

The new homeowner exemplifies the story that I would like to see more frequently in the United States.

From Burma to America

More than 8,000 miles apart geographically, Burma and the United States may have more distance between them ideologically.

Since a military junta ended democratic rule in Burma in the early 1960s, the United Nations has repeatedly accused the Indochinese nation of human rights violations. In a Special Report to the 59th Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights titled “The World’s Most Repressive Regimes,” Burma received the status of “Not Free” because of its unsavory record of governmental abuses.

Although progress is being made for the country that can’t seem to choose between the names Burma and Myanmar, the fledgling rule of democracy may continue to be shaky into the near and distant future.

The United States admitted more than 16,000 refugees from Burma in 2010, according to statistics from the Cultural Orientation Resource Center. This staggering number highlights the ongoing struggle for human rights in Burma and also makes the story of Hai Doo that much more touching.

Even out of the bleakest situations around the world, families like that of Hai Doo can make a new life in the United States with a little bit of help.

Refugees struggle to navigate healthcare

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When refugees come to the United States from nations that have little to no infrastructure, navigating the complexities of the American healthcare system can be quite a chore. Besides having to know where to get healthcare and how to communicate this need with others, refugee patients often do not understand the ideas of health insurance or even scheduling an appointment.

Helping refugees find healthcare

In an article in The Arizona Republic in 2010, a possible solution to this problem is proposed:

“The ultimate goal is to empower patients to navigate the health-care process by themselves, (Refugee Women’s Health Clinic director Crista) Johnson said.

“Until then, patients are guided every step, starting with a knock on the front door.”

Reaching out to refugees who might need medical aid but don’t know how to get it is the most important step to be taken. Volunteers help refugees along each part of what can be an immensely confusing process of getting prescriptions, medication and other attention.

Many refugees come from cultures where the medical field is nonexistent or entirely different from that in the United States, and careful consideration must be taken to help ease the culture shock. However, the only way to build a new healthcare culture for refugees is by exposing them to the American system and helping them learn and understand it as they go.

Another important aspect of acclimating refugees to a new form of healthcare is personal relationship. The closer refugees feel to the people who work in the healthcare system, the easier it will be for them to continue seeking medical attention when it is necessary.

Additional focus on comprehension

Although there is work being done to help refugees connect with healthcare providers, additional assistance is necessary to help refugees become more self-sufficient in this regard.

Being able to fill out paperwork to apply for Medicaid is a skill that many refugees lack, often because of the language barrier and other factors. If refugees can be taught about the American healthcare system, they can begin to provide themselves with the guidance they need to achieve a healthy existence in the United States.

The focus of this help should be on the comprehension of the system, which comes in addition to aiding refugees in the immediate connection with local healthcare providers. Teaching refugees how to navigate the American healthcare system will create a better understanding of how to find medical attention and how to survive in a culture vastly different from their own.

Language barriers for refugees in America

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Refugees settling in the United States, not surprisingly, come to the country with very little exposure to English as a primary language. Thusly, these refugees have the additional burden of learning a new language on top of the struggles of day-to-day living in a culture vastly different than their previous one.

What’s the problem?

According to statistics collected by the Cultural Orientation Resource Center in 2010, the vast majority of refugees coming to the United States are from only eight countries: Iraq, Burma, Bhutan, Somalia, Cuba, Iran, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Eritrea, respectively.

Of those eight countries, only Somalia and Eritrea show English as a spoken language, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook.

The actual proficiency of English speakers in these countries is additionally diminished by low literacy rates and lack of educational infrastructure. For refugees arriving in the United States, language stands as a great obstacle to success in many other areas of acclimation.

What’s being done to help?

Fortunately, there is work being done in Phoenix to help refugees overcome this struggle.

In a 2011 article in The Arizona Republic, a program in its third year serves to connect refugee students with their community by helping them learn English.

The Phoenix Union Refugee Summer English Language Institute focuses on refugee students from around the area, but there is still much work to be done. Refugee families often face an increasing divide between children who are given opportunities to learn and practice English and parents who may work in occupations that require little verbal communication.

“Coming to this country alone is traumatic. Some of them have never been to school,” Phoenix Union High School District administrative specialist Vanessa Jimenez said in the article.

Where do we go from here?

In order to create a cohesion both in the family and in the communities where refugee families are attempting to coalesce, more efforts must be made to teach English to the entire family unit.

While efforts to educate kids are helpful, children have little understanding of how to run the house and serving as a translator for the rest of the family can be stressful and socially intrusive.

Programs like the Phoenix Union Refugee Summer English Language Institute receive funding to function, but a force of volunteers who are ready, willing and able to teach refugee families a new language would be of great benefit to those families and the community. Before many other issues can be addressed, the language barrier must be torn down so that refugee families can make real progress in their acclimation to American life.

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