Utah has long-welcomed individuals and families with refugee backgrounds. In August, the state’s governor, Spencer J. Cox, publicly and nationally shared Utah’s willingness to welcome more Afghan refugees. Recent media images of Afghan citizens fleeing their country, seeking asylum from horrific danger, have given many Americans pause. What can I do? How can I help?
Three members of the College of Social Work faculty and staff reflected on their own experience, practice and expertise, and shared their thoughts on how to serve and care with compassion.
Be a friend
“Befriending people who just arrived is so helpful, but make sure you don’t befriend out of pity,” said Gaben Sanchez, assistant professor/lecturer, who emigrated from Argentina. “Treat them like real friends, not like a service project. New immigrants and refugees need to feel sincere friendship and care like any other human being. They need more than help; they need friends to laugh with, to share stories, to share their wisdom and to help (as in, them helping you).”
“Check in and try to be inclusive,” recommended Caren Frost, research professor, who served as the founding director of the U’s Center for Research on Migration & Refugee Integration. “If there is a neighborhood activity, invite them and introduce them to others in the neighborhood.”
Volunteer your time
“Time is the best thing someone can volunteer,” said Frost. “Meeting and engaging with incoming families can help people feel that they are important and welcome.”
“Without a car, it is hard to shop,” noted Mirela Rankovic, doctoral program coordinator, who came to America as a Serbian refugee from Croatia. She suggested volunteers could help new Americans learn to navigate public transportation and nearby grocery stores.
Sanchez added, “Volunteers are great for coaching. Go do things with the person. Just don’t give too much information, please. It is overwhelming to experience so many new things at once—crash courses don’t help. Sometimes, in our desire to help, we overwhelm people with so much information that it may be too much to process at the time.”
Ask what is needed
“Refugees arriving in the U.S. will not have much,” Rankovic reminded. “When my family arrived, we didn’t have plates or utensils, or any pots to cook. Basic stuff like that is needed.”
Frost advised that “Giving your leftover clothes and/or other items may not be seen as kind—ask people what they need. They will let you know.”
Offer educational support—at every level
“For young kids going to school, the first day can be very difficult,” said Sanchez. “They are usually dropped off and left by themselves. Even though the teacher makes a great effort, the child does not know them, and most likely the teacher does not speak their language or know their culture either. Having someone—who they know and who speaks their language—at school with them the first couple of days can be very helpful to decrease anxiety and fear.”
“Younger people will be placed in grades depending on their age, not their previous learning,” said Rankovic. “This can be quite a shock for parents and kids! But there are supports to learn English through ESL opportunities in school.”
“For youth, their age and height do not mean they understand English in the same way that an individual who is born in the U.S. does,” said Frost. “Don’t isolate from these incoming youth—they need new friends who actually care about what they think and feel. They may also need help with homework and want to be included in after-school activities if parents approve of the activity.”
Rankovic recalled, “The best advice I got when I arrived in the U.S. was that I was eligible to apply for financial aid as a refugee. That is how I paid tuition for the Salt Lake Community College.”
Take a trauma-informed approach
“Citizens fleeing the country and applying for refugee status in the U.S. must prove that their lives would be in danger if they didn’t leave,” explained Rankovic. “Afghan people have been living in war zones for decades; all of these people have experienced death and destruction. Mental health services might be needed, but remember there could also be stigma and rejection of those services.”
“Don’t assume everyone is suffering from PTSD and needs talk therapy,” cautioned Sanchez.
“They are just people, who have probably been through some very traumatic experiences,” said Frost. “Do not ask about the trauma—if it is appropriate they will tell you.”
Be culturally sensitive
Of those who may soon arrive from Afghanistan, Frost reminded, “They’re coming from halfway around the world. They will need support and assistance in understanding the culture in the U.S. and in Utah. Many of them will likely be Muslims and will have different food parameters in some cases. Do some reading about where they come from and see what similarities you can find between yourself and them.”
Rankovic also noted the importance of helping new Americans learn the language and the culture. “Many people may not know the English language, and they will depend on resettling agency workers to help with basic needs. Grouping refugees in living proximity will initially help, but this can also be an issue if they come from opposing groups.”
Offer financial support
“Refugees in the past would be required to study English full-time to qualify for welfare benefits,” said Rankovic, recalling her experience. “There is also a job search requirement. Food stamps and cash assistance would be available for up to six months; after that, refugees are expected to work and provide for themselves.”
Connect them to community resources
Frost offered some local resources: “Make sure they are connected to their resettlement agency—the International Rescue Committee or Catholic Community Services. The Asian Association can likely help them later. They can also work with the Office of Refugee Services at the Department of Workforce Services for employment support. Additionally, if they request it, put them in touch with the Khadija Islamic Center (1019 W. Parkway Avenue in West Valley City).”
In putting this information together, Sanchez reminded us how important it is to respond appropriately to people as individuals. “There is no one size fits all,” he emphasized. “Asking and respecting people’s wishes and needs is important.”