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7 Crucial Things to Know About Working with Refugees


While many academics and professionals in the human rights field are familiar with how to work with refugees abroad and in camps, many face unexpected challenges while working with refugee communities domestically in the US. On home turf, it can be easy to forget where these individuals are coming from and the cultural, linguistic, and institutional differences that can create significant barriers and challenges for many refugees. Here are some things to keep in mind if you are considering working with refugees coming to America.

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 that every interaction will be through an interpreter, either in person or on the phone, if you aren’t lucky enough to know the language that they speak. While interpreters should be translating word-for-word, many clean up the language and emotion behind what people are saying. As a professional working with refugees, watching their body language and facial expressions and paying attention to their tone of voice can be extremely important in understanding what they are really trying to communicate. While they 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 for you to know.

2. Be prepared for a lot of resistance.
One thing that all professionals working with refugees in the US would agree on is that some clients always fight for control. While services for refugees should be client-based, the professional is still in charge. Factors like PTSD, misunderstanding of services and culture, and even just the circumstances that most refugees are coming from often lead to a power struggle between client and service provider. Most professionals tend to have one of two approaches—back down and let them take control or cut them off from services. A true solution involves an approach somewhere between these two extremes. It’s important to set boundaries, roles, and rules at the beginning of services and to remind clients of those boundaries. Part of overcoming this challenge also involves persuasive speech—guide the conversation but let them come to conclusions and solutions on their own. 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 job 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 case worker, service coordinator, or other professional working directly with refugees involves advocating to services providers about interpretation, equal rights, and cultural sensitivity. While laws exist to protect and help people like refugees, most service providers are still unaware of the rights refugees have. With language and cultural barriers refugees are often vulnerable with service providers who tend to move quickly through a system without much thought for the individual. Whether the problem is overpayment of welfare benefits, not using interpretation during medical appointments, or something else, those working directly with refugees in the US will have to spend time communicating their rights and service providers’ responsibilities.

4. Self-sufficiency will be much more valuable than hand-outs.
This is pretty standard knowledge for anyone in international development. But, that doesn’t mean it’s 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 the agency to give them what they need. While this is sometimes appropriate, it is always best for professionals working with refugees 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. Many clients will insist that they will be best served by having things given to them, 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.
Many agencies working with refugees will provide trainings throughout the year on dealing with people who are under extreme emotional stress. Even so, learning about how to provide trauma-informed care is extremely important for professionals working with these populations. These types of trainings 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 clients 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 clients feel some level of control. Even if you don’t know a client’s story, acting with care and sensitivity and providing structure through meetings 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 professionals working with refugees understand the best ways to interact with them and how to motivate them to move forward with their lives.

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. Some agencies will provide training for mental health first aid, but if yours doesn’t, most cities have places that will offer the course for free. Even when clients are going to therapists on a regular basis, they aren’t necessary 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 professionals working in these communities.

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 your clients is to take time to refresh and relax. In jobs dealing with human rights, especially working directly with people, it’s easy to work overtime physically and “take work home” emotionally. Leaving stress and emotions at the door is important for yourself, your friends/family, and your clients. 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 in any field 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 in this line of work.

Working to resettle refugees in the US presents challenges not faced in the field, 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 work in refugee communities. Those who are interested in working in this particular human rights field should consider the skills needed to work directly with clients and think about what role they would best fit in working with these communities. Most in the fields of human rights, policy, and development will be looking to eventually move into administrative or management roles, and having direct experience with refugee populations can be extremely valuable in working to help them at the administrative level.

About the author

Allison Reefer

Allison Reefer is a young professional living in Pittsburgh, PA. She works with a refugee resettlement agency to help refugees and immigrants in the city, and she volunteers with a local shelter for human trafficking victims. She obtained her Master in International Development from the University of Pittsburgh and a BA in Writing from Geneva College, focusing most of her academic work on human trafficking and migration in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. In her free time, she loves to write, read, sing and play bass guitar, practice Russian, and explore her city.

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