This summer, I’m interning in Rochester, NY at the Catholic Family Center’s Refugee Resettlement Program, a program that assists refugees during every stage of the resettlement process from the time they arrive at the airport to the time that—ideally—they are self-sufficient. The services offered by the Catholic Family Center include the completion of all of the paperwork that would otherwise be incomprehensible for a non-English speaker, the procurement of housing and other necessities, assistance in adapting to American culture and society, help getting to medical, public benefits, and educational appointments, and the general facilitation of all aspects of resettlement. To understand how the specific services of this program work, it might help to look at what I do on a daily basis.
Last Wednesday, I found myself at the Department of Human Services helping two Nepali families with the process of applying for public benefits. For anyone that has never experienced the Department of Human Services, it is not very easy to navigate. Further, if you add the obstacle of not being able to speak English to the winding lines and general chaos that is this building, successfully finding and completing an appointment would be an impossible task. For this reason, on Wednesday morning I was there to guide and assist these Nepali clients.
The vast majority of incoming refugees actually come from the refugee camps in Nepal, where the Lhotshampas (people of Nepali origin) fled after their persecution in Bhutan began in the mid-1980s. Despite the fact that so many of the clients speak Nepali, I have yet to pick up any of the language, which presents a barrier that made the morning that much more interesting.
The first official step of the process—security—presented its own issue. After holding up the line for over two minutes while we waited for one of the Nepali women to figure out how to unbuckle her belt—I guess we’ll never know how she was able to get it on in the first place!— the security guard decided that she didn’t pose enough of a threat to keep everyone else waiting and waved her through. Once in the building, I checked the clients in and made sure that all of the paperwork was complete. After an hour or so, they called the younger couple in for their appointment and soon after the 70-year-old Nepali woman was called. While she didn’t seem particularly pleased to be there, after enough smiling and joking on my part she cracked a toothy smile and began to laugh. During the appointments, I helped by communicating with both case workers and making sure that they had all of the necessary information. Following the first appointment, the families once again went to the waiting room before getting called to have their pictures and fingerprints taken. While this whole process would generally be perceived as mundane, it is never boring when you are trying to give directions and describe a system that doesn’t make much sense to begin with using only hand gestures.
When both appointments were finished, the families thanked me and were driven home by one of the employees. As an intern, I do not work on specific cases but rather am placed wherever I am needed for the day. While this makes my work interesting, it is also difficult to meet such kind and generous clients and not have the opportunity to see them again. For this reason, I was very excited that afternoon when I found out that I would be dropping off a prescription at one of my favorite client’s apartment. I imagine that we aren’t supposed to have favorites, but, as hard as I’ve tried, I’ve found it to be impossible not to adore this family and, in particular, the 46-year-old mother that is a bundle of energy.
I met her for the first time when I was conducting a cultural orientation and, although she did not speak any English, she smiled at me for two and a half hours straight and hugged me before she left. The next time I saw the couple and their 15-year-old son was at Saints Place, a volunteer organization that provides household goods and clothing to the refugees. While the husband and son calmly picked out their items, the mother continuously spoke rapid-fire Arabic that was complemented by hand gestures that, elaborate as they were, did not make much sense. Nevertheless, she refused to give up and simply laughed whenever a message was lost in translation. Her enthusiasm was contagious, and, like most refugees, she demonstrated a strong resolve to learn English: “I speak English in 1 year.” Simply establishing that deadline demonstrates how determined she is to create a successful, integrated life in America.
When I arrived at their apartment on Wednesday to drop off the medication, the family immediately ushered me into their home and asked that I sit down for a drink or a meal. This hospitality is common among refugees, who I have found are always prepared to give even when they have very little. Although I insisted that I could not stay, the mother was pleased to have company and to be able to tell me how much she loves the new apartment. She happily chatted away until her son, embarrassed as teenage boys usually are, subtly noted that she did not have her dentures in. After laughing and briefly covering her mouth, she continued to talk about the nearby pool and her new sunburn. When I left shortly after, the whole family walked me outside and waited until I had driven out of sight before going back inside. Even though it was a brief visit, the family’s graciousness for the little help I provided and their eagerness to move forward and to continue to learn was invigorating.
When I got back to the office, I prepared paperwork for refugees that would be coming in the following week. While this work is not as stimulating as meeting with clients, it is a necessary part of the job and a good way to wind down after meeting with families that have so much energy! =)