Refugees Find New Homes Come with New Barriers

Rhode Island welcomes about 200 refugees annually. Many come from Syria, Iraq and Rwanda. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

Rhode Island welcomes about 200 refugees annually. Many come from Syria, Iraq and Rwanda. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

The 2016 Northeast Refugee Conference looked at the ups and downs of the resettlement process. It’s not easy.

By LEIGH VINCOLA/ecoRI News contributor

PROVIDENCE — The city recently hosted the 2016 Northeast Refugee Conference, an event presented by the Refugee Dream Center and the Refugee Congress.

A recent ecoRI News story profiled the Dream Center’s founder Omar Bah and his work helping refugees, like himself, settle in Rhode Island. The all-day conference April 2 at the Providence Career & Technical Academy brought together about 100 refugees, speakers, panelists and supporters from all over the East Coast to explore ways to help refugees find a better life.

Keynote speakers included Worcester State University urban studies professor and cultural anthropologist Madeline Otis Campbell and Lasell College associate professor of public relations Dana Janbek.

“There are 60 million refuges around the word, which means there are 60 million different stories,” Janbek said as she debunked common myths we hear about refugees that create stereotypes. “We can’t simplify stories into a single narrative.”

Campbell’s speech focused on closing gaps in information that make it difficult for refugees to access services available to them. Refugees often don’t take advantage of services and assistance simply because they don’t know they are available and are a basic right.

The conference was broken into four panels that addressed separate topics: employment, housing, health, and education. Panelists included refugees telling their own stories, state employees, nonprofit leaders, health-care workers and educators who work directly with refugee populations.

While each session was unique, there were noticeable common themes to the refugee experience: discrimination based on English competency, foreign accents and names.

For panelist Mohammed Fallahiya, an Iranian refugee, it took him changing his name to Moe before job opportunities opened for him. Another panelist, Keith Cooper, founder of Beautiful Day RI, who trains newly arrived refuges to work in his granola production business, acknowledges these challenges and selects the refugees he feels will have the greatest employment barriers.

Many refugees come to the United States highly educated. A common challenge is the time and resources it takes to get their degrees validated here. It can take years. It’s a major problem that requires better infrastructure to facilitate needed change, according to conference participants.

Family culture was a significant thread throughout the day. Most refugees are coming from a worldview that is more inclusive of extended families. This puts strains on resettlement agencies to find appropriate housing for large families.

“How do we work from a (limited) housing stock that suits the needs of refugees?” asked Fred Sneesby, the state refugee coordinator for Rhode Island.

It was noted that family is equally important to health care, as many refugees wouldn’t think, or have the freedom, to come to a doctor’s appointment without their children, and U.S. health-care providers need to be sensitive to that. The medical field also relies heavily on interpreters for these appointments, and it was discussed that concepts of health are different in other parts of the world.

Dr. Hadija Nyiransekuye, from the Refugee Congress in Massachusetts, said, “Either the (health) concept doesn’t exist, the interpreter doesn’t know what is being expressed, or it’s something they don’t want to relate to the patient for cultural reasons.”

Often, then even with an interpreter, information gets lost in translation. Better interpreter training is needed.

The conference broke for lunch at midday, which was a highlight for many. Thanks to several cooks, there was a bounty of homemade dishes from many different counties. Participants stood in line and asked each other about each dish, savoring new flavors brought from a resettled refugee.

In Rhode Island, there are two resettlement agencies that provide assistance to the several hundred refugees that arrive in the Ocean State annually: Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island and the Diocese of Providence. These organizations provide services to help people who have escaped horrendous situations.

They help provide refugees with housing, health care, food and education, but there is more work to be done to build effective systems and provide refugees with all the information and services they need.