Ways to support immigrants, refugees aired at Smith College conference



Published: 05-18-2017 9:06 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Since immigrating to the Pioneer Valley from Venezuela last year, Biani Salas has faced many of the obstacles that so many in her situation find in the United States: racism, workplace discrimination, language barriers and difficulty navigating the country’s byzantine immigration system.

“Sometimes an immigrant can feel like a dog that is going in circles trying to bite its own tail,” she said of her experience, pausing occasionally to stop from crying. “My personal goal is to get out of the circle.”

It was for that purpose — to learn how to best support the immigrants and refugees in their communities — that more than 100 people gathered Wednesday at Smith College for a capacity-building conference made possible through a grant from college President Kathleen McCartney.

The event was titled “Building Together: Creating a Welcoming Community for Refugees & Immigrants,” and among the attendees were teachers, health care workers, politicians and law enforcement officials — a cross section of the institutions likely to interact with a community’s newly arrived residents on any given day.

“We’re taking all the help we can get,” said Northampton Police Officer Rebecca Mazuch during a break in the day’s events.

Different colored lenses

The morning’s keynote speech was given by Saida Abdi, the associate director for community programs at Boston Children’s Hospital’s Refugee Trauma and Resilience Center.

As a former refugee herself from Somalia, Abdi brought to the conference both her first-hand refugee experience as well as her decades of professional work helping refugee youth and families.

Abdi spoke about the fact that refugees have experienced trauma in their past, whether it be from violence, loss, the disruption of their family and community, a lack of basic resources, long journeys or having lived for years in a refugee camp.

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Effectively providing services to refugee families means recognizing that reality, and making sure those services properly address that context.

Before addressing that trauma, however, families may need help with other fundamental challenges causing them significant stress, like finding housing or somebody to help them attend a doctor’s appointment.

Complicating things further is the fact that refugees and immigrants come from an entirely different culture, Abdi said.

To describe just how hard it can be to bridge cultural gaps, Abdi used the metaphor of wearing glasses with different colored lenses, which were meant to represent different cultures’ worldviews.

An American, for example, wears red-tinted glasses, whereas a Somali might wear blue-tinted glasses. But even if an American tries putting on blue-tinted glasses — an attempt to see things from the Somali perspective, in other words — things will end up looking purple, not blue.

“After 40 years of being here, I still can’t see through the American eyes,” Abdi said.

Given those realities, Abdi promoted the concept of cultural humility: admitting that you don’t know what things are like for someone from another culture, and using that as the foundation from which to develop strategies for successful cross-cultural work.

What that means in practical terms is recognizing cultural learning as a lifelong process, and that sometimes cultural differences can result in mistakes.

“Cross-cultural work should be uncomfortable,” Abdi said. “How you handle that discomfort is really the important thing.”

A way to overcome that challenge is by relying on community members who do understand both languages and cultures to help bridge that chasm. Doing so, Abdi said, will help an organization provide services that families actually want and need.

The notion of cultural humility stuck with conference attendee Rachel Ellis, a 30-year-old teacher of English language learners at R.K. Finn Ryan Road and Leeds elementary schools.

“I came thinking I would learn how I can support other teachers if and when our school gets refugees,” Ellis, who has previously worked with refugees, said. “The idea of cultural humility is new to me, and is making me realize I’m here as much for myself as for other teachers.”

Asylees, refugees and immigrants were also in the audience Wednesday, including 33-year-old University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate student Basileus Zeno of Syria.

“This is basically my lived experience,” Zeno said after Abdi’s presentation on cultural awareness. “Since I came here I’ve experienced many different stereotypes.”

In 2012, Zeno was in the midst of completing his Ph.D. in Damascus when fighting grew intense around the Syrian capital. So Zeno came to the United States, where he applied for asylum-seeker status.

Now completing his doctorate in political science, Zeno said when people learn he’s from Syria they routinely become fixated on the country’s civil war and the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Often, Zeno said, he feels boiled down to “an essentialized assumption that all Syrians are Muslims, and that all Muslims are by nature violent.

“You are always in a defensive position,” he said shortly before taking part in a panel of immigrants, refugees and asylees from around the Pioneer Valley. “You have to explain and you are already overwhelmed.”

Zeno said a daylong conference can’t drastically reshape those behaviors overnight, but it at least gets locals thinking about different ways of navigating their encounters with their refugee and immigrant neighbors.

“This should be one step out of many steps,” he said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.