CLAIR VOICES is a platform where we conduct interviews with refugee/immigrants centers and professors whose studies focus on refugee and immigrant issues.

The purpose of the program is to raise awareness to our audience regarding refugee and immigrant issues through hearing the firsthand experience of affiliated personnel and to express our appreciation towards the works of those centers and the people.

FCJ Refugee Centre [Ontario, Canada]

FCJ Refugee Centre is a non-profit organization that serves refugees and others at risk due to their immigration status and welcomes anyone asking for advice, counsel, and support regarding these issues. The organization addresses systemic issues that newly arrived refugee claimants face in Canada, including lack of resources, marginalization, and discrimination.

CLAIR Voices interviewed Ms. Melina Caroprezo, the coordinator of English program at FCJ Refugee Centre. The interview focused on the English program provided at the Centre as well as common issues faced by refugees in Ontario, Canada. 

Interview Transcript

[FCJ has several] teams, [such as; the] food delivery team, for people of low-income or for people that cannot access government assistance. We create baskets of food and deliver them on a weekly basis, to support their families. We also have a program where we aid workers who are in precarious situations so that they can either regularize their status or apply for PR (permanent residence). For example, we also have a medical clinic so that people who do not have access to OHIP (Ontario Health Insurance Plan) or other medical subscriptions…can see a doctor, create appointments, and have follow-ups. We also have a program that is called the “Child Minding Program”, [as] we are looking to educate kids in music, art, [or] French. These kids have [online] classes because of the COVID situation, [which provides] parents [with a sense of] relief for an hour [by] seeing that their kids have some entertainment [since] sports and musical activities are being cancelled [in school]. 

So this is our way of distracting [the kids] through fun learning. I also mentioned the English Program that is growing so fast and it is really nice to see [this growth], as it started with six people, as thanks to COVID, [the program] now has around 100 students attending the classes. Since the online classes save a lot of money and time for the students [since they do not have] to commute to the center. [FCJ also provides] legal aid [services] and has a youth group that [aims] to encourage youth to form relationships within the community and with people of their age, [while also showing them] future opportunities and building their skills for these opportunities. We also have a home for women and kids who have experienced violence, like a shelter, so whoever has assistant home needs, we can provide them with this service.

We have two different programs; the “Child Minding Program”, which is just for children [with an age limit of] 16 years old, and the English Program only receives adults [with a minimal registration age of] 17 years old. [Since] we want to [aid] work[ing] and stay-at home mom populations because it is harder for them to access educational programs, especially [for] English. If you have a permit to study or do not have the money to afford classes, it is really challenging so the program is to work with adults for a period of 24 weeks. We welcome everyone, especially those who do not have access to another program, the classes are free and we now have seven teachers that work in three levels. One [level] is beginner, one is intermediate, and we have group conversation. [This] group’s goal is to [help adults] gain confidence through regular conversations, and not regular classes, so that [the students can] to build their [speaking] skills.
The center is a charity but has received funds from the city, Toronto, and different organizations like IKEA. We have different people that collaborate with us and I think that our way to say thank you is through transparency; they can always see the work that we are doing at the center.
Yes, we try to do workshops, for example, with IKEA, [during] the christmas season, [a percentage of money from] Christmas tree [sales] at one of the stores in Toronto goes towards supporting the center. At FCJ we try all that we can to first, collect money and Metro supports [us as well by supplying us with] many ingredients for the baskets of foods. [Although] we always try to reach out to more people to grow and reach more people.
We try to focus on each part of English, but for beginners, [we focus more on] grammar structure and to [begin talking in English] because it is very challenging when you arrive in a new country and cannot establish yourself because you are not able to communicate. So we start [at a] very basic [level] and then [progress] to different levels, up to the point where you have conversations about different topics. The [higher] levels check listening and writing skills but the beginning [level consists more of] conversations. It’s also important to mention that our program is not certified to teach and give classes so we only [provide classes] for [the students] to learn, not to [gain] a qualification or diploma. So most of our teachers are volunteers that wanted to participate and share their knowledge with the community.
The refugee case that I always remember and that I am so happy to know [involves] the co-directors [of the FCJ center]. They both came to Canada thirty years ago as refugees and they started the center. They really went through all [of] the challenges [that are] implied with refugees, but they managed to open a center and help other people. It is really sad to see the struggles that you might have in this way [as an immigrant] and [the] difficulties that you will find, but also if you [have] perseverance and lean on the correct hands you can learn properly [at the center] and you can build something super nice.
It is really nice to have the communication we have with the [community]. These days we use a lot of social media and [we] always ask people who know [of] people in situations [where they are immigrants or refugees and require aid so that we can] share information with them. We have these workshops to let them know how the hearings go, for example, or how they apply for compassions. We always try to provide them information. I think something important to mention is [that] we are expanding. Before, we [just taught] in Spanish and English and now we are expanding to Portuguese and some French, and so it is growing and we are trying to grow [our] knowledge and also [would] like to reach more out there.
I would say to everyone that everyone experiences different situations, and [so] I would invite everyone to place yourself in the shoes of an immigrant, a person who [has] arrived in Canada and does not know the language, has no money to establish themselves, and not even money to buy a coat for example. On top of that, you need to deal with the legal situation because here the laws say that they [immigrants] cannot be free here; they need to be ashamed of being a person. I will invite everyone to take a look. Sometimes when we do not know about [something], it is easier to ignore it, [but] once we know more about [it], [like] the centers, [other] organizations, [or personally] know a refugee, is when we realize how huge [of a] problem it is and how much need [these individuals] experience. I will invite everyone to read about many organizations that work with immigrants and refugees and to volunteer with them [say] one hour per week. Once you do that you will realize and it will come from inside [of] you [and] you will like to do more. As you mentioned, it’s been years and many people ignore the problem and do not do anything about it [as] the majority of the population does not care, but it is not that they really do not care, it is more that they really do not know. Once you learn you will grow your enthusiasm and interest in [helping] immigrants and refugees.
  • FCJ is not just to help individuals settle, but also to regularize their status by providing them with essential skills and aiding them with documentation processes. 
  • Our experience with refugees has two sides, it’s beautiful to know the needs of people in this community and to help them. Although it is also heartbreaking to see the hardships these people must endure.
  • The center started with two refugees, that are our co-directors, so they know what it is like to be a refugee and know the needs of others. It is not that they have never been there, they have been there and have built this community and this centre exactly for this reason; to help others that are passing the same situations that they have faced, in the past. 
  • I am an immigrant myself and understand the challenges that are faced because you have to learn fast, [which can be] hard.

Dr. Carranza of McMaster University

Dr. Mirna E. Carranza is an Associate Professor at the Social Science Department, McMaster University. Dr. Carranza has worked for more than twenty years with immigrants and refuge families who have endured traumatic experiences (i.e., war, torture, social, and intimate violence). Her theoretical standpoint is rooted in decolonizing knowledge, social justice, and critical human right issues. Matters of inclusion, oppression, and marginalization are fundamental to her work as a therapist, community developer/organizer/advocate/educator and researcher. The interview focused on the impact of resettlement on refugees and the subsequent traumatic experiences faced upon them during the process as well as the importance of integration and bi-culturalism in communities

Interview Transcript

Since the publication of that book…lots of initiatives took place in relations to supporting Latin American students within the school system. Toronto Council did a lot of initiatives working with youth in relation to strengthening their ethnic identity [with regard to feelings of] belonging. Other organizations also took it from themselves to do a lot of advocacy within the schools. Of course, in Canada and the States, they don’t like ‘race talk’ because it can [cause] a lot of tensions. A lot of talks around race and exclusions have been happening in relation to that in order to raise awareness about various dynamics, the various challenges, but also the various processes of exclusion that Latin Americans face within the school system. So this is our way of distracting [the kids] through fun learning. I also mentioned the English Program that is growing so fast and it is really nice to see [this growth], as it started with six people, as thanks to COVID, [the program] now has around 100 students attending the classes. Since the online classes save a lot of money and time for the students [since they do not have] to commute to the center. [FCJ also provides] legal aid [services] and has a youth group that [aims] to encourage youth to form relationships within the community and with people of their age, [while also showing them] future opportunities and building their skills for these opportunities. We also have a home for women and kids who have experienced violence, like a shelter, so whoever has assistant home needs, we can provide them with this service.

Well, I am not pro-assimilation. I am more about ‘integration’ and bi-culturalism because again assimilation to me has some colonial undertone in relation to newcomers who are racialized themselves when they come to Canada, and they already face lots of barriers that maybe because of skin color, facial features, and the accents they have. So if you look at studies within second or third generations who are racialized, they are by birth Canadians but yet they face a lot of exclusion and discrimination just because of the way they look. So again, I think the term assimilation is a little bit more in relation to [the] early 1900s when a lot of white Europeans came to Canada. They, because of how they looked like and how they sounded, could easily share those elements of culture and ethnicity and develop a sense of belonging into the Canadian context. 

Having said that, those who come from other parts of the globe who are racialized, when they enter Canada, they don’t have the same processes. In fact, even if people want to assimilate, particularly young people, with [sense] of belonging, they are faced with very strong connotations around who they are and what they represent in relation to prejudice. There is a lot of prejudice. Again, I would say that mentoring to be more in relation to cultivating cultural belonging, cultural identity, but also developing the skills and the sense of belonging that you need within the Canadaian context. So it is more about bi-culturalism and that sort of sense of integration, in which you keep aspects of your cultural identity and integrate some aspects of the Canadian culture that make sense to you. And that makes you a stronger sort of a citizen in your sense of belonging to both places. In fact, nowadays, given that we operate within a global village, those bi-culturals and identities are very well sought out and students who are able to develop that bi-cultural [connection] are sought out because of their skills and what they have to offer. So I think when it comes to mentoring, [we need to make sure] so that young people do not feel ashamed of who they are and who they represent just because there is a hierarchy belonging in relation to superiority and inferiority. We are all the same. We are all humans. But yet you know the race construct is still related to colonialism, and we are still living within remnants of that.

In fact, there are a lot of resources that indicate that young people who have been able to develop a secure sense of bi-cultural identity, their scores in relation to mental health are way higher. Yet suicide and drug uses for that matter are in relation to young people who have, not by choice or by force, [happen] to assimilate. Thus, a lot of crises and decrease in mental health happens [to them].
The States historically [and] politically [have] a lot of racial tension so I think for newcomers, it is important to become socialized about the context in which [country] they are living [and] the context their children are growing up [in]. Also, they [immigrants/refugees] need to know what their rights are, depending on the point of entry in relation to migration that may be: an asylum seeker, without status, or [a] landed immigrant, people have various rights. Sometimes, what I find is missing is people’s sense of “what are my rights within this context”. So knowing about that [your rights] is important, not only for self advocacy but also to advocate for their children, in whatever context/barriers they find. I find that knowledge around “what are my rights as newcomers” in this particular context is very important because depending on where they [immigrants/refugees] come from, initially, newcomers are very thankful [and] want to be safe, [as they hope for] employment [and] shelter, i.e. if they have been in a refugee camp. So there’s a [large] sense of gratitude, without realizing that there is a historical aspect in relation to the accumulation of wealth in North America, hence, their safety. The accumulation of wealth in North America has been at the expense of the Global South, depleting the resources [of] the Global South has led to a lot of famine, a lot of wars, and so forth. So the gratitude experienced by newcomers, I think [it is] a little bit colonial and then when newcomers begin to develop their sense of “my rights’, they [established citizens] usually [say], “if you don’t like here, go back”, and again, that is so prejudice, that is so racist. So again, having a balance between these are my rights but these are my obligations as a citizen in my new environment is important in the successful acculturation of people.
I would say that again, is in form by the context in which they [refugees/immigrants] left the country of origin. Sometimes people leave because of war, political turmoil, what have you, sometimes they leave because of violence, social violence, sometimes they leave because [of] structured violence, sometimes and more recently, we found, at least in Canada, a lot of women come [to] escape intimate partner violence. So depending on what their [refugees/immigrants] path has been, it [problems] could be multi-layer. But if we think about it, just the mere fact of migration could be traumatic, let alone whatever you [refugee/immigrant individuals] face or encounter on your journey. Many women, in fact (this not only Latin-American women, this is happens with African women and their path to a safe haven), are raped and then rapists use [rape] as a weapon of war in which many women…are impregnanted and because of religion, because of [the] lack of access to therapeutic abortions, they [women] bring the pregnancy to the 9 months…[and] give birth to a child that they did not want. The implications of that on the woman’s well-being, but also if she’s coming to reunite with a partner, the implication that also has with the couple system but also, within the family. When people have lived for many years in war-torn countries, they have learned to live within war as normal, it’s part of their every day, [as] people walk through shootings, bombings, to go to school, to go to work, or to go to a meeting. But yet, when they come to Canada, they finally have time to process things, that’s when post-traumatic stress (PTSD) begins to emerge. And people question “well that happened ten years ago, that happened so many [years ago] so why now, they’re making it up”, [but] they’re not. The brain, in a way, allows us to protect ourselves when we need to be in a survival mode, that sort of fight-or-flight, but once we come to a place in which our basic needs are cover[ed], I’m safe, I have shelter, I have food on the table, now the brain almost allows us to look at that [traumatic events] and experience that, and hopefully, heal from that, if the resources are there, which in all honesty, they’re not. One, because they’re a limited understanding…of trauma but also there’s limited understanding of services, due to [the] lack of resources for newcomers about trauma informed care or trauma informed practice.
I think that the first step is education, education to teachers, social workers, any person who is somewhat involved with newcomers, in relation to having that critical lens of trauma care. Because I find that when that sort of lens is missing a lot of students, particularly again, those that come from war-torn countries, are labelled as; ADHD, defiant disorder, or learning disability, when in fact, when trauma is experienced at a young age, the brain is not fully developed to understand and to process what’s happening. So trauma is displayed through behaviors that sometimes are not understood by the people involved with the newcomer child, so I would say that lots of education around trauma, [and] informed practice or care, I think if we did that, there would be a significant decrease in all of those labels that newcomer kids endure and that unfortunately, remain in their files almost sort of [as] an impact in their development in relation to being well-adjusted children. A lot of schools they create fake files around a child that is misbehaved and then that history, unfortunately, will follow the child without really taking a critical look at what has happened, what is occurring at home or with the parents, or with the child prior to arriving to Canada, or North America for that matter, that in a way is informing this behavior.
I would say there are three issues that at times get conflated into one. One is acculturative stress; acculturative stress is that period of time in which newcomers, including children, are learning about their new environment: about rules, dress codes, language, and diets. That in itself, the experience of stress, is heightened. Then if we add to that traumatic stress, which is separate, that adds another layer. If we add another layer, which is traumatic grief, which is different from regular grief (it is grief in relation to a traumatic experience) that in itself is another layer. So what usually ends up happening is that [traumatic stress and grief] get displayed as depression, those get displayed as anxiety or panic attacks, sometimes, depending if it’s a teen, they use or misuse drugs to cope with that. Young children are also impacted but that may sometimes be mediated by the parent. The difference is that because children, like school-age children, their brain is not fully developed so they do not have the capacity to process [and to] understand. Similarly, teens are still in the process of development, so hence there’s high levels of suicidality, there’s a lot of levels of drug misuse that at times get missed that is in fact a high correlation between acculturative stress, traumatic stress, and traumatic grief. Again, if you compound them and then if you add the limited resources and if you add the person or the teen that does not speak the language fully, it is somewhat challenging, and so it is up to us, sot of as service providers, it is up to us, you know regular citizens of the new settlement environment that have a sense of responsibility. We need to step up, it’s not all up to the newcomer family or the teens with the kids. We as regular Canadians or Americans need to step up because if we don’t we are also implicated: the high level of suicide that is there amongst teens, we are also implicated in the low levels of academic performance among teens or the dropouts of teens. We are all implicated right so we need to take responsibility as well.
Of course, the other element here is that fact of human development. Teens are in a state of development in which belonging is important [and] that sort of identity is happening. It is important for that teen to be “cool”. So [being] “cool” [may] mean hanging out with a crowd that uses or misuses drugs: “I” want to have a sense of belonging [and] “I” want to be “cool”. Kids again, depending on their resources, at times have that sense of discernment that says “oh this may not be good” or “yeah, they [those who use/misuse drugs] allow me to hang out, to belong, to be cool, I will use it,” but as you said the consequences will be quite significant in their adult years.
I’d say yes and no because I think when there’s already that sense of diversity, particularly about various sorts of newcomer groups, there’s already some sort of social capital in which people will help one another to navigate the system, to teach, [or] to mentor about the new sort of context. Having said that, unfortunately, a lot of the structures are mainstream. There may be limited representation, [and] so it could be yes and no depending on the context. If a newcomer family remains grounded within their own ethnic group, then they may not be exposed to the mainstream, or when they do they will be a bit shocked about how different it is. As I was saying earlier, they won’t develop that sense of bicultural identities and belonging [that enables them] to navigate in both worlds. It is also important to note though that the fact there is diversity does not mean that there isn’t prejudice or discrimination within the same ethnic group or across ethnic groups; like race, again, is a social construct that was developed during colonial times with the whole purpose to divide is, and it still works in that way. Even within Latin America, you see [it with] Argentinians: people from Argentina don’t like Columbians because Columbians are apparently more indigenous and they’re black, and then some Argentinians feel that they’re superior. Or some Americans will look down upon Central Americans because of their indigeneity. So similarly there is the same within African countries [and] the same within Asian countries. It is there: that sort of division, that racism, that prejudice against one another. So the fact that there is diversity doesn’t ensure safety.

Ashley Fisher: World Relief Seattle

Ashley Fisher is the Resettlement Coordinator at World Relief Seattle, where she is in charge of all pre-arrival prep, reports, reviews, and overseeing the support of the casework team. This includes preparing case files, completing assurances, contacting UST with travel information, completing intakes for walk-in SIVs, and reviewing 90-day reports. The interview focused on the process of resettlement and integration for refugees, immigrants, and asylees.

Interview Transcript

I graduated college in 2018, and I have grown up in the Seattle area but went to California in college. Then, I moved back and tried to look for organizations that were doing work within the community. I didn’t have anything super specific [but] just knew I was to be social justice-oriented and something to do with more people for different causes that I really cared about. And I stumbled upon the World Relief organization that was doing really important work in the community, and something that I really appreciate is it seems like, from my outsider’s perspective just doing research on it, that it was driven and run by the people who wanted to support. So a lot of the leadership team had refugee or immigrant backgrounds. And the manager for the position that i was applying for was under someone who was an asylee. So something that was important to me was [being able to] do the important work, making sure that [those people] are represented in leadership. They had a few positions, and I applied and ended up [getting]  into housing. And just kind of started from there.
I feel like there’s always like a handful. Especially working in housing for over two years, I’m really getting to work with clients [directly]. Right from the moment when they arrive, housing is normally one of the key factors or issues that people are very concerned about when they first get here. And just getting to be a part of that, I have multiple families that I felt like I did very minimal things for them. I was there when they moved in and helped them, but for those cases of moving into their first apartment in the U.S. were such huge moments that they were going to remember. So I had multiple families and individuals that I’ve worked with [when moving] who just wanted to have you sit down for a tea/coffee and have moments together.  Working with people and refugee resettlement can be busy sometimes, so it can be easy to just be like ‘Hey, I have to leave. Goodbye!’ But something I really appreciated was when my manager said that it’s okay for you guys to sit down and have a moment with them. So just sweet memories of having tea with the parents and having children running around [the new apartments]. Or just really getting to hear about different people’s perspectives. One time I was working with a family, and I interacted with them a few times and heard some of their really cool experiences of coming from Afghanistan and working with the U.S. government. The wife was so sweet and asked me ‘Can I take a picture with you? We just want to remember you.’ And we were really getting to know the families even if it’s just for like the first few weeks that they’re here.
How our office handles it is I work on both ends before the families get here and with the families once they arrive. Our office will receive information that a case has been booked. Ahead of time, we contact any family that they’ve had in the area, what we refer to as the U.S. ties. So we’ll already have normally contacted them before they arrive and let them know that we got flight information and that your family’s schedule to arrive on this date. And we see how involved a family member wants to be. Sometimes cases have strong U.S. ties and have lots of family members already coming, so they’re like ‘We’ve got this.’ Sometimes there are cases where they do have families here but they’re just not as close, so it’s going to be more hands-off. So with situations like that, when their families are not going to be at the airport, the caseworker will be there to do it. And then just coordinating whether they want their families to stay with them. Some people are like, “Yes! It’s been years since I saw my brother. Of course, I want to have a big celebration.” And some are like, “I just know some friends that I don’t really know well.” So we coordinate where they are going to be staying for their first night and after that. [We provide them with] ‘host homes’, where volunteers, who have been trained through our outreach program and have a spare bedroom or a whole Airbnb house, share rooms with the [new arrived families]. Families may stay in for just a few nights or can be a few weeks depending on housing [situations]. From there, the caseworkers are involved in home visits, making sure they are connected to benefits and help looking for their first apartment. So, it ranges from anything like Social Security appointments, doctor’s appointments to getting children enrolled into schools. We help them with a wide variety of things that are easy to take for granted but are really important especially when someone gets here.
Recently having switched from housing to the resettlement coordinator position, it’s been interesting to talk through all the processes that I’ve learned over the years. And we never go into situations like, “[since] I’ve worked with a lot of cases in this country, [I know] they’re going to act or do this way. [But] every single human being is different and is going to respond in different ways. Some people want to live in this specific area or just doesn’t mean they are going to want the same thing. And so [it’s necessary to be] more flexible with that and understanding when plans change, especially with housing, and if people respond in ways that might not fully make sense to you. One of my co-workers did a really good job of reminding me whenever I felt [what families were doing] didn’t logically make sense that their actions may be from a specific trauma response. And remembering that just because someone isn’t presenting the trauma in the way that you assume doesn’t mean that it’s not there. Someone might forget an appointment because of slight memory loss from stress [and trauma]. Then, you just remind them [of the appointments]. You sometimes talk through something, and everything’s good to go. But the next day, they are like, ‘no, I’m not okay with that.’ So we just have to be mindful of those factors. Another thing is, in terms of the programs that we’re working, some of them are super great but sometimes have specific requirements that can automatically [exclude] certain people out. So we sometimes run up against barriers while trying to help the individuals. [For example, while trying to help the families] the programs that were built to help them sometimes fail to provide support for them due to certain situations/qualifications. So [you get to] really see the flaws in the system, especially during COVID, and recognize that just because it was created in a way by individuals doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for the people that it’s serving. A lot of time that’s because the people that created the program are not actually from the communities that are being impacted. So seeing that [problem] firsthand and doing what you can [from there] are so far [memorable experiences for me]. because a family member moved here
Yeah, so I am on the resettlement team which in it is its own separate team with a housing coordinator, resettlement coordinator, caseworkers, and kind of separate but a part of that is our employment team. So we have right now 4, soon to be 5, employment specialists that are experts in a few state programs but then also [experts in] federal programs that we have in our office to help employ people. So that is not only the new arrivals that we are working with on the resettlement team but also people that can come back on a state program and say, “Hey I’m working this job but I want to move to this career path,” and so anything from creating a resume [to] going to an interview. We have a job class that was in person and now is over zoom for the past year and a half or so, so really focusing on that. We do have, like I mentioned, a federally funded employment program that a lot of our new arrivals are a part of that provides rental assistance while also having really strict guidelines about seeking employment and that would also be where our employment specialists are working the cases. The different programs that we have are very employment-focused and oriented, which is really great, but in and of itself there are challenges of people sometimes com[ing] here and they want to pursue education and employment is not always the top thing on their mind. Just the way in which, even just resettlement or reception and replacement-the R&P program which is the overarching resettlement program in the US-is very geared towards getting a job when you first get here. [This] is very understandable too but then you are working with people who might have thought that is what they wanted and then they get here and then think they want something else, and so trying to be respectful of where people are at, allowing them to process things, while also like I was saying earlier, working within the constraints of programs that have certain requirements, and one of those being we need to get you a job within this time frame. Again that also is too having realistic conversations with people of like “hey, your program is going to be ending in this time, you are living in this apartment, what is your plan for paying rent once this program is done?” Let’s have that hard conservation of ‘so we need to start looking for a job so [that] you can save up money so that you can pay rent and pay for these other things.’
I have kind of said this earlier but I think it is multiple things from coming to a new country where you might not always speak the same language or understand the way the culture is structured or how certain things work, while also being placed within programs that are holding you to those same standards. And so just working within those barriers too. I think our office has done a really good job of finding landlords that really understand the work that World Relief is doing or finding employers that have worked a lot with our employment team at World Relief, and so [being] really understanding of the participants that are coming that we are working with. You always hear about situations where someone went to an appointment, especially with landlords, [or] of situations where you should have been providing interpretation, you should have been more understanding or courteous of someone, and where you can tell someone felt silenced or talked over because someone just did not take the time to walk through something with them or try to get an interpreter on the phone. I think just facing those cultural challenges while also running into factors like I was saying earlier of the way that systems are built are not always the best thing for an individual, and so having to run up against those issues while also on a really short timeline. The longest for new arrivals is like a 6-month program but the common one is like for 3 months. We are trying to work with all of that, be in a new country, possibly learn a new language, and go to all of these appointments, while also trying to find a job within a short time frame, and so it is a lot to process upfront.
Yeah, that is a really great question. It is always interesting because like for all of the adults we are working with we have either ESL classes at our office, which is now online currently, or different state programs where attending ESL classes at like a community college is a requirement. [However], for kids that is something that I think they do not really attend, but also because [with] children’s brains it is easier too, they are still developing, so it can be easier to pick up languages. But [with] those children normally they arrive and within the first month they are enrolled in school if it is not the summer, [and] they go straight to class. That can be a really great experience or it can be really challenging of just being so overwhelmed not only with having to leave all of your friends and family behind and now you are thrown into this new space where you might not understand what is going on around you. Like for anyone no matter where you are coming from moving to a new school as a kid and having to make new friends is just terrifying and then already having all of this transition going on in your home life and then having that happen in school. And then maybe you are going to a school where there is not anyone from the same country as you so there is no place to connect in that way and so feeling like no one really understands. Something that is really cool that I so love about World Relief is [that] we actually have a NextGen program which really focuses on making sure that either recently arrived or families that have been here for a while [are connected] so that refugee youth feels really connected. Currently, right now, we are just about to start our refugee kid’s summer camp. I know especially with this past year of a lot of schools being online that was a huge challenge that our families were facing of, one I just think every kid in America was struggling with having classes be over zoom, but then having maybe you just got here [and] you are just getting internet set up right away, and maybe your parent does not know how to connect to zoom and so you are missing class because you are 6 and do not know how to do that either. So just working with those challenges, and I would say all of the participants we work with are so resilient but it is also really cool to see too the family that is been here for maybe 3-6 months and the kid that did not really speak any English just walks in and starts chatting with you because they kind of just picked it up being in school. So it is really cool to see but also recognizing [that] sometimes just because we are working mostly with adults-the struggles they are facing and working with getting them employed- [but] also focusing on the children too. That is again why I really appreciate that World Relief has that NextGen program to really focus in on making sure that kids feel connected at home but also connected at school and have a place where they are able to come together and in a community of people that have similar life experiences to them.
Yeah, great question. So that is something that is a very firm requirement within our contract in order to resettle refugees is having what we refer to as cultural orientation. This [cultural orientation] used to be something that happened in a classroom that happened every Friday that people would attend. Now it has been over zoom so it kind of happens a few times throughout the week. So that entails anything from the services that World Relief is going to provide, refugee status, [or] something that is called a travel loan. Through IOM, who books refugees’ like flights to come to the U.S., there is a small travel loan that the family is given, where there is no interest on it, but it is there to help the family build credit in the U.S., and so just getting information on when that starts and when to start paying that back. [There is also] education, public transportation, [and] things from when to call 911. So there is something called a cultural orientation assessment, so after they have attended what I believe is 5-6 classes of this [cultural orientation] that covers a variety of topics each time they are given an exam just to make sure [they understand], and how the way that we are presenting information is coming across. There are questions [about] anything from you hav[ing] a cough; do you go to the emergency room? Do you call 911? Or do you make an appointment with your doctor? Different things like that, or budgeting and finance of just how to set up a bank account [or] how to save money in the U.S.. Especially the idea of credit or credit cards is something that can be very foreign to people when they get here and so just explaining how that process works. How to communicate with your landlord when you have issues with your apartment, what to do? A wide variety of things are super important to cover right when a family gets here.
Yeah. I mean unfortunately, luckily that does not always happen, but that is something that you do run up against in this work. I started in September 2018, so it was in the midst of a presidential administration that was not really supportive of the work that we were doing. And so, facing it on a larger scale, the programs that were there to support refugees were slowly being taken away. Also, when you have leadership over a country that is supporting negative thought and speech towards specific groups of people, then the rest of the public is going to think that that is ok- not that it is going to be every single person (that is not the case). But, I think just anywhere from I heard a situation that a child was bullied at school because their English was not the best or hearing cases of our employment specialists having to really sit down and communicate with new employers that have not worked with World Relief before. Specific things of [clarifying that] they have documentation and, yes, even though it is different from the average person that you have employed before, this paper proves that they are allowed to work. So sometimes, I don’t really think that it is fully discrimination and more of just ignorance, but I think sometimes people just feel uncomfortable when they do not understand something that they do things unintentionally in a hurtful way. As a housing coordinator attending quite a few lease signings in the past, having an interpreter there, and walking through and explaining things to a family and I am not the one who is signing the lease. This is for the family and having the landlord talk directly to me and really facing that too when working with we have a wide variety of refugees and some of them are part of Eastern Europe and some of them are from different countries in Africa. So especially seeing that unfortunately with situations where, “Are you talking to me because I am the only white person in the room?”, I am not the one that is signing this paper and we need to direct this over. I think that calling that [behavior] out when you see it when you are in that position of leadership and also empowering our participants for situations where you are allowed to ask for an interpreter, you are allowed to hold your ground in that. So yeah, it is always so heartbreaking when you run up against that. I think too that that is the work that World Relief, especially on our outreach side, is pushing towards is just more of an understanding like what i said more of it is just ignorance of educating the public of what it means to be a refugee and what people have gone through to get here but also like recognizing that people are apart of your community and loving and supporting them on their resettlement journey.
So, with working with people who just got here, it is a very quick turn around in making sure that someone has a job, that people are attending appointments, that they have stable housing, and making sure that the housing is something that is affordable for them once they are off of our program. Someone will sign a lease and be like “Yeah, that sounds great!” when they know that a different program is providing them rent for a specific amount of time, but then that can get really overwhelming when all of a sudden that price tag that is on your rent amount every month is something that you’re now having to pay for. And so making sure that with wanting to get people into things right away that also we are setting them up for success; of explaining how to do something, not just doing it on their own , or talking through rent and making sure that we are moving them into a place where they can afford on their own. Something that is cool about World Relief is the team I am on only works with people for a certain amount of time. But just because their time on that program ends, [it] does not mean that we don’t have other services to help them. And so, we have two different ones that are called Preferred Communities, or Prime, that are more of extended case management. So anything from really difficult cases of different medical issues or family dynamics like a seperation or something. There is extended case management for that. Or if it is something like they need help applying for SSI or something that needs a little bit of case management support but not as hands-on. Even though their resettlement time might end, there are still other programs there. And like I have mentioned, we do have a holistic approach of having a connection program. We have a community garden, which is super cool, of garden plots that are in a parking lot of a church that is partnered with our office, where people are able to have their own plot and grow different fruits that they might have in their home country or they just want to try growing. And so something that especially if you moved from a more rural setting into a very suburban aspect of living more in a city and not having that open space where you can just garden and having a space for that is something that you can do and also an area where you can connect with people and grow a community. I really think that a lot of the programs at World Relief are more driven towards creating spaces for engagement and community growing because something that can be so isolating to people is [when] they move here and they have their own space and have one or two friends, but they can not really find new friends or a mom that is home with the kids all day or a dad that goes to work and just like always feeling really isolated and especially adding another level of not having a strong English background and so then not even being able to communicate with your next-door neighbor. So with that, we have in our resiliency program that has the garden, we also have a women’s sewing class that goes along with teaching women how to sew but also having that be a way to teach English and also again just a way to embrace the community and get to connect with each other. Obviously that looks a little bit different right now with Covid, but a wide variety of programs that are making sure that they are serving the needs of individuals not just when they first get here but for years to come and also creating spaces where people feel empowered to do things on their own and also connect with others and feel included and supported.
I mean, first and foremost, I studied political science in college so anything more politically minded of writing to your representatives or going and attending I know in our state capital there is a time when all of the representatives are hearing from people of specific days that are geared towards refugees and immigrants. Not being afraid to call your senator [and] call your representative and wanting to engage in politically minded organizations that are education and outreach on that. So, [I am] always a huge supporter of that. But more individually, I think, just connecting with people or wanting to hear about people’s experiences. Anything from if there is someone at your school or someone in your community that just moved in and can tell us about [the experience] like “Hey! I don’t know who they are!” and just connecting with people and that is what everyone wants is to feel heard and included. So anywhere from that but also if there is an agency that is working with newly arrived refugees of going to volunteer. I know at World Relief Seattle we have an internship program, so that is a really great way to have first-hand experience of working with newly arrived participants to go and teach them English at an English class or take them to a doctor’s appointment. I personally wasn’t an intern but I have friends that now work with me at World Relief that were. It’s a really great way to take you outside of the context in which you’re so used to, and getting to engage with people and just hear about their experiences and also, seeing first-hand what it’s like to go through the resettlement process. Like even before, I applied for World Relief, I could’ve done as much research in a book about refugee resettlement but never fully understood what it all included until I was actually doing it. So yeah, I just encourage [everyone] to look up different organizations that are doing work around you because, I think, people will be surprised to learn that there is a lot [of refugee organizations] around the U.S. But then also not being afraid to get politically involved, and sending out emails, or doing different fundraisers for places around the U.S.
I think having been in World Relief for three years now, it is really cool to see families or individuals that I worked with from when I first started, come back and be like “hi! Do you remember me? I got this job…” and it is really sweet to see them in the office telling us that they are applying for citizenship; it is so touching when you hear that. Or when a case that you work with becomes a US tie for a new arrival case, so you are calling them and catching up. So I think just seeing people from yours to come, especially those who you have had some really great connections with of hearing where they are at now, where they are living, what their job is, and having the experience of seeing someone when they first get there to then seeing them two, three, four years down the line when they are really thriving and knowing that they have overcome so many barriers to get there, I think is really just such a sweet moment.
On the local level, I think everyone will fully remember March 2020, where they were at, when things really started to change but it was so heartbreaking to see, especially people who had gotten here a month ago, 3 months ago, even a year ago, we had a ton of people coming back to our office wanting to talk to our employment team because everyone got laid off. With our resettlement team we have an asylee resettlement program, so a lot of those are single guys here in the U.S. and a lot of the single individuals that we work with, work in the hotel industry and that was one of the first places that started laying people off. It was so heartbreaking to see people who had just been working for a week or two weeks have to come back like “I just got laid off can you get me a new job” and because of what was happening with COVID, every place was laying people off. Luckily this issue very quickly got changed, but something that was happening for the first month as we were seeing that people that had just arrived had been working for under a month didn’t qualify for unemployment because you had to be working for a specific amount of time. They just got laid off, they did not work enough to receive unemployment benefits…so luckily that was something that was changed, but it shed a huge light on some of the flaws in the system. My direct team, we had to change from doing direct service, which is heavily involved working with people, and switching that completely to be remote work. Anything from what used to be a home visit where we would check everything from a smoke detector to showing them how to use the oven, and where everything is, making sure everything is safe, is now having to do that over zoom. Luckily that is now changing slowly and getting better. Especially at the start of COVID, we were still seeing some arrivals and having to do a really quick 180 to see how we are going to do that while still having some government services that need to get done in that timeframe. But not only are you working with people but also with people who have just travelled, [like] people quarantining or getting COVID tested.

And so all of those challenges and something that we are also seeing now on a global scale even now that we have a new administration that is very pro-immigrant, very pro-refugee and also campaigned off of that, it is still kind of a slow start because a lot of the overseas interviews that normally take place for refugees all halted last year because people were not able to travel abroad. Different interviews with specific timeframes on them like how long they can last for, of [things] like clearances, all expired and we needed to get people back out there but it is getting better in the U.S. and soon globally people will be able to travel abroad to process applications and do the interviews. And especially seeing that, within SIVs, which is a special immigrant VISA and our office works heavily with SIVs coming from Afghanistan, so something that we are seeing right now, is the presidential administration wants to pull out of Afghanistan by September 11th, but then we have this issue that there are thousands of Afghans that worked with the U.S. government and should be receiving those visas. And they are going to get them, but that very quick transition to when the U.S. government is completely gone and then having the issue of those people who worked with the U.S. government having their safety in jeopardy, and so having to process those applications but already seeing this backlog that filled up because of COVID. A lot of different issues that pulled up, not only, because of COVID and other extenuating circumstances. Things are getting better with more vaccine rollout within the U.S. so organizations being able to open up their offices and work directly with clients not just over the phone or going to someone’s place and having them sign something and having to leave to do the home visit over zoom. It was a huge challenge with people from anywhere with people losing jobs to having to distance ourselves when we are used to engaging with people face to face. It is something that I am really proud of for our office, for how we handled it and made it through, but it was a huge challenge.
On the local level, I think everyone will fully remember March 2020, where they were at, when things really started to change but it was so heartbreaking to see, especially people who had gotten here a month ago, 3 months ago, even a year ago, we had a ton of people coming back to our office wanting to talk to our employment team because everyone got laid off. With our resettlement team we have an asylee resettlement program, so a lot of those are single guys here in the U.S. and a lot of the single individuals that we work with, work in the hotel industry and that was one of the first places that started laying people off. It was so heartbreaking to see people who had just been working for a week or two weeks have to come back like “I just got laid off can you get me a new job” and because of what was happening with COVID, every place was laying people off. Luckily this issue very quickly got changed, but something that was happening for the first month as we were seeing that people that had just arrived had been working for under a month didn’t qualify for unemployment because you had to be working for a specific amount of time. They just got laid off, they did not work enough to receive unemployment benefits…so luckily that was something that was changed, but it shed a huge light on some of the flaws in the system. My direct team, we had to change from doing direct service, which is heavily involved working with people, and switching that completely to be remote work. Anything from what used to be a home visit where we would check everything from a smoke detector to showing them how to use the oven, and where everything is, making sure everything is safe, is now having to do that over zoom. Luckily that is now changing slowly and getting better. Especially at the start of COVID, we were still seeing some arrivals and having to do a really quick 180 to see how we are going to do that while still having some government services that need to get done in that timeframe. But not only are you working with people but also with people who have just travelled, [like] people quarantining or getting COVID tested. And so all of those challenges and something that we are also seeing now on a global scale even now that we have a new administration that is very pro-immigrant, very pro-refugee and also campaigned off of that, it is still kind of a slow start because a lot of the overseas interviews that normally take place for refugees all halted last year because people were not able to travel abroad. Different interviews with specific timeframes on them like how long they can last for, of [things] like clearances, all expired and we needed to get people back out there but it is getting better in the U.S. and soon globally people will be able to travel abroad to process applications and do the interviews. And especially seeing that, within SIVs, which is a special immigrant VISA and our office works heavily with SIVs coming from Afghanistan, so something that we are seeing right now, is the presidential administration wants to pull out of Afghanistan by September 11th, but then we have this issue that there are thousands of Afghans that worked with the U.S. government and should be receiving those visas. And they are going to get them, but that very quick transition to when the U.S. government is completely gone and then having the issue of those people who worked with the U.S. government having their safety in jeopardy, and so having to process those applications but already seeing this backlog that filled up because of COVID. A lot of different issues that pulled up, not only, because of COVID and other extenuating circumstances. Things are getting better with more vaccine rollout within the U.S. so organizations being able to open up their offices and work directly with clients not just over the phone or going to someone’s place and having them sign something and having to leave to do the home visit over zoom. It was a huge challenge with people from anywhere with people losing jobs to having to distance ourselves when we are used to engaging with people face to face. It is something that I am really proud of for our office, for how we handled it and made it through, but it was a huge challenge.

Ms. Christine Zeller-Powell at Refugee and Immigrant Services Program (RISP) [Oregon, USA]

Christine Zeller-Powell is a refugees and asylum specialist and a full-time employee at the Refugee and Immigrant Services Program (RISP), in Oregon, USA. She has aided many refugee and immigrant families throughout her career by providing client-focused care, to ensure that the families receive the resources they desire. RISP provides immigration legal services, and has developed a refugee resentment program and an asylum services program, to fulfill language, documentation, and housing needs.

The interview focused on the services RISP provides as well as their accessibility to rural populations and to individuals of varying backgrounds. The interview also discussed the process of employment and how politics may impact refugee and immigrant communities.

Interview Transcript

My name is Christine Zeller-Powell and I work with the Catholic Community Services Refugee and Immigrant Services Program. So that program has three main areas, we have a contract to do Refugee Resettlement which is part of the United States Refugee Admissions Program, and then we also have a private and grant funded program that serves asylum seekers that’s the Asylum Seekers Assistance Project, and then we also have an Immigration Legal Services Program, which is in collaboration with Catholic Charities Immigration Legal Services Program out of Portland. The immigration legal services program provides low-cost immigration attorneys to low-income folks in Lane County and the Refugee Resettlement and Asylum Seekers Assistance programs provide similar services. For refugees arriving, that would be helping them get their social security card and helping them find work and a place to live, furnish their apartment, connect with language resources, hopefully if they can swing it financially and enrol in English classes, get their kids registered in school, all of those things. And so then we also try and do that for asylum seekers, which unfortunately, cannot be served under the Refugee Resettlement Program so [we] try to do similar services for asylum seekers.
What initiated the development? So, it started in 2016 there was a whole group of people around Eugene, Springfield that wanted to resettle refugees in Eugene, Springfield and because we are more than a 100 miles outside of portland there are refugee resettlement organizations up in Portland but we are more than a hundred miles outside of that circle so they could ot resettle refugees here we had to have our own contract. So those folks who were interested in supporting this work came together and eventually formed the Refugee Resettlement Coalition of Lang County which was an awesome group of volunteers who continue to support the work of RISP. And they approached Catholic Community Services because those contracts for refugee resettlement are mostly, they are public private partnerships between mostly faith based groups actually, And so Catholic Community Services was able to have a contract through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops migration and refugee services program. So that’s how that got started. And we resettled our first family in 2016 and then the election and then it became very apparent that the past administration was not going to support the US refugee admissions program so we did not really expect to be resettling refugees very much through that program so our goal was to stay alive and stay active. So that when the administration changed we would be ready to start our work again. So we actually were able to resettle nine individual refugees but that’s more than we would have resteeled without that contract i guess. and then because this group of people wanted to help refugees or people fleeing persecution we realized that asylum seekers are basically in the same situation fleeing the same tkinds of persecution. So thats when we developed the asylum seekers assistance program and that started as a pilot project completely volunteer led and eventually we were able to do enough fundraising and catholic community services made it a program of theirs. So that is the history.
Yeah! So I think what we see is you know, the reality is that refugees or asylum seekers is that everyone needs to be, move towards self sufficiency as quickly as they can as we generally do not have a lot of social. Programs that would really provide long term social support except in cases of disability or something like that. So it’s really important for refugees and asylum seekers and immigrants to learn english so they can get jobs. That has really been seen as something that can be really restricting, really restrict their ability to get jobs. It just limits the kinds of work and the places of employment in Eugene, Springfield that can hire people. You know there are more options for folks that speak spanish and not english than people that speak other languages from around the world and not english.
So that’s a good question so one thing I have noticed doing this work over the past several years is that there is a huge range of people coming from a variety of backgrounds in terms of their education level or their, even their social status and where they came from and how that impacts how they see themselves now that they are in the United States. So what we try to do is to approach each person as an individual and recognize respect their dignity as a human being and go from there, it, we do what we can, we try to follow the clients lead so we try to work on what they want help with instead of what we think they need help with. And as much as we can we try to work on a really, I think for social services we try to work on a long time scale as the immigratiom process is a really long timescale and acclimating to a new country is a really long princess so we’ve actually been able to stay involved with some families for multiple years. And so you can really over that course of time you can really work on different things,so they are ready to work on different things and ask for different types of help.
So the first big hurdle is getting work authorization. And if you have work authorization, that process of finding work looks really different from not having work authorization. Basically if you don’t have work authorization, the best way to find another job is finding other recent immigrants and network through them to find work. And that’s not really something Catholic Community Services can take on. We get into a sticky wheel territory for helping people who don’t have work authorization find work. So that’s challenging. When refugees arrive and are work authorized, so that is huge. That makes the whole process much easier. Ideally we would get people in English language classes for a minimum of a term, but ideally as long as we can before they financially have to work. And again if they come through the Refugee Admissions Program, they come what they get $1100 per family member in cash payment when they arrive. So, you of a family of four, you can get a few months of rent out of that. And if we can fundraise more money that can allow people to be in language classes for a while. Because the longer they stay in the language classes, the more English they can speak, the more choices they have for jobs. And then for finding work, we do a variety of things. We do have an Employment Resources team, volunteers who will help put together resumes which can be a little tricky for somebody who hasn’t had a lot of work experience in the United States. They can also practice interviewing, talk about that whole process. The volunteers also network. So we had some businesses in Eugene/Springfield approach us and say they would like to hire refugees or immigrants. Yogi Tea is one of them, largely food manufacturing businesses which is something we have a lot of here. And you don’t have to have a whole lot of English to do that work. It’s kind of an assembly line factory kind of work and decent employers. The other thing folks can do is they can access some of the employment services here. So there’s WorkForce Lane, which is basically the State of Oregon employment office in Lane County and they can help people connect with jobs. We had some success there, very entry level health services work like In-home health care providers or I haven’t had anyone yet be willing to do the CNA training but there’s opportunities there. Then the other option is Easter Seals which has connecting communities and they actually have the contractor location rehab to provide Spanish Language Voc Rehab services to people looking for jobs. So we had some success with clients who really struggled finding work, but it’s not a fast process. You just have to have work authorization, so it could be an option for either asylum seekers, asylees or refugees.
Well I think one thing people don’t consider unless they walked through the process themselves is just how complicated it is. And I think that can be said for people that are trying to navigate low income services in general. When you add the immigration piece on top of that, that can just be really complicated to try and figure out the services especially you know, if you have a child with a disability, then you’re just layering on complications. So I think sometimes people don’t think about that. And I’m not sure how much non-immigrants realize the connections people maintain with their family and friends back home. Sort of the weight of worrying about, you know, they see in the news there’s been a bombing or an attack, the weight and the constant worry that just remains even though they themselves are in a place of safety and continue to worry about family and friends.
That’s a good question, I mean that’s been something really challenging about the pandemic because it does seem like a lot of our clients have in the past liked to come in person to meet. And that has been something we haven’t been able to do. But, you know I think with the children doing the online schooling, that has actually resulted in a lot more families having access to online services and being able to, if not email, text or do a Zoom call. I think the way we get most connected with people in rural areas is through word of mouth. Either through somebody telling their friend-”Hey, you can get a free immigration consult with this immigration Legal services program” or teachers and other service providers in rural areas connecting people with us.
I think that more low-income housing support would be huge, that’s a big problem. It does not affect just the immigrant population obviously but I see that as a real barrier to welcoming more refugees and immigrants in our community.
Back when we started our program, we were in the news a lot and we were doing a number of interviews and you know one of the questions that always comes up is “well you should take care of our veterans, homeless veterans, and homeless families first, before we go welcoming other folks to our community”. And I think the response is, for us, we said well we should do both like there is no reason to not be doing both and Catholic Community Services is an organization that does both. I think that it should mean something when we say as an organization that serves low-income people in our community that we can do both, that we thought about it and practically speaking, we are doing both. I also think that people need to recognize that it does not make any sense to compare the homeless folks that are living under the Washington-Jefferson Street Bridge to the homeless families that are coming to our border because, you know if our society fell apart here in Lane County and people are fleeing, the homeless folks under the Washington-Jefferson Street Bridge are probably not gonna flee cause they are probably not together enough to be able to do that. The people who are able to cross borders and come to a new country and have the stamina…to figure that out, those are amazing folks like we should be welcoming them and helping them get on their feet because once they get on their feet…they have amazing things to contribute.
I have only been doing this work since 2016, I started as a volunteer and then I was hired in 2018. So the years of the Trump administration were pretty crazy because the rules just kept changing all the time. Now since [the] Biden administration [is in power] the rules are also changing all the time but they are changing, I think, for the better so that has been nice but it makes it hard to plan and hard to advise people. I hope we can pass comprehensive immigration reform, though I do not know that congress will do that and then I hope that we can just create a less political refugee admissions system. And there are some proposals for doing that because right now the way the system is set up, the president gets to set the ceiling for the number of refugees that come in under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. And one thought is that Congress will actually set a floor so that we would not see a decimation of the system like we saw in the last four years, so I think that would really help for that program. But I think also we need to fund the asylum processing system in a way that would anticipate future surges at the southern border like we have seen recently, because I think with the global situation and climate change I do not think those surges are gonna go away so we need to prepare better.
I have only been doing this work since 2016, I started as a volunteer and then I was hired in 2018. So the years of the Trump administration were pretty crazy because the rules just kept changing all the time. Now since [the] Biden administration [is in power] the rules are also changing all the time but they are changing, I think, for the better so that has been nice but it makes it hard to plan and hard to advise people. I hope we can pass comprehensive immigration reform, though I do not know that congress will do that and then I hope that we can just create a less political refugee admissions system. And there are some proposals for doing that because right now the way the system is set up, the president gets to set the ceiling for the number of refugees that come in under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. And one thought is that Congress will actually set a floor so that we would not see a decimation of the system like we saw in the last four years, so I think that would really help for that program. But I think also we need to fund the asylum processing system in a way that would anticipate future surges at the southern border like we have seen recently, because I think with the global situation and climate change I do not think those surges are gonna go away so we need to prepare better.

Will Zarillo: Violence Prevention & Victim Assistance

Will Zarillo works at the Office for Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance at Rutgers University, New Jersey. His work focuses on trauma-informed care as well as masculinity and engagement of men in violence prevention. He also works with survivors of violence (sexual violence, domestic violence, stalking, etc) on college campus and surrounding communities.

The interview focused on the concept of trauma of immigrants and refugees in our society and the importance of engaging men as well as peers, surrounding people, in violence prevention and trauma-informed care. 

Interview Transcript

Men’s engagement and masculinity are the two things I do [teach] at Rutgers University. That work is incredibly important too. When we [learn] about violence prevention efforts, gender equality, and all these efforts, lots of people not showing up to the work are men. And there are a lot of reasons for that. One is many men viewing these [violence] issues as women’s issues. But the thing is violence and trauma affect everybody. And often men are the ones who are enabling [and conducting] that violence. 98% of the time men are the ones engaging in sexual or domestic violence. So that’s one reason why it’s important to engage men, that they are the root of the problem. There are also plenty of other reasons to engage men. [Some of them] are survivors. One in six men are survivors of sexual violence before the age of 18. Men are at higher risk of committing suicide. They commit suicide about three times more likely than female do. Men are more likely to resort to more violent means for coping and often use alcohol as a way of coping. So,  we also know that men are not adjusting to their own mental health. And they are not [aware of proper means] to cope when they also may have experienced violence. So, men need to be part of the conversations because these issues also affect men in different ways. And we also know that it affects men across different communities, cultures, religions, and different identities in general.

I think the first thing in order to define trauma-informed care is to define trauma. So trauma is a response that comes out of either physical or emotional experience. It’s an experience that has to be distressing or disturbing in any way to a person. And in that process, it affects that individual’s ability to cope and navigate [the problems]. And often it brings on a lot of symptoms. One thing we hear a lot is ‘trauma lives in the body.’ And that’s incredibly true. Trauma will showcase itself in so many different ways. So, people might showcase their symptoms in PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder) through flashbacks, hypervigilance, anxiety, panic attacks, memory loss, and fragmentation of memory. There could be tons of triggers that might pop up for survivors. A lot of times for survivors, big triggers can include things like sense, seeing these and people. And there are a lot of emotions that come up in forms of sadness, depression, frustration, anger, and fear. So, knowing that, we can go into trauma-informed care. Trauma-informed care is basically the assumption and approach in any field that assumes that any individual is more likely than not to have experienced some form of trauma in their lives. And that makes sense. We know that many children growing up experienced adverse childhood experiences. We know that one in three women have experienced sexual violence before the age of 18. We know that many people across refugee communities have experienced trauma both where they might be coming from and but also a lot of times in where they end up. One example is child separation at the U.S. border. A lot of those children experience trauma before coming and that [child separation] policy also induces more trauma on them. There are also different forms of trauma, and that’s one of them. That’s called ‘system-induced trauma.’ There’s trauma that can come from war, gun violence, and again anything that’s really adverse or distressing. So, trauma-informed care is somewhat new. Trauma has been studied for a while, but now we’re starting to do more training around trauma field, especially in more universities and industries, and teaching people that they should actively, in their roles, support the survivors because the goal of the trauma-informed care is prevent re-traumatization and decrease as many barriers that exist right now.

So [in] my office, a lot of the people that we see have experienced things like sexual violence, sexual assault, sexual harassament, domestic violence, and also stalking. So those are kind of the big three that we see. Stalking is something also that is not talked about as much and also impacts people greatly. The average length that stalking can occur for is about two years. And when we are talking about, you know, university students, oftentimes they are there for about four years, depending on the program. Two years is half of their time, that is a lot. Again, we see people that experience all forms of violence, we also see, sometimes, people that experience being robbed/robbery, sometimes gun violence. But…across the board, when we are talking about anybody that has experienced any form of violence, especially when it is women or someone of color that has experienced that violence, the system and the people respond in the worst of ways. A lot of times people are not believing survivors, a lot of times survivors do not have trust in judicial processes, and it is all fair why they would not have trust because a lot of times the processes are not supported. So one thing we can do, individually, is to try to ease some of those barriers. The way we do it– first step is believing survivors, you know that is a phrase that we often hear kind of thrown around. But the reason it is important and the reason to do it in action is because a lot of times when survivors are sharing their story, talking about their story for the first time, they are going to peers first, they are going to people that are around your [their] age. We did an assessment at Rutgers [so] we know that [in] our student body, 76% of the time, a student who has experienced violence is going to another student to talk about that violence first. So if students are going to students, and for the first time they are sharing their story to their peer, if that peer starts going into the mode of not believing and start questioning their existence, questioning why they [the survivor] did that, or even just flat out saying,
“I do not believe you”, that survivor might not ever get the support they need and they might not ever share their story again. Survivors are not asking people, in the moment, to be a lawyer, they are not asking people to be a judge, they are not asking people to be a police officer. They are just asking for support. Not every survivor wants to go through reporting processes, especially in the beginning, a lot of survivors are just looking for support. So by offering your belief in them, that is the first step, the next step is actively listening to them when they are sharing their story. These stories are hard to share and a lot of times, the stories are gonna be messy. Like I just said in the beginning, memory is something that is often impacted in the time violence is happening. It is gonna make sense for a survivor’s story to be all over the place, it is gonna make sense for a survivor to have trouble sharing their story because it is gonna bring on a lot of emotions. So active listening means being patient with them, it means validating what they are saying and feeling, it means clarifying anything you might not understand, and it also means not forcing the survivor to do anything. Another thing too is one thing we can do to support the survivor is to empower them and one way we can empower them is [to] not force them to do anything they are not ready to do. So one way we can empower them is to be there, sit there, actively listen, and it is also [to] know the resources. What we can do individually too, is look up the resources in our local community, it is different around the world, but there are resources. 

Another piece of trauma is intergenerational trauma. Intergenerational trauma is the idea that trauma can kind of be passed through from generation to generation. An example of that is, if you go back into the history of America around slavery…Jim Crow [laws], hundreds of years of history, that has a lasting impact in families and that impact can stay with families, again, for generations. Another example is also within Jewish communities, things like the Holocaust, that impact can last for generations. Where the fears, the distrust in systems, also the things that come out of it too, like financial injustices, systemic oppression, systemic racism, all of these pieces tie into each other, and all of these pieces continue to connect to each other year after year. What is important with intergenerational trauma is that we try to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma. But there is no way of doing that until we also keep passing more policy and keep doing things that break what these systems are. So the way it kind of comes out within my work is one, the students I work with individually…I have a few different roles. So one of my roles is doing clinical work, so that is where I am sitting with the student one-on-one in more of a counseling capacity. So in that role, if I have students that come from different marginalized backgrounds or anything like that, it is important for me one, to make space to talk about that; how that might have impacted them, how might that be impacting their story, how might that be impacting their way of coping. And it is also important for me, like I said before, to listen, me being a white counselor too, it is even more important for me to make a space that allows whoever I am working with to talk about things, like intergenerational trauma. Within my class, it is talked about because I put it into the syllabus. I felt that it is important for the students that I work with [because] the students I teach are often going to work at universities, so it is important for them to know how does this [intergenerational trauma] come out at universities too. We see at universities kind of the impact of intergenerational pieces as well, a lot of universities in the U.S. were built by slaves, a lot of statues at different universities in the U.S. still might not be appropriate, a lot of names of buildings often are controversial people or white supremacists or people that have owned slaves. So that has a lasting impact, a lot of times it can tell people on the campuses that they are not welcomed. And when we preach the word inclusivity, we need to be mindful of how do these pieces, how do these different symbols, how does the history take away from the inclusivity that you are trying to reach, because it does have an impact on the people that are walking around.  

Based on research, there is an impact. I think sometimes it plays out differently within sessions where that is part of the conversations. It is hard to determine if that is the direct impact on the person. It depends on the person, right? Oftentimes, people that come into our office have experienced direct sexual violence or domestic violence, but it is still intertwining with other experiences because a lot of the ways we interact with their life is through those different identities. And that could come out through the cultures that we experience, again, through the religions that we experience. And that could also add a lot of roadblocks or barriers, too. So I guess, to answer your question, that has an impact. And then in terms of resources, that is going to depend on where you are, what state you are in, what country you are in. I do have a list of some resources, though, that tie into whether it is in immigrant communities, communities of color… So some resources that I made a list for you all are the Coalition for Immigrant Mental Health, the coalition that is within the United States that provides a few different things. One of the main things that is featured on their website is a full list of therapists or organizations that could be tailored towards immigrant communities or more inclusive and understanding of those communities. I have Organization Therapy for Latinx. They do the same thing, but they have a list of counselors or agencies or things like that that are welcoming and understanding of issues that pertain to people within the Latinx communities. I have the Organization of Inclusive Therapists– same concept, that one is a little bit more broad, but these are a bunch of therapists and they have specifically on their website a section for immigrants/refugees of a whole list of therapists that know more about these issues. I have the National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association. That comes out of the United States as well. Same concept there. And then the South Asian Mental Health Initiative & Network– same concept where they include resources to specific people as well as ways to reach out to them.

For myself specifically, what I am trying to do is one: educate myself of them. I really have been investing a lot of my time and space into working in survivor communities and issues around violence. And again, that pertains to refugees and immigrant communities as well. But for me, I need to know more. So one thing I did, two years ago, was that I went to a conference that talked more about these issues. One really interesting discussion there was about access to technology. Especially immigrants who are undocumented don’t want to use technology out of fear of being tracked and things like that. And that’s important to note because a lot of universities are trying to use tech more to remove barriers, and that’s a good thing. It does help certain people, but if people are not accessing technology, then that does not remove the barrier for especially people who might be avoidant. Another thing I’ve been to, in the education process, just other workshops too are trying to learn more. And I continue to learn more about the barriers, and that’s kind of one of the unfortunate things that I want to see shift even within my office. You know, there’s still a lot of barriers on why survivors who are refugees or survivors who are immigrants might not want to come to our office. Some of that can be the fear that some of our offices are going to make a report, which is not true, but there is that fear. We do not push anybody to report in our offices because we do counseling, but people have that assumption. And the other big piece that you all are handling is the language barriers too– that’s a big barrier too in terms of mental health. A lot of  therapists and a lot of counselors do not speak multiple languages and still statistically, a lot of counselors and mental health professionals come from white backgrounds. A lot of people want to talk to people within their communities because they feel like they are going to connect more and understand more, or they want to be able to do counseling in their own languages. So, it’s also important that we could figure out ways to have more representation across mental health agencies as well and find ways to get more people to become counselors. That’s another long discussion there too, but those are some of the pieces. 

I mean, there’s a lot. I think what people need to do is start listening to education from people across more communities. What I mean by that is: in a lot of the history of feminism and gender equality, we often heard from women, which is good, but a lot of the stories are from white women. Not that these stories should be invalidated in any way, but again these experiences affect different communities differently. We need to make space for all voices. Topic-wise, like specific topic-wise, I guess these are my own personal interests, but I am interested in the issues of gun violence– a lot of children and a lot of high schoolers are coming in with exposure to trauma that is constantly showing on TV and through multiple mass shootings. Somebody does not have to be there to experience the trauma response. When we are exposed to all this trauma that is seen on social media– TikTok is another big space– some people might internalize that as trauma. When this trauma is not handled, it’s coming into college too. And college may be the first time that maybe they will explore it a little more. And I guess that’s another topic in itself, which is K-12 education (I know it’s different in other places). School before college is a topic in itself because we need to talk about how a lot of this work is not happening early enough. Children can start talking about these issues when they are young. I think there’s a fear of talking about it in high school, middle school, or things like that. Sometimes, it is a lack of funding or a lack of people. But when we do not make these spaces, it normalizes the silence. And the silence should not be normalized. We need to encourage these conversations earlier because then we can actually try to prevent the outcomes of it, which is unaddressed mental health, violent behavior, or ineffective coping mechanisms. 

Quotes

We are not gonna be perfect 100% of the time, but what we can do is try to strive to be better. And a lot of people are afraid to admit that they either got it wrong or just do not even know, a lot of people are afraid to say that they do not know. And how can we make progress if we are not admitting those things, we have to say that we do not know and [that] we are not educated fully, and we need to start the conversations, cause that is where we learn. [16:54]