Catholic Sentinel photo
Elisabeth Gern and Jeanne Toal help refugees as they adjust to life in Oregon.
Catholic Sentinel photo
Elisabeth Gern and Jeanne Toal help refugees as they adjust to life in Oregon.
Just before refugees get on the plane to the United States, they receive 15 or so hours of orientation to adjust to life in their new country. Most pressing are the immediate needs – how to open a door, how to use a toilet, how to travel by plane.

But that doesn’t leave much time for trainers to share how to negotiate the complicated systems of childcare, finances, transportation, laws and healthcare, which are complicated even to native citizenry.

That’s where organizations like Catholic Charities’ resettlement program come in – they help pick up fill where orientation left off.

During their first eight months in the United States, those who come to the Portland area through Catholic Charities’ resettlement program work with Jeanne Toal’s team of case managers. These are the folks who help refugees find jobs, places to live, and who help get students enrolled in schools. After the brief period of support ends, many refugees rely on one another, as well as their relationships developed through Catholic Charities.  

Elisabeth Gern knows that better than anyone. She is resident services coordinator for Esparanza Court and Kateri Park, which is home to many refugees. She gets calls regularly from people who have long since moved out of Charities’ housing. They request assistance on issues as complex supplemental nutrition assistance applications, or as simple as removing a safety cap from a prescription bottle.

All of Charities’ staff members’ interactions emphasize how challenging and scary resettlement can be, but they also demonstrate how crucial education is to facilitate that transition. Relatedly, Toal and Gern say, education is not only important for the refugees, but also the receiving communities.

Some Americans don’t even understand the difference between a refugee and an immigrant, Toal said. The United States provides refuge to a limited number of people who have been displaced from their home countries due to persecution related to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or social alliances. Refugees wait an average of five years to come to the United States, often while living in dirty camps that house hundreds of thousands of other displaced people. The Charities employees know folks who have lived as many as 25 years in the camps; they’ve met children who were born in the camps and had never even seen their home country.

Most would prefer to return to their own homes, Toal said, but when that is out of the question, resettlement is considered by the United Nations as a last resort.

“Often refugees have been exposed to extreme trauma of one sort or another and then they land here, and have to build a new life,” Toal said. “But they are bearing the effects of the experiences that got them here in the first place.”

Currently, the Portland area is receiving an influx of Burmese, Bhutanese, Iraqi, Afghan, Middle Eastern and Somali families.

A little cultural awareness can go a long way to promote positive interactions between newcomers and their neighbors, Charities representatives say.

For instance, some cultures don’t shake hands as a greeting, or men are not supposed to look a woman in the face. Religious customs, like those associated with the Muslim period of Ramadan, require that observers fast during daylight hours, which means observers will turn down offers of tea or treats. In American, declining those offers can sometimes come across as a slight.

Even a simple smile express different meanings in different cultures.

There are many cultural differences that can be interpreted as unfriendliness to residents who have spent their lives immersed in United States cultural norms.

Every once in a while at Kateri Park, Gern has to dispel a resident’s panic when they encounter small children entering their apartment without knocking.  

“The apartment complex is like a village, and in [the children’s] world there is an open door policy,” Gern said. “Those little ones are used to running in and out of neighbors’ houses.”

Problems also arise when cultural traditions conflict with the rules or laws in refugees’ new country. For instance, in many places girls marry at 16. That’s illegal in Oregon.

“They want to honor their traditions, to honor the needs of their children, and to honor the rules of the country,” Gern said. “There are no easy solutions.”