Newcomers Among Us: A Seminar for Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Program

On December 12, 2005, the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life had the opportunity to hold a Newcomers seminar for the staff of a single refugee service agency, the Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Program of Boston. The coming together of diverse staff members from Catholic Charities provided a time and space for colleagues to discuss the challenges of their work away from the everyday needs and concerns of the agency's client base. Attendees included the program director, ESL instructors, employment specialists, a business manager, an administrative assistant, legal specialists, interpretation service managers, and several refugee case managers. A number of nationalities were also represented – Afghani, American, Belarussian, Bosnian, Chinese, Haitian, Pakistani, Polish, Somali, Sudanese, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese.

THE MAID

I went to the movies.
A lady saw me and said,
"Why not work for me?
I need a maid."

I took my son for a walk.
They called me a nanny.
The kid was a doll,
But his mommy looked funny.

I did volunteer work.
They offered me a job.
"Poor thing," they clucked.
"She must be unemployed."

I taught a class. They said,
"Where is her director?"
"She's just a guest," they said.
When I came as school inspector.

"New tenant," they assumed,
As I showed off my own home.
"New typist," they presumed,
As I typed my new poem.

- Bracha Serri, 1983

For bilingual and bicultural Catholic Charities staff members who sometimes work with refugees of their own national or ethnic communities, special issues arise in relation to work hours. It is difficult to establish and maintain boundaries between professional and personal time because clients may appeal to one's identity as a community member as opposed to that of case manager. One participant noted that, for cultural reasons, she has to call her older clients "Aunt" or "Uncle," which immediately creates assumptions of connections that reach beyond the professional. The result is constant calls at home and crisis management at all times of the day and during weekends. Such a schedule can, not surprisingly, lead to rapid job burn-out.

The toll that refugee work takes on those who practice it was a theme that returned during the discussion of Bernard Malamud's "The German Refugee." This short story tells of the interactions between an American college student in the late 1940's and the Jewish refugee from Germany whom he is tutoring in English. "Oskar" was a leading journalist in his home country and needs to acquire English rapidly so he can deliver a number of high-profile public lectures. But he is discouraged and depressed and tormented by the memory of what he has left behind. Oskar's mood and his tremendous needs and worries upon arrival in New York City have a strong impact upon his tutor, who is young and inexperienced.

Following the standard Humanities and the Professions technique, this seminar utilized literature to engender open and challenging discussion of the difficulties of refugee resettlement work. A poem (see right) about stereotyped reactions to immigrants led to one participant's reflections about what it was like to be a member of a "model minority". Another participant talked about how the media contributes to the dissemination of stereotypes about refugees, remarking that in his native Sudan, some say "it is better to be shot in the head one time than to be killed by the media a hundred."

Another poem, "Outside Autumn" by Abena Busia (see below), struck a chord with many participants. One staff member could imagine how the friendliness of Americans in the workplace might be confusing for refugees, who find that this welcome is confined to office hours and doesn't extend beyond. This might ultimately feel like a deception to newcomers, who may be alone and far from family and friends. At the same time, several participants noted that, unlike Europe, the United States has not seen mosque-burnings and other extreme acts of anti-immigrant violence in recent years. They believe that the U.S. remains a nation with a fundamental openness to immigrants, despite retrenchments in the post-9/11 era. The phenomenon of "nine to five friendliness" may reflect more a separation of public and private spheres than insincerity on the part of the host community.

Outside Autumn

I never saw your homes.

Didn't know where you vanished to
when the day was done
leaving me
to turn out lights
and lock doors.
Until now I had no voice to tell
how your nine to five friendliness
left me lonely nights.

-Abena P.A. Busia

Catholic Charities staff members had a variety of responses to this story. Those who had been refugees themselves recalled with emotion the feelings of frustration and discouragement described for Oskar – of not speaking English, of having lost one's recognized status as a professional, of worrying about those still in the home country. All staff members talked about the need that refugees have to tell their stories and to be listened to. This doesn't necessarily mean the story of their persecution but instead the story of their resettlement experience. One participant from Somalia noted: "I am an employment specialist, but sometimes I feel like a doctor, trying to diagnose the client's problem and devise a treatment." Listening to clients' stories may come at a cost, however, to those who are on the receiving end. Seminar participants agreed that some balance needs to be found between serving clients to the best of one's ability and retaining some professional distance.

The Newcomers Among Us series, directed by Leigh Swigart, is part of a long-standing program at Brandeis University called Seminars in the Humanities and the Professions. The program uses literature as a lens through which seminar participants may view their work in new and constructive ways. The Newcomers series brings together people who work with immigrants and refugees in the Boston area with the aim of building a network of professionals who can advise and consult one another in this critical and growing field. If you are interested in attending a future seminar, please send an email to swigart@brandeis.edu.