Editor's Note: Paragraph 5 of the print version of this story contained an error which has been corrected in the online version.
Myths and stereotypes related to immigrants and refugees are common, and Christine Kutschkau is eager to communicate the facts.
Kutschkau, State Refugee Program Coordinator with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, has found that the media tends to lump everyone with limited English proficiency into the same category, leading people to believe they're all the same. But there are profound differences.
By federal definition, an immigrant voluntarily leaves his or her country of nationality to work, study or live in another country. Legal immigrants may be eligible for certain public assistance benefits; however, they are not eligible to receive benefits or services from the Refugee Resettlement Program.
Conversely, a refugee is outside his or her country of nationality who is unable or unwilling to return to that country because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Each October, the President of the United States issues a determination on the number of refugee admissions within a federal fiscal year. The admission of up to 80,000 refugees to the United States during the 2008 fiscal year is justified by humanitarian concerns or is otherwise in the national interest.
Other populations eligible for provision of services offered by the Refugee Resettlement Program include asylees, Amerasians, Cuban/Haitian entrants, secondary migrants, victims of severe forms of trafficking, and any lawful permanent resident who once held one of the other referenced statuses in the past.
Kutschkau works solely with refugees and their resettlement, not with immigrants. "By federal mandate, the Refugee Resettlement Program focuses on self-sufficiency as quickly as possible after arrival to the United States," she said.
There are three communities in Nebraska where refugees are actually placed - Hastings, Lincoln and Omaha. Even with limited human and financial resources, service providers in these communities are well-equipped to provide eligible populations with culturally and linguistically-appropriate assistance.
She notes that eligible populations often come to the United States having suffered torture and trauma based on the sometimes-horrific situations they have fled in their home countries. Refugee resettlement agencies, in partnership with the State Refugee Resettlement Program, consult with a variety of community entities to determine the viability of resettling particular refugee groups. Discussion of issues related to the impact on business, schools, law enforcement, housing, health and language access is paramount in planning for new arrivals. Faith congregations and family sponsors, Kutschkau said, are sought to assist in the ongoing assimilation of newly-arrived refugees.
Refugees who moved to smaller communities may be secondary migrants. "Refugees make the decision to go to the secondary site," she said. Many refugees come from agrarian areas in their home countries, mostly with smaller populations, so metropolitan areas feel too big to them. "And our government can't mandate that they stay in the primary placement site," she said. For example, the Somali and Sudanese refugees who now live in Lexington were primarily resettled to Minnesota and Texas, and they came to Nebraska on their own.
"The grapevine is powerful," Kutschkau said, and when Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids occur in a work site, the grapevine quickly communicates that there are available jobs in a community. After one of these raids, Kutschkau says communities can expect a large wave of new workers - sometimes with languages and cultures new to the community.
The Refugee Resettlement Program in Nebraska is funded exclusively with federal dollars. Based on the funding source, allocations are divided among service providers.
Kutschkau said there are two cultural orientations that take place for refugees. The first takes place in the refugee camp or U.S. Embassy. The purpose of overseas cultural orientation is to help refugees develop realistic expectations about life in the United States. Overseas cultural orientation enables refugees to begin processing, in a safe and familiar environment, what can be an overwhelming amount of new information. Overseas cultural orientation addresses 11 essential topics related to processing, travel and resettlement: pre-departure processing, role of the resettlement agency, housing, employment, transportation, education, health, money management, rights and responsibilities, cultural adjustment and travel.
The second cultural orientation takes place post-arrival in the community where the refugees are resettled. "That's the domestic cultural orientation. It teaches basic survival, but also teaches housing and personal safety," she said. "But most of that information is not retained," she added, because it's a lot of new information to absorb under less-than-ideal circumstances. There is support for the first 90 days after arrival, she said.
Kutschkau recognizes that refugees need more than 90 days to acculturate, learn the language and adjust to their new environment, so her office works with faith-based communities and families to continue the acculturation process. Her office also serves the refugee community through providing health and safety information printed in many languages and distributed to sites where refugees are likely to receive it. But it's not possible to print the information in every language, considering how many languages are spoken. For example, language data from the Lincoln Public Schools, Kutschkau said, indicates that there are 2,000 non-native English speakers in the student population. Of those, 56 different countries are represented, with 46 languages spoken.
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