Panelist examine plight of refugees settling in Greensboro

by Allison Stalberg

Greensboro’s SynerG young professionals organization recently hosted a lunch and learn on Refugee Transitions to Greensboro .

Held at Action Greensboro, experienced panelists explained the processes of how refugees integrate into the United States, the challenges they face and their impact on the Greensboro community.

Panelist Leilani Roughton, executive director of the New Arrivals Institute, painted a picture of the challenges refugees face.

“There are two obstacles that are very related to each other. English is of course one, but there is also the expectations. The expectation of the U.S. government is that the refugees will be self-sufficient, they will pay all the bills, be able to do everything, speaking, and all that in about three months. That is ludicrous. It’s not possible.

“The flip side is the expectations of the refugees that come. That is also an obstacle. Truthfully the rest of the world has a view that the U.S. is the land of opportunity, it’s the land of the free. That is a wonderful thing about the USA but one of my favorite quotes is by an Iraqi refugee several years ago when he said, ‘You know, America is always called the land of the free but everything costs money’ and that is very true.

“What I tell them is ‘You are free to make your life what you want it to be in the U.S., you do have that freedom. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy or fast. It’s going to be a long process.”

Panelist Adamou Mohamed, International Advisory Committee chair with the Greensboro Human Relations Commissions, mentioned other challenges, in particular those faced by women.

“There are many refugees that come with single mothers, some of them with three or four children. The expectation for women in certain places overseas is that women stay home and the men have to go out and work. Coming to the U.S. and expecting that the women go and work and pay the bills is a total change of the way things are done in their own countries. Especially for single mothers because they have children and they think ‘How do I get children in a daycare? How do I pay for it?'” A struggle many refugees deal with is getting back to their old jobs. Most of them find that they have to go back to school. Panelist Fiston Rugwiro, a Kelly Services employee, spoke from his experience as a refugee.

“It takes some time to get back to school because they expect you to speak English like anyone else,” said Rugwiro. “And sometimes people don’t know much English but they know what they are doing. It will take longer; we have to go to English classes. I work with people who have masters and they are working in warehouses. They have PhDs and are working in warehouses because they have no other choice. They have to pay their bills. Even though sometimes if you have certification, they will not accept it and you have to repeat and go back to school again. That’s the rule.”

“Something to remember,” Roughton added, “is if you think about it, you’re in your house with your kids, sisters, brothers, you’re having dinner and then bombs start falling and somebody rushes in with an AK-47 pointed at you, you grab your kids and family and you run. You don’t think ‘I’m going to go to my room and get my diploma off the wall to bring with me.’ That’s just reality; it’s not the first thing that’s in your head. It is ‘let’s come out of this alive.’ So we do have people with advanced degrees or high school diplomas.

“Not only do they not have it with them, but due to the situation that university is closed or was bombed and there is no way for them to get it. So we have people with advanced degrees that have to go back and get a GED and have to go through the entire process starting from there in order to return to a career that they have been doing for years.”

Beyond the challenges, the panelists offered hope. Organizations such as the New Arrivals Institute offer skills training, health literacy programs, and have a mobile computer lab.

“We teach English classes, that’s our largest program,” said Roughton. “We go over everything from how to use a toilet for people who never used or had one to how to get into a university and everything in-between. We also have a daycare program for the refugees that are in the English classes, so that their children are in a safe place and will be ready to enter a public school system in the US.”

How refugees benefit Greensboro was a hot topic. While they add to the American tax dollar base, they also bring in business.

“We have to understand refugees are very entrepreneurial, they have business ideas, and they want to make something in their new community,” said Mohamed. “So getting that opportunity, getting through schools, getting that knowledge of ‘where do I go’ and many of them had major skills in their community where they came from. Sometimes that’s what got them into trouble, because they were trying to be leaders or stand for human rights, for justice, and those in power did not like it so they had to flee their own countries. Some of them are young like Fiston, who have very big dreams of going to school and doing something with their lives.”

Integration seemed to be a central goal for the refugee service organizations. Panelist Stephanie Adams, executive director of Church World Service in Greensboro, laid out the difference between assimilation and integration.

“Greensboro has a long history with refugees and our community has really changed and developed this identity of being cultural diverse, we see businesses sprouting everywhere, we see the fruit of the labors of people who came many years ago and started businesses, we’re seeing a lot of communities build their own churches—and we can come together and really celebrate each other, that’s integration. The difference we see between integration and assimilation is when newcomers come and have to become like the culture. Integration is more of an exchange.”

Adams ended on a more personal note.

“I just have this overwhelming appreciation for being around refugees and their families. It just brings me back to how important family is. How important community is. Those are values refugees bring to our community and it reminds me that I need to live slower; I need to appreciate and care for the people around me. Refugees come to this country having done the most unimaginable things, having to go through the most unimaginable things, just to see their families live and be together and to appreciate life. That’s a value refugees bring to our community when they come here.” !