Refugees given tools to adjust to a new culture

Story by SCOTT FUNK

What makes a home? Is it the people you live with, or is it the pictures and decorations within the house? Is it the home-cooked meals, or the fun and games with family and friends? No matter what it is, a home can be defined in many ways. However, leaving the place you call home often is only described in one way: difficult.

Gerald Brown, the Utah state refugee coordinator and assistant director of the Refugee Services Office, has dedicated his life to helping refugees.

Throughout his lifelong career, he has constantly been “trying to make the world a little more fair.” He has found his motivation to do his work based off what he has seen and experienced. “Leaving their country is difficult and traumatic,” Brown said. “And the resettlement process is just as difficult and often traumatic.”

On a daily basis, Brown works side-by-side with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) developing programs designed to make the resettlement process less traumatic. One of these programs that the IRC has established is called Adjustment Support Groups.

Jennica Henderson, the mental health program coordinator for the IRC in Utah, said in a phone interview that the curriculum of these groups consists of three parts: adjusting to the U.S. and a new culture; mental health; stress management and community wellness and development.

Henderson said the curriculum was designed by a company in Seattle called Pathways to Wellness. She said the curriculum and groups are designed to “provide education and skill development around mental health and well-being. It is also designed to develop community support for one another so that our participants can rely on one another.”

Following the curriculum, refugees participate in an eight-week course featuring a new topic weekly that falls under one of the three key concepts of the curriculum. These topics in order are: introduction to the group and establishing guidelines and rules; culture shock and moving from one country to another; refugee experience; mental health and tools to overcome stress; mind and body connection; goals and dreams.

Adjustment Group at the Central Park Community Garden. Photo courtesy of New Roots SLC.

In Utah, these groups are just getting underway, as they have only been in use since fall 2016. They are funded by grants and currently run in the spring, summer and fall and are only offered to women. However, the program is expanding to start its first male group in spring 2018.

For now, the program meets at the Central Park Community Garden, located at 2825 S. 200 East in Salt Lake City.

The signup process for the group is simple: there is none. When a refugee is resettled, their location is saved within a database. Henderson said one of the goals of the program is to make the ability to attend as easy as possible. Therefore, once a location for the group is chosen, based on their geographical location, refugees are then called and invited to attend.

When invited, refugees are asked what day and time would work best for their schedules. Based on the results, a day and time is chosen that is best suited for the majority. Refugees are also informed in that call that the IRC provides transportation to and from the meetings, food and childcare for who attend.

In Utah, up to three separate support groups are offered at once. These groups are led by three instructors — Jennica Henderson, Alex Haas and Sara Franke — all of whom are employees of the IRC and have completed hands-on training to know the curriculum and know how to best help the refugees in their process of settling in a new culture.

One of the instructors, Alex Haas, said in a phone interview that he believes these groups are helping refugees become self-sufficient and that they are creating a “community of wellness.”

As refugees come and participate in the program, they meet new people and develop new relationships. Although the programs may never replace everything that a refugee lost, they are succeeding in what they were meant to do: helping resettle in a new home.