Building Together

School for Social Work Holds First-of-its-Kind Capacity-Building Conference
Published May 18, 2017

In 2010, widespread political unrest forced Jowel Iranzi to flee his native Democratic Republic of Congo. Though heartbroken and alone after leaving home, he arrived in Springfield, Mass. with “dreams and hopes” for life in the United States. Instead, Iranzi soon faced what he believes are unfortunate realities for most refugees and immigrants: confusion as one attempts to integrate into American society and deeply-held assumptions and biases among the country’s citizens that complicate a newcomer’s resettlement process.

Speaking at a College-sponsored conference on creating community for refugees and immigrants, Iranzi advised the attendees. “What helps? This helps. People who get together to talk and discuss issues. If we had this 20 years ago, we would not even need to help refugees but would be able to sustain peace in the places they come from.”

The day-long Building Together conference brought a multidisciplinary group of one hundred local service providers to Smith’s Campus Center on May 17. Participants included health care providers, law enforcement officials, educators, mental health clinicians, employment agency workers, religious leaders and others in the Northampton area who currently or will soon engage with recent immigrant populations. Organized by Smith College School for Social Work Professors Joshua Miller and Marsha Kline Pruett, Building Together was made possible by President Kathleen McCartney’s Innovation Challenge grant.

In the morning’s keynote address, Saida Abdi, associate director at the Community Programs, Refugee Trauma and Resilience Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, reminded listeners that there are currently 21.3 million refugees worldwide. Her message to those who care for them: the kind of cross-cultural work done between service workers and refugees “should be uncomfortable.”

“You have to be comfortable knowing you’ll make mistakes,” Abdi said during her presentation* entitled “Supporting  the Health and Well-being of Refugee and immigrant Youth and Families: Building Community Resilience Through Collaboration, Compassion and Inclusion.”

“You need to be aware of experiences prior to arrival in U.S. Yet often there are more experiences of trauma here, after they [refugees/immigrants] arrive,” Abdi said. One “core stressor,” she noted, are state benchmarks children must meet in their new American schools, when they may never have even held a pen.

The notion of “cultural humility,” she said, is essential for those who want to help immigrants. Abdi, who coined the phrase, reiterated that it is distinct from “cultural competence” because “it turns the mirror away from ourselves and requires us to be aware that the client holds things that are uncomfortable for us.”

Further describing how cultural humility is paramount, Abdi stressed the need for conference attendees to fully understand to their clients’ needs, as opposed to acting prematurely.

“Mom and clinicians often have a different understanding of the problems. You need to listen to what they need. To immigrant parents, their children are everything, so you need to be careful in how help is offered. Don’t hinder independence and growth; refugees need to learn that—to take control of your [sic] life. Let parents parent.”

And despite what may be a service worker’s best intention in helping a youth, Abdi issued a strong caution: “Never, never, never bond with that child, because the family is then at risk. More problems are caused.” Instead, Abdi offered the notion of “cultural brokering” which emphasizes concepts of bridging, linking or mediating between groups.

Following Abdi’s presentation, attendees heard directly from recent immigrants and refugees, Jowel Iranzi among them, during a panel discussion called “What Helps, What Doesn’t.”

Summarizing what he’s learned since arriving from the Congo, first-hand knowledge which prepared him for his current role as a caseworker with Catholic Charities, Iranzi urged listeners to acknowledge the potential in newcomers.

“Let them feel like a human being. Give them a chance to use their strength. They need to contribute here in this great nation. Leave them alone for working and learning on their own.”

In a prepared statement, Venezuelan immigrant Biani Salas, who arrived in the U.S. in mid-2016, shared that “‘immigrant’ still sounds like a strange word.” She continued, reading slowly in a fragile but determined voice. “But that is who I am, and I will always be in a country that is not my own.”

“You represent your country with everything you do,” Salas said. “This community has welcomed you here. You can adapt to a new place without losing your identity, your culture and values.” Yet one of the lessons she has learned and would share with others like her: “If you want to be an integral part of the U.S. society, it is your duty to speak the language.”

As conference attendees listened in complete silence, Salas continued to read through emotional pauses and, finally, unrestrained tears:

You ask me ‘Is there racism here?’ Yes. ‘Is there discrimination in the workplace?’ Yes. The system is set up to make immigrants fail. It is difficult to sustain yourself during the time you are trying to get a work permit. We have to be responsible. It is not our job to depend on the government for support. Are there obstacles? Yes. Are there solutions? Yes, absolutely. I have met marvelous people. … Sometimes an immigrant can feel like a dog going in a circle, trying to bite its own tail. It is easy to lose sight of your goal. My personal goal is to get out of the circle. Sometimes, I feel like I can’t do it, but then I remember there are ways to get help. There are steps I can take to move forward.

Basileus Zeno, a Syrian asylum-seeker and UMass Amherst doctoral student in Political Science, shared Salas’ sentiment that one’s country of origin often dictates how interactions with Americans will play out. Zeno said he has become used to being in a defensive position “all the time.”

“I start conversations the same way: ‘Hi, I’m not a terrorist.’ or ‘Hi. I’m Muslim, but I’m not a terrorist.'”

In his presentation,** “Displacement and Identity: Exploring Syrian Refugees’ Lived Experiences,” Zeno walked listeners through events in Syria that would ultimately prompt his departure.

In his afternoon presentation,*** “Exploring Culture, Building on Strengths: Working together to Create a Caring and Welcoming Community,” Professor Joshua Miller outlined for listeners just a few of the vulnerabilities experienced by refugees, including loss of family and social supports, loss of a sense of place that is home, a sense of rejection based on social group membership and possible psychological consequences of these such as depression, anxiety, guilt or grief. That sense of mourning, Miller explained, can be for people but also for one’s homeland.

“What looks and smells familiar, where one understands the social calculus and cultural meanings and feels competent—all of this can be lost when one becomes a refugee,” he said.

One attendee commented that, when she experiences the loss of one such comfort, it’s challenging. “But to lose all of them at one time would be devastating,” she said.

Miller also highlighted the notion of personhood.

“We need to realize what it means to be a person. We have all descended from refugees and immigrants. The new residents bring gifts. We should respect what it took for them to arrive here.”

We are a Salad

An afternoon panel provided attendees with the opportunity to hear from social service colleagues who currently interact with the area’s newest residents. Kathryn Buckley-Brawner, executive director of Catholic Charities within the diocese of Springfield, the agency that has partnered with the federal government to lead resettlement efforts in western Massachusetts, recalled the relatively smooth process she and other local partners have experienced thus far in welcoming three new families to the area. Acknowledging affordable and appropriate housing has been the biggest challenge, Buckley-Brawner said arranging for health care has been easier, given the state’s numerous resources, Caring Health Center in Springfield, in particular.

As a longtime immigration attorney, Dan Berger provided a brief legal history of the issue and the societal shifts that affect the process. “Right now, we help people make a plan,” Berger said. He and other attorneys help immigrants know “what to worry about and not worry about.” Berger said the many new governmental restrictions put in place since January are not what concern him most.

“We are worried about the tone,” he said, referring to the growing anti-immigrant sentiment around the country and in Washington, D.C., even though Berger acknowledged more Americans favor pro-immigrant policies than those who oppose them.

Macey Faiella, English language program director at Northampton’s International Language Institute, shared tips she’s learned after engaging in hundreds of hours of language instruction with refugees and immigrants. “Do not make assumptions other than assuming a spirit of cooperation,” she said.

“Be aware of language you are using. Is it full of idioms? … Get comfortable with silence so the listener can process a response.”

Faiella also recommended what she calls the “CCQ” approach: Concept, Check, Question. She said this ensures an understanding of new material is present before an instructor moves ahead. She also advocates for the use of visual aids but cautioned listeners to only use printouts with limited amounts of text, large and easy-to-read fonts and without abbreviations.

Laurie Millman, executive director at the Center for New Americans, reiterated the need to listen to a client. “We teach to people’s goals and needs, and then we weave in the state frameworks. We use lots of pictures, miming and role playing,” she said.

As the conference drew to a close, Millman called for attendees to encourage their clients to preserve their cultures and traditions, a sentiment that had become one of the day’s common themes.

“We are a salad, not a melting pot,” Millman said. “People shouldn’t give up their culture.”

Videos from the Conference

The resources below were recommended by participants of the Building Together conference.

ACLU Immigrant Protection Project of Western Massachusetts

Immigration Law Help

Pro Bono Directory