Refugee case management

Filling out forms with some Somali clients in their home

The main work of a refugee agency is case management for new arrivals and in my initial role as a refugee case manager, I had the opportunity to aid families from all over the world in making their adjustment to living in the US.  Primarily, I was responsible to see that newly arriving refugees had some basic necessities when they arrived and that they received initial instruction to get established to live on their own.

While that sounds fairly straightforward, real life is a complicated affair. My time with a family might start with giving practical aid such as meeting them at the airport and bringing furniture to their home. I might have had a plan for programs and training to try to prepare them for independence.  But very quickly the challenges begin.  If the children arrive sick, will the local doctor be willing to treat them without insurance?  Could the family that has never used a stove before cause a fire in their home?  Will the local government bureaucrat assume the family is illegal and refuse to help them? How do I convince a former doctor that he has to take a factory job to survive? How does a family that can’t even read keep up with the paperwork required to maintain the assistance that keeps their children fed?  What about the marriage threatening to fall apart simply because it cannot take the stresses of the transition? What happens when there are no jobs for anyone in the family and there is no money to pay the rent?

Explaining fire safety in the kitchen

These are challenges that my coworkers and I were quite accustomed to dealing with as we provided instruction and tried to figure out programs that could help. The great thing is that in helping families cope with these challenges, I got to spend time with them in their home. There I learned about their home countries and customs, tasted their food, heard their language.  I learned how to appreciate simple freedoms which we take for granted that these families had never known.  I always felt humbled to hear their stories of survival in the face of adversity and was glad to have the chance to share some knowledge with them that could help them have a positive start for the future. Whether an extended family from Somalia or a single individual from Bosnia, case management requires both an appreciation of the cultural background of the refugees and, more significantly, a real but patient desire to see them succeed. Though it takes much time and effort, it is seeing that success which gives the job its meaning.