Bhutanese refugees have a strong sense of community

Published on Jan 30 2009 // Interview

The Catholic Charities, Phoenix is a part of the Catholic Refugee Resettlement Network, coordinated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is one of the nine national agencies resettling refugees, and has over 100 affiliates in throughout the US.

Joanne Morales, who is the Director of Refugee Programs at the Catholic Charities, says that their mission to reach out to thousands of people-regardless of their race, ethnicity, economic status, or religious affiliation-in an effort to build just and caring communities by strengthening families, reducing poverty, alleviating suffering, and advocating for justice to enhance human dignity and ensure the social and economic participation of all.

The Catholic Charities has been serving people of all ages and faiths for 75 years. It provides over 50 programs at 100 sites serving more than 200,000 people in Central and Northern Arizona communities. Since 2008, Morales has been assisting the Bhutanese citizens, taken from the UNHCR-administered camps in Nepal, get resettled in a new place. Joanne Morales talked to Bhutan News Service on various aspects of third country resettlement in America.Excerpts:

Involvement of Catholic Charities in resettlement in the US
The Catholic Charities (CC), Phoenix is a part of the Catholic Refugee Resettlement Network, coordinated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which is one of the nine national agencies resettling refugees. The USCCB has over 100 affiliates in throughout the US.

The CC is one of four agencies that resettle refugees in Phoenix, Arizona. It has maintained good communications and partnerships with other three local resettlement agencies, such as the International Rescue Committee, Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest and Refugee Immigrant and Relief Center.

We also have the support of and positive relationship with our State Refugee Coordinator, and we are a member of the Arizona Refugee Advancement Coalition. In July last year, the CC, Phoenix received an award ‘Excellence in Capacity of Diversity’ from the parent organization, for having the most diversity among refugees resettled in the USCCB’s network.

What does Catholic Charities do to assist new comers in Phoenix?
The Refugee Programs (RP) are designed to assist refugees from many countries with the process of social and economic adjustment necessary to live in their new home.  The primary goal of the RP is economic self-sufficiency for each refugee as soon as possible after his arrival into the United States.

The Catholic Charities provides services to people of all ages, races, and faiths, who are in need.  Included in these services are the Reception & Placement (R&P) Program, which deals with assisting refugees with their initial resettlement and basic needs; matching grant, an early employment program and refugee case management.

We have employment services and refugee mental health services for long-term needs. We also have intense case management for refugees with substantial employment barriers through our preferred communities program. Resettlement staff includes 27 employees, three full-time Jesuit volunteers, as well as student interns from the local universities and community volunteers.  Out staff are fluent in more than 20 languages and from 15 different countries, having good diversity of culture and ethnicity.

How do you tell that your programs are effective to make refugees economically strong?
There are some direct, as well as, indirect indicators to evaluate the effectiveness of our programs. We have several methods used in assessing the self-sufficiency of refugees. We look to see if families are employed and no longer reliant on government and agency assistance. We look at whether or not families are able to access services on their own, such as being able to find a store and go there on their own. We look at whether or not they can manage their day-to-day needs without our assistance, such as grocery shopping, banking, etc.

We also look to see if they are connected to the services they need including seeking a appointment with a doctor and visiting school among others. We also want to see that they have developed their own social support among friends or neighbors. We are regularly monitoring our employment outcomes to ensure that we maintain a healthy employment rate within the group of refugees we have resettled. In addition, refugees also have the opportunity to complete our bi-annual survey of services, which allows them to rate and comment on the quality of our programs. Our programs are also monitored by the State and national funding support to ensure we are providing services, as required, in an appropriate manner.

Compare the Bhutanese refugees with other nationalities
Indeed, it is difficult to compare one group of refugees with another, as each group is coming from a set of unique circumstances. Even within each group, we are seeing differences between individuals.  Each group has their strengths and challenges.

So far, we have noticed several very positive characteristics among the Bhutanese refugees. We have been able to observe that the Bhutanese refugees have a very strong sense of community, are willing to encourage and help each other.

We see many Bhutanese arrive with fairly good English skills and educational background. They are willing to learn about the American culture while maintaining important cultural ties and traditions. Our volunteers and staff have had a very enjoyable experience working with them.

What should the most Bhutanese keep in mind before they fly to the US from Nepal?
The Bhutanese will need to keep in mind that employment is the key to self-sufficiency in the United States.  A willingness to work hard is important.  It is very beneficial to have good communication with their resettlement agency and to feel comfortable asking any questions related to their adjustment. Asking questions is culturally acceptable here and it will help them learn more quickly.

Further, it is important to participate in English classes offered to the refugees. Those who have good spoken English will find that job opportunities and supportive services are easily available to them. Also, the most business and services are conducted in English.

The overseas cultural orientation is important and it is a good suggestion to participate. The first year of resettlement in a new country can be challenging and there will be many things to learn. Connections with the local community and their faith community can help refugees preserve the many talents they bring such as art, music, culture, for which we encourage refugees to maintain.

There are financial classes regarding money management, taxes and other topics available which are usually free. Again, it is a good idea to work with the resettling agency and ask what is available. Most importantly, we want refugees to know that they are welcomed and we always regard them as positive, contributing members of our community.

How many Bhutanese citizens do you have now in Phoenix? What numbers are employed?
Last year, Arizona received 277 Bhutanese citizens. This year we have just 72 so far.  Although we don’t have specific employment data on the Bhutanese, we can say that about 85 percent refugees were engaged in the last fiscal year in Arizona.

What are their feelings and pay scales?
The earned income level for refugees varies, depending on ability to speak English, educational and professional background and current jobs available.  The minimum wage in Arizona is $7.25. However, our housing costs continue to be reasonable in comparison to the rest of the country.

We have seen that the most Bhutanese willing to accept their first job with similar wages, as a means to support themselves, and then work on goals such as English and continuing education in order for them to advance to higher positions. Several Bhutanese have already had successful employment working for the resettlement agencies; others are completing interpreter trainings.

How generous are the resettled Bhutanese?
We have found the Bhutanese refugees to be both generous and respectful.  Again, many that have already been resettled are able to assist their fellow-countrymen who arrive after them. Others are willing to assist friends in interpretation for those who do not speak English.

Refugees do make contributions to our community—they provide skills, enrich our culture, and they support our economy. Sharing their story with others also educates our community on who refugees are and why we welcome them.

What about their legal status and right to return?
All refugees are eligible to apply for Permanent Resident Status one year after their date of entry to the US and are eligible to apply for U.S. Citizenship 5 years after their date of arrival into the United States.

It is important the refugees understand and follow the U.S. laws, as well as study English, in order to pass the citizenship exam. Although refugees can apply for travel documents and return to their country of origin upon becoming legal permanent residents, the first concern a refugee should consider is his safety.  As a refugee, their original status was granted as it was impossible for them to avail themselves of the protection of their country of origin.

We usually advise refugees to wait until they receive their citizenship before returning to their homeland so they will have the full protections that are granted a U.S. citizen should there be a problem overseas.

There are Bhutanese refugees working as staffs in your organization to assist the fellow-countrymen. How do you find them?
In regard to Catholic Charities, our Bhutanese staff member has been an invaluable resource to us. When we started receiving the Bhutanese, our national office agreed to send several refugees with strong professional and educational backgrounds in the hopes we would find a refugee we could hire.

We have found that having a member on our team that is representative of the groups we resettle is imperative for our success as a program and for that of the refugees. They are able to serve as a cultural guide for our staff members in terms of advising our program on important cultural considerations, language and special needs such as diet and religious observations/traditions. Many employees who are former refugees also bring to our program high levels of education and work experiences.

Why are refugees employed to assist refugees?
We also find that for some cases, refugees feel more comfortable discussing their needs with someone who understands their culture and can communicate comfortably in their native language. Our program also likes to give opportunities to refugees, including meaningful employment and an opportunity to serve others.

Tell something about economic recession Vs resettlement of Bhutanese in America.
The economic recession has affected all Americans, including refugees. It is now more important than ever that we encourage refugees to accept their first reasonable offer of employment and to attend English and job development classes, which will keep them competitive in a challenging job market.

Supportive attendance at life skills and financial trainings also complement the employment goal and encourage wise budgeting skills regarding financial expenditures.

It is also important that we continue to educate our community about why refugees are here and why we should welcome and support them. Humanitarian protection as a need does not wane—even during economically difficult times. We also look to refugees, who have been in the United States for some time and are now successful, to welcome their new community members.