Cross-Cultural Work Graduate Students Non-Profits Social Work

Bita Razavimaleki, Refugee Services of Texas

In Fall 2013, I worked at Refugee Services of Texas (RST) as an employment specialist intern. Before applying for an internship, I was a volunteer at RST for a year. I mostly worked there as an interpreter of Persian language for Iranian and Afghani refugees. During this time, I became familiar with the nature of the work at RST. Employees at this agency are culturally diverse and all speak different languages. I was fascinated by this diverse, exciting and fast-paced work environment, and by the way that everyday work was about cultural diversity and tolerance. As a cultural anthropology graduate student, I was seeking to work with people who have different cultural backgrounds and speak different languages; therefore, this work environment was a place where I belonged. Working in the employment department at RST provided an opportunity to develop and improve skills that will be useful in my future academic and professional career. These skills include strong verbal and communication skills, professional resume-writing, and the ability to not only understand cultural differences but also to transfer the right message through cultures and deal with language barriers.

RST offers services and support for refugee resettlement, employment, case management and disaster relief. In 2003, RST opened an office in Austin. Since then, 2,100 refugees from Burma, Iraq, Somalia, Cuba, Bhutan, Eritrea, Congo and Iran have been resettled in the Austin area. One of the departments at RST in which I completed my internship is “Employment Services” which functions as a referral and staffing service. This paper acquaints readers with an overview of the role that RST plays in the process of helping refugees achieve economic self-sufficiency by gaining employment in Austin, TX. It also educates the audience about how anthropological education helps with facilitating the process of incorporating refugees in a new society.

Every year, thousands of refugees arrive in Austin, TX, who have authorization to work in the United States and bring various useful skills to the job market. Employment specialists at RST help with matching refugees’ education, employment experience and skills with possible positions available in the job market. As one of the major departments at RST, Employment Services’ main goal is to provide attainment of employment in as short a period of time as possible.

RST refugee clients and employment specialists meet several times in order to go over the initial explanation of employment regulations and cultural aspects of work environments in the United States. Many basic aspects of work environments that Americans take for granted are in fact not part of the typical environments of refugees’ countries of origin. For instance, some refugees come from countries in which relatives can substitute for each other at work. In some cultures, if a worker is sick and cannot work on a particular day, he/she can send a sibling, a cousin or a friend to work instead. Doing something of this nature is against employment policies in the US. Employees must inform their managers and supervisors if they cannot be present at work and in most cases they need to provide additional information such as doctor’s note or court note for their employers. Explaining several of these cultural aspects is the task of  Employment Services. Refugees meet with their employment specialists within a week of their arrivals and individual meetings and employment workshops continue until the first job is obtained.

After the individual meetings to set short-term and long-term goals, employment specialists help clients with writing resumes. Refugees who have received higher education in their home countries sometimes have resumes with them or at least are familiar with the idea of submitting resumes for work. Others need more training on what function resumes and cover letters have in the employment process. All of this is what is explained in Job Readiness classes.

The emphasis of training is to make sure clients know that they are the ones responsible for speaking up for themselves. Most refugee clients are victims of discrimination and abuse and may not be aware that such issues are against the law in the US. They may also not be familiar with the American definition of such concepts. For instance, sexual harassment is “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature” (US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). It is clear and understood for majority of Americans what that means. In some cultures, hugging, touching and physical contact are normal forms of greeting, showing appreciation or just a form of communication. It is easy for refugees and people around them to misunderstand such physical contacts and for refugees to become victims of their lack of knowledge. Refugees must know that in the US, discrimination is against the law and there is zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment in workplace. They also must know that they are responsible to report problems of such nature and how and to whom to report their concerns.

After the Job Readiness orientation, clients are ready to search for jobs and start interviews. Once interviews are scheduled, staff members help clients with application processes and accompany them to interviews if requested. Staff members also make sure clients have interpreters and transportation for their interviews if necessary. The process of referral and recruitment along with consultation for clients continues on a weekly basis until clients are employed. After employment, employment specialists conduct post-employment follow up with both employers and clients in order to ensure communication is smooth and effective between employers and RST client employees.

Language barriers and cultural differences are daily obstacles to face at RST. Speaking on the phone with clients who have limited or no English language skills makes simple tasks, such as setting appointments, a hassle. Two issues must be considered here: one is the language barrier issue, which is the main problem for clients because they do not understand who is calling them and when and where the appointment will be held. The other problem is the cultural standards for showing up on time for appointments, cancelling appointments and rescheduling. Sometimes, I would have a difficult time finding a client’s number to set up an appointment. Since clients do not have cell phones when they arrive in the US, sometimes, they give their friends’ and relatives’ numbers in the US to RST specialists.  Therefore, talking to a client means making several phone calls and speaking with several people before reaching the client.

Lack of trust and faith in RST services delays productivity in helping refugees and may another reason for which clients do not take their appointments at RST seriously. Before arriving at a refugee institution such as RST, refugees have experienced betrayal and rejection in their home countries, which leads to loss of trust. This loss of trust is what causes resistance to learn and apply what is taught at refugee centers like RST. It is the job of the RST staff to recognize and address these obstacles. In the next few pages, I explain how with the help of my anthropological readings, I was able to connect the issue of trust with the clients at RST.

Anthropologists have become involved in ethnographic studies of refugees over the past two decades. The anthropological study of refugees started as a scholarly response to the refugee movements after World War I but it reached its peak in the 1980s with the founding of the Refugee Studies Program at Oxford University. The primary research method in these studies is participant- observation. Participant-observation is an anthropological method in which researchers take part in daily activities of their informants, experiencing their point of view by “participation”. However, participant-observation in the resettlement process is time consuming and costly and due to issues of violence and warfare, this method is sometimes impossible to carry out. Therefore, many anthropologists explore how host populations and refugees affect one another’s lives (Skran and Daughtry 2007). Refugee centers provide a great opportunity for studies of displacement and diaspora since they are the first point of contact for refugees in the US. Through observations at RST and interactions with both clients and employees, I learned that in order to reach full productivity in the process of resettling refugees, RST staff must recognize the problems with trust issues first.

The research cited above in addition to my observations at RST showed that  lack of trust in the Refugee-Specialist relationship is one of the issues leading to a non-productive relationship at RST. Understanding and addressing problems such as loss of identity and trust among refugees can help with involving them in a productive and cooperative relationship with those who want to help them at refugee centers. Most of the employees at RST are first generation immigrants or refugees. Sharing personal experiences with their clients can be helpful in creating trust. Although there is no promise of a shared future, when refugees know about personal experiences of their specialists, they find it easier to accept their current situation as a promise for a brighter future. I personally experienced that with Iranian clients. Speaking their language not only helped them with understanding the content of their forms and agreements, it immediately suggested that I was like them; an immigrant from their country with possibly the same problems in diaspora who has survived the obstacles they face (or at least to them, it looks like I did!) They immediately would ask questions about my past to ensure I had the same troubles as they did when I first moved to the US. Although I have no connection with my clients outside of the RST office and I did not come to this country as a refugee, sharing my past experiences as an immigrant changes my role as an office employee to a member of their social network. Exposing personal experiences helps with establishing rapport and overcomes the purely bureaucratic relationship at refugee centers. Academic research in refugee studies offers some important theoretical knowledge. However, identifying how this knowledge can be applicable to the refugees’ lives in order to assist them with their transition requires familiarity with their day-to-day challenges.

Documenting and interpreting the variety of human cultural and social phenomenon is what anthropology facilitates (Harrel-Bond and Voutira 1992). It was through such anthropological work that I learned that effective education that pushes refugees in the right directions but still leaves them feeling in charge of their lives is extremely important in helping refugees. During three months of my internship and after recognizing issues of trust and change, I started applying what I thought was the solution to cases with which I worked directly. When working with Iranian clients, I explained to them how I had to face the same issues they faced and told them how I overcame challenges of living in a new society. This “shared” experience” in many cases built rapport and trust with clients. It was easier to apply this strategy specifically to cases of Iranian refugees, however, even with non-Iranian clients, shared experiences led to a more trusting relationship.

RST is a successful organization with employees that go above and beyond to help their clients. I was fortunate enough to work with supervisors who were receptive of my new ideas. However, my time at RST was limited. I hope my suggestion that the bureaucratic process of working with refugees does not build the trust that RST employees need from their clients  to finish their work will be used and be helpful in the future at this agency.

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