Cross-Cultural Work Government and Public Policy Non-Profits Showcase Social Work

Amy Oakes, Refugee Services of Texas

Refugee Services of Texas (RST) is a non-profit organization that works with Church World Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, and the U.S. Committee of Refugees and Immigrants to provide services for refugees, asylees, human trafficking survivors, and other displaced people in an attempt to help them regain their self-sufficiency in their resettlement in the United States. The Austin location is the lead agency in Texas and has been open for ten years.  RST Austin has various short and long term programs to help get its clients back on their feet in their new homes, including the divisions with which I interned, Extended Case Management (ECM) and Human Trafficking.

The initial services at RST (which include job classes, English learning classes, resumé construction, monetary aid for initial arrivals and for those who are actively searching for jobs through RST’s Employment Agency, appointments for clients’ required vaccinations and physical exams at the Refugee Screening Clinic, and mental health services) are only available for clients within their first 8 months of arrival. If the clients require further assistance, they can enroll in Extended Case Management (ECM) for an additional five years. ECM encompasses much of what the other departments do and applies to it to long-term scenarios. They also provide this assistance to recent arrivals as asylees or parolees, clients of other refugee resettlement organizations, human trafficking survivors, and secondary migrants from other states.

Clients who come to ECM are generally looking for help enrolling in programs like TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), Food Stamps (SNAP), Medicaid, or MAP (a low-income insurance program for those who do not qualify for Medicaid). They may also come to us looking for help enrolling in the Refugee Screening Clinic; applying for a Texas ID, Green Card, or EAD (employment card); or looking for assistance with housing, food, utilities, etc. Although we don’t physically provide food or money to our clients, we refer them to services (such as the Refugee Cash Assistance Program) that may help them while also encouraging their own self-sufficiency.

Because we are a federally funded program, we have many requirements that we must meet: we provide interpretation for any clients who speak languages other than English, provide parenting classes or information sessions to clients learning to acclimate and navigate in America, and provide statistics and auditing materials to federal institutions when required.  In ECM, my duties included:
•working collaboratively with interpreters to provide accurate information
•finding resources for clients in areas such as medical, financial, housing, and insurance assistance
•compiling resources in a city-wide resource guide
•providing Spanish interpretation or translation when necessary
•calling clients over the phone (with or without interpretation) to remind them of appointments, to set up appointments, to ask them for information, etc.
•calling other programs and organizations for information on their services or to schedule appointments
•compiling names, languages, and addresses for surveys, invitations, and other mailing notifications
•calling Texas Health and Human Services to change client information, request information, and schedule and confirm appointments
•other services as needed to assist caseworkers.

However, my main responsibility was to conduct intakes with clients in order to process them into the ECM program and start assisting them.  All intakes have a base line format of paperwork, demographic questions, and a needs assessment.  However, the vast majority of intakes are not so pure and simple; not counting asylees and parolees who come in needing complete resettlement services, we have some clients who have family members still in their countries of origin, some who have complications with their services for a variety of reasons, and some who are homeless or who have been days without food.  Then there are some who are more or less self-sufficient with only one or two items needed on our needs assessment list.  Although clients are allowed to stay with ECM for five years after their arrival to the United States, most clients do not require additional services after six months.

What can be most trying is when caseworkers know the available resources, but are unable to help the clients due to the insufficient supply for the demand.  This is especially true for family housing, which many clients request, but for which the waiting lists stretch into years.  Caseworkers always warn the clients that there is a long wait and tell them exactly how long it will be, but there is still frustration on the part of the client when they so desperately need help and we are unable to provide it.  As an alternative, I would suggest to my clients to enroll in utility and rental assistance programs and to call HHSC for a list of churches in their area that may be able to provide rent or utility assistance.  However, these forms of assistance are a little harder to obtain than others and there are few options caseworkers can provide.  This year, ECM submitted a proposal from its funding agencies for additional funds, specifically to form an emergency housing and rent assistance program.  When I left, it was still undecided if ECM would get these funds.

In addition, social workers are guided by a set of cultural values with which they are imbued, but which may differ from those of their clients.  Of course, these refugees are coming to a country with cultural values that are perhaps different from their own and must learn to acclimate and assimilate to these values and their related laws or else face punishment.  Sometimes this becomes confusing for our clients.

Across the board, our clients who come from backgrounds most similar culturally to the United States have an easier time acculturating or assimilating.  In her research on the acculturation of Arab-American immigrants to the United States, Mona Faragallah found that “Arabs affiliated with the Christian faith… may find life in the United States less challenging” than their Muslim counterparts who have to struggle in a society that not only has a strong Christian base, but also harbors a lot of discrimination against Muslims in general (1997: 182-183).  It is a very difficult and trying experience coming to the United States as a refugee, asylee, or parolee, but these and similar clients have an even harder time transitioning and assimilating or acculturating.  Knowledge of the cultural background of our clients allows caseworkers to interact with them in culturally sensitive ways and to understand some of where they’re coming from.  Of course, every person’s experiences and perceptions are different, but knowledge of a shared culture will undoubtedly help ease their transition as caseworkers work with them.

Working with Refugee Services of Texas provides unique insight into the worlds of both Micro and Macro Social Work.  Working on a day-to-day basis with clients individually allowed me to interact with people from cultures I knew little to nothing about. It introduced me to the world of refugees and human trafficking, both spheres of which I had very limited knowledge. It also convinced me that to make the Micro world of Social Work more effective will require change at the Macro level. The American public must be brought to greater awareness of Human Trafficking violations within U.S. borders. More case-by-case work is needed to preserve the autonomy and respect of refugees from the indifference of bureaucratic expediency. Policies need to be implemented at state and federal levels to protect refugees, particularly Arab- and Muslim-Americans against workplace discrimination. Through my work in Micro Social Work I was better able to grasp some ideas of what changes are needed at Macro levels to effectively serve the individual as well as the whole.

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