Cultural Orientation: Preparing refugees for the trip of a lifetime

Imagine you are preparing to visit a country for the first time. Most likely you are "reading up" on your destination's food and customs, where to stay, how to get around and what to pack.

Congolese in Zimbabwe
Congolese C.O. participants in Zimbabwe.
Photo: Joanne Mugambi, C.O. trainer

By Carol Fouke/CWS

 Imagine you are preparing to visit a country for the first time.  Most likely you are “reading up” on your destination’s food and customs, where to stay, how to get around and what to pack.

Now imagine you are a refugee approved for permanent resettlement to the United States.  Your questions about your destination multiply: How will I find work?  Learn English?  Enroll my children in school?  Make friends?

For a start at answers, all U.S.-bound refugees are asked to participate in pre-departure Cultural Orientation.

Sarah Krause is Cultural Orientation Regional Coordinator at the CWS-administered Overseas Processing Entity (OPE) based in Nairobi, Kenya.  She has worked with CWS since 2007, first at its OPE sub-office in Accra, Ghana, and then in Nairobi.  Previously, she served refugee resettlement affiliate offices in Virginia and Maryland.

Under a cooperative agreement with the U.S. State Department, CWS prepares the case files of all refugees in sub-Saharan Africa who are being considered for U.S. resettlement, then helps move those whom the U.S. government accepts toward departure – nearly 10,000 people from sub-Saharan Africa last year.

Normally, pre-departure Cultural Orientation, or “C.O.” lasts three full days.  It introduces refugees age 15 and older to key topics that they will be exploring in greater depth with their U.S. local resettlement agency post-arrival, including the role of the resettlement agency, community services, housing, employment, financial literacy, transportation, education, health, cultural adjustment, travel, rights and responsibilities and U.S. law.

For departing groups of 15 or more refugees, CWS C.O. trainers most often go to them either in the camp or city in which they are currently staying.  That’s a big job on a continent of 11.7 million square miles – larger than China, the United States and Europe combined.

Up until recently, CWS has mailed C.O. materials when there are fewer than 15 refugees to be trained, or when the refugees are departing sooner than the C.O. trainers can schedule a trip.

But to better meet the needs of the refugees and be sure all get at least some personal form of Cultural Orientation, CWS recently pioneered C.O. by phone.  The first trainees: 10 Congolese and Eritrean refugees in Zimbabwe.

“We sent materials in advance,” Krause said.  “The International Organization for Migration brought the refugees from their camp into Harare and ‘anchored’ the training.

"Trainer Jeff Wanakacha learned all 10 trainees’ names and called on them by name in order to keep them engaged.  The session lasted four hours, and hit all the major points of the curriculum, emphasizing self-sufficiency, equality and punctuality.  The refugees were so appreciative that, at the end of the class, they clapped for Jeff and then asked him to clap for himself!”

In February, Krause took part in a Washington, D.C., meeting of C.O. coordinators from Overseas Processing Entities worldwide.  The coordinators discussed ways to strengthen the overseas-domestic C.O. continuum and shared “best practices.”

Krause confirmed that CWS is the first to offer C.O. by phone, not just mail, when in-person C.O. isn’t feasible.  “This has been recognized as a promising practice and we’ll be working to build upon it,” she said.

Congolese C.O. participants in Zimbabwe.  Photo: Joanne Mugambi, C.O. trainer


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