By: Amanda Phillips and Sarah Schafer
A refugee is someone who fears persecution while living in his or her home country, due to race, religion, nationality, or belonging to a particular social/political group, and seeks the protection of another country (Hodes, 2000). It is estimated that there is 19.2 million refugees world wide in which half of these are children (Ehntholt & Yule, 2006). Refugees have an increased risk to develop psychopathologies such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Conduct Disorder, due to traumatic exposure from war and leaving their home country (O’Shea, Hodes, Down, & Bramley, 2000). Many refugees will spend years in camps in which poor living conditions can consist of inadequate water and food supply (Lustig, Kia-Keating, Knight, Geltman, Ellis, Kinzie, & Saxe, 2004). Many of these refugees may then be sent to a foreign country not knowing the language (Kinzie, Sack, Angell, Manson, & Rath, 1986). These refugee children and adolescents are then expected to begin school at their age level, instead of their academic ability (Kinzie et al., 1986). A refugee child or adolescent may begin to feel lost between the pressures felt to perform above his or her academic abilities, combined with the burden of past memories, such as war and structural violence.
Structural violence may be more harmful than physical or sexual violence (Al-Sharmani, 2010). Once refugees have reached safety in the United States, they are put in low-income housing, face extreme poverty, and must live in a society vastly different from their own. All of these factors lead to great amounts of stress within refugee communities and families. In addition, changing gender roles may lead to more domestic violence than was originally faced in a refugee’s home country. Men often feel powerless to provide for a family, and are frustrated that wives and daughters are just as able to create a living as men in American society (Uehling, Bouroncle, Roeber, Tashima, & Crain, 2011). This stress manifests itself in physical and sexual violence against wives and daughters, who are encouraged to be empowered in their new community. Structural violence to refugee communities must be addressed to create a smoother transition into American life, but has yet to be recognized as violence by a majority of American society.
Problems, such as violence, pervade all communities. On March 31, 2008, a seven-year-old Burmese girl went missing from her home in the South Parc apartment complex. After police were contacted about her absence, over 1,000 community members and law enforcement officials banded together to search for the girl. The evening of April 1st, Hser Ner Moo was found dead approximately fifty-yards away from her home, in the basement of another Burmese refugee. After her death, various organizations and community members came together to create a safer environment for refugee kids of the complex, named in her honor, the Hser Ner Moo Community and Welcome Center. Now, the center’s purpose has expanded and focuses on assimilating refugees into American culture. Services provided include; English and academic tutoring, free health clinics, driver’s education classes, recreation, job assistance, and lessons in different life skills. The Hser Ner Moo Center’s mission statement is, “The Hser Ner Moo Community & Welcome Center empowers immigrants and refugees through the process of successful integration by facilitating access to resources, expanding networks and layers of service, creating opportunities for leadership, and by providing relevant, responsive services and support.”
Volunteering in the center, one can witness the effects of war and structural violence on a population of refugees, such as those from Burma and Thailand. After witnessing some these experiences many of the children at the center are at risk for behavioral, psychological, and academic failure. Westminster College began a new mentoring program with the center in January 2012. The mentoring program provides a mutually enriching experience between the volunteer and child. We have had the opportunity to participate in this mentoring program and feel it reduces the harmful effects of volunteers coming and going in the childrens’ lives. We both have found that our commitment to these children is beneficial for their ability to build and maintain relationships. Through home visits, we have had the opportunity to experience a small portion of Thai culture. An experience we have shared with a young Karen girl was learning about a Thai face cream called, Thanaka. This face cream signifies happiness and wards away evils spirits, along with making your skin smooth.
Our experience has allowed a certain sense of familiarity with Thai customs and cultures, which we feel will be beneficial for our Thailand experience. We are certain that there will be challenges immersing ourselves in a new culture, but we feel that our mentoring experience has prepared us to do this smoothly.