Refugee Resettlement with a Cultural Humility Lens

“Madame Claire, use all your strength” is what I think the women laughingly tell me as I attempt to pound yams into the Beninese specialty of foutou. I’m embarrassed as I gesture that I am using all my strength. One of the women feels my forearms, shakes her head, and says something to the other ladies in Fongbe. While she’s not unkind, it’s pretty clear she’s remarking to them that I’m weak. I want to tell her that my forearms might not be physically strong but they are major conduits for my mental powers (e.g. writing, using computer programs), but I don’t speak Fongbe and neither one of us speaks very good French, so I mime “writing” and she nods in understanding. My message got through, but the finer points were lost.

As a teacher of English as a foreign language with the US Peace Corps in Benin, West Africa from 2008-2010, every day offered multiple challenges. At first, I was unable to perform basic tasks like shop, get water, or do more than simple greetings with my neighbors and coworkers. While my abilities grew overtime, I still stood out because of my looks, my clothes, the food I preferred, and the language mistakes I made. It was hard feeling incompetent but I knew that eventually I would go home where I would resume my position as a woman from the dominant US culture. I wouldn’t be in Benin forever.

My return “home” is in stark contrast to the future of the refugee clients that I work with in my role as Associate Director of Migrant and Refugee Services at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Our clients come from Burma, DR Congo, and Somalia, and due to safety concerns in their homelands, they will not return there to live. Instead they have to make Milwaukee their home, which for many of them means regularly feeling out of place and/or incompetent. As there is a lot our clients need to learn about the US to be successful, refugee resettlement focuses on barriers and knowledge gaps. We’re always looking at what we need to teach them. We hold the information and thereby the power.

In my experience training interns and volunteers in refugee resettlement, I’ve pushed back against this power dynamic by encouraging them to see the refugees they work with as capable people. This might seem patronizing, but it’s an important reminder. As volunteers and interns usually interact with refugees in situations where the refugee is learning something, rarely is the refugee the one teaching.

To this point, a few years ago resettlement agency staff, interns, and refugee clients volunteered at an environmental nonprofit’s event. We were tasked with weeding a garden. The refugees—all of whom had backgrounds in subsistence farming—quickly and effectively got to work while the college-aged interns struggled. One of them commented to me in surprise that the refugees were “so good” at weeding. After months of driving clients to appointments, filling out paperwork for them, and showing them how to do “basic” tasks, our interns had become entrenched in the mindset that refugees must always be taught.

This is where the work of Drs. Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-Garcia on cultural humility is so vital to refugee resettlement and other family-strengthening service providers. On November 5th, UWM’s Cultural Humility Collaborative Team hosted a talk by Dr. Tervalon. This talk was my first formal exposure to cultural humility and I’m excited because it gives a theoretical framework to the principles I see in action at Catholic Charities. Here are cultural humility’s tenets:

  1. A lifelong process of critical self-reflection and self-critique

  2. Redressing the power imbalances in the patient-provider dynamic

  3. Developing mutually beneficial partnerships with communities on behalf of individuals and defined populations

  4. Advocating for and maintaining institutional accountability

What energized me about Dr. Tervalon’s discussion is that instead of encouraging our volunteers to think of refugees as their peers, I now have tools to directly ask volunteers to reflect on their own cultural privilege and how it will impact their volunteer work when we train them for their new role. For some people, volunteering with refugees is their first intimate exposure to a non-US culture, or, if they do have experiences with refugees or other overseas experiences, they may be reproducing traditional power dynamics despite their good intentions. By incorporating cultural humility into our trainings, we make explicit to volunteers our philosophy of meeting clients where they’re at and lifting up the value of their experiences.

This is important to me due to my experience in Benin and in refugee resettlement. I personally and professionally know what it’s like to depend on others to navigate a new culture, how good it feels to learn myself or see someone learn a new cultural concept or phrase, and how much richer cross-cultural relationships make our lives.

Claire Reuning is Associate Director of Migrant and Refugee Services at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

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