There just aren't enough willing hands to help refugees in new US 'homeland'
Boston — The summertime heat outside her family's dilapidated triple-decker house sharpens Padapsy's recollections of her first New England winter. Laos was long behind and adjustment to the rigors of a new culture - including the search for Americans who would help uneasy visitors - lay ahead.
Her family had never seen snow, nor used escalators, supermarkets, or laundromats. In their steamy homeland they had never heard of indoor heating. And when their blankets proved no match for Boston's snowy months, they simply did not know to turn on the heat - the central heat - in their new home.
It was an American friend who told them what their instincts didn't - turn on the heat.
Their friend had offered a simple and seemingly obvious suggestion. Yet for the family it was a priceless boost in gaining a cultural toe-hold. Padapsy, a young hair stylist who now can joke in broken English about that chilly first winter, says it's nice to know her American friend is near to explain the new situations that continue to stump her and the family.
In the lull between headlines and statistics documenting the waves of immigrants that have hit the shores of the United States since 1975 (837,000 in all), a network of American volunteers is at work quietly helping Southeast Asian, Eastern European, African, and Caribbean refugees to ease into the community.
But ''passion fatigue,'' says one federal Health and Human Services Department (HHS) official, is slowing the supply of volunteers, as the heart-rending stories of refugee struggles fade from front-page headlines.
Cultural orientation is the kind of intangible need that falls between the cracks of government and privately funded courses in English, job training, and urban survival skills that refugees so eagerly take. It is not something that can be gleaned from a film, a course, or reading a book.
Cultural orientation demands first-hand experience with an American who can, for example, explain the concept of an address to a primitive hill-country family who never lived on a street and never received correspondence like bills and junk mail. American friends can help Eastern European refugees get accustomed to searching for a job, sometimes for months, or paying for social services. These refugees come from socialist systems where employment is mandatory and social services are free.
''You just can't convey to someone in a very, very different culture what another is like,'' explains Art Shirk, a volunteer who works through the International Institute in Boston. He has been friends with a Cambodian, Nom On, for two years, and with Nom's two brothers and three sisters since their February arrival. ''At Logan (International Airport) we met Nom's family, and we said, 'Let's go,' and headed for the escalators and there was panic. It never occured to me they didn't know what an escalator was. It can be pretty scary if you've never been on one.''
Basic funding - 18 to 36 months of welfare and one-time aid that amounts to $ 525 for each Southeast Asian refugee and $365 for each Eastern European - will clothe and feed refugees and get them on their feet here, says Richard Parkins of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, an HHS agency. ''But,'' he adds, ''36 months of benefits is no guarantee of social and economic integration. So the volunteer program is essential.
''It is psychologically and symbolically important for a refugee to know there is a person to introduce him to the system. It's something that can be so easily done, it's not costly, and it's a very basic service. You want a refugee who feels safe and secure and supported,'' and that isn't something money can buy, he concludes.
''They experience their presence in this country like a child experiences being on the planet - they can be awed and vulnerable,'' explains Margaret Van Duyne, who runs a volunteer program called One-With-One.
The surge of Southeast Asian refugees in 1979 created ''enormous'' problems, as the influx surpassed the capacity of government and private charities in the US to orient refugees, says Mr. Parkins. So the US State Department mandated an orientation program in overseas refugee camps for 15- to 55-year-old refugees.
''Things that would strike you as very normal in your everyday life - street signs, escalators - are shown to the refugees before they get here'' in a five-month program combined with language training, says a resettlement official with the State Department.
The program apparently has helped, ''because we're seeing much more sophisticated people (arriving here). . . . Now they at least can answer what their name is, they know numbers in English,'' says Nancy Robb, director of resettlement for the Catholic Charitable Bureau of Boston, which sponsored 300 refugees last year and has 150 volunteers. But refugees cannot absorb a whole culture from classroom training, she says. ''They still need someone to familiarize them.''
One young mother from the hill country of Laos offers an example of why she was disillusioned with American life even after orientation. ''For food, you go out and buy it. We go out and get it,'' the woman says through an interpreter.
Even the short visits by Americans are important, explains Ms. Robb, because ''it may look like a family is doing well, but they could be sitting on a (utility) cutoff notice.''
Other volunteers spend countless hours with refugee families and become permanent friends. Padapsy's family is visited regularly by Jane Taylor, a teacher who works across town in Newton, but lives in the racially tense Dorchester area, where many Southeast Asians live.
On a recent weekend, Ms. Taylor, who is welcomed eagerly in a half-dozen of the Indochinese homes along Dorchester Avenue, led a pack of 20 children to a nearby beach. The troupe of laughing, almond-eyed children invited uncomfortable stares from some white residents, but Ms. Taylor met every stare with a purposeful but cheerful ''hello.''
Volunteers don't have to teach anything special, says Susan Freireich, volunteer coordinator at the International Institute.''The way a person speaks and acts on the street, everything you do, is an example of what it is to be an American, and you just teach by what you do,'' she says.
What motivates volunteers to take time out from school or work to help refugees? Harriet Goldstein, a One-With-One volunteer, who works with Polish refugees in Boston, answers, ''My parents were refugees from Russia and Poland, and this was something that would have made it easier for them.''