A genuine welcome. Americans work one on one with refugees, immigrants

WHEN Jim Williams wanted his staff to mirror the largely Asian population in the neighborhood surrounding his McDonald's restaurant, he contacted a local agency called One With One. In the years since, he has hired a number of employees with Asian backgrounds through this innovative organization that pairs American citizens with recent refugees and immigrants on a one-on-one basis.

Through this close relationship, refugees acquire better English skills and a better understanding of American culture, and they are generally helped to feel more at home in their new setting - all things that can lead to better performance on the job.

``It's worked out better than I expected ... my turnover is down ... a couple of them are now training to be managers,'' says Mr. Williams.

``This is a very good job for them,'' he says, ``because they are forced to communicate, to look customers in the eye, and interact with them. One young girl was so shy. Now she handles waiting the counter with ease - and a big smile.''

Services to help refugees and immigrants resettle abound in large cities like Boston. They often offer English-as-a-second-language programs, but there are far more newcomers than spaces for them in these programs.

Beyond that, education programs for refugees often fail, says Margaret (Peg) Van Duyne, founder of One With One, because they take basically competent people - people who have learned how to escape torture and death, get money, and flee their country - and ``stick them in a classroom where they are given books, fed dead concepts or those relevant to an advanced technological society, but that are of no use to them in their immediate surroundings.''

The One With One staff encourages American participants ``to always be immediately relevant,'' says Ms. Van Duyne. As tutors, they often find themselves teaching language through trips to the grocery stores, banks, libraries.

The key to One With One's success ``is the individual attention,'' says Rithipol Yem, a bilingual teacher and longtime worker among Boston's Cambodian refugee population. ``I don't know of any other program that is providing such a personal approach.''

``What we're saying,'' says Van Duyne, ``is that a lay person can take a stranger and help him or her go forward.... Each partner establishes a peaceful center, self-esteem in the world.'' And this, she adds, ``is the key to world peace.'' Through this relationship, the American partners gain a personal stake in the life and progress of the newcomer. The greater portion of these relationships have turned into friendships that encompass families, friends, and social circles.

Brian Cody and Sara Ou, a Cambodian refugee, have been working together for almost two years now. ``We share important aspects of our family life with one another,'' says Mr. Cody. ``Like I wanted him to take part in Thanksgiving. He has given me a whole different perspective on life. When I think of his coming here, not knowing the future, and still having the attitude he does, the things I get anxious about are very small in comparison.''

In the last few years, about 470 Americans have taken part in the One With One program. The commitment involved is not light. It is, however, ``manageable,'' the staff contends. The American partners pay $100 for training and materials. They agree to spend three hours each week for six months with their partner, and to attend four evaluation sessions.

While the initial 19-hour training includes some basics on teaching English, its real focus is to force prospective tutors to evaluate their own prejudices and to give them an idea of the kinds of obstacles the relationship might face.

``You cannot have that refugee be slotted and stereotyped,'' says Van Duyne. ``You need to be humble and you need to be as a refugee - without the answers, so that you two can begin ... as equals.''

One With One warns American tutors not to set up unrealistic goals with their partners - a concern shared by other workers in this field. The key to helping the refugees progress, says Van Duyne, ``is to find realistic goals ... where they experience success and self-esteem.''

Of course, some partnerships don't work. Most often, the newcomers - many of whom work two jobs to make ends meet - do not have the time and energy to maintain the relationship.

Sometimes they feel that the partnership is pulling them too far from the safety of family and cultural traditions. And in some instances, the American partner just doesn't have the ``love and interest'' to sustain the relationship, says Van Duyne.

The partnership program is expanding rapidly, and the staff is beginning to develop related programs. For the last two years it has run an innovative summer program that pays refugee and immigrant teen-agers to improve their English and learn some basic life and business skills.

Recently, Van Duyne took the first steps to set up a partnership program for visiting Asian scholars at Duke University in North Carolina.

The five-member staff at One With One exists ``only with lots of faith in what we are doing,'' says one member. The program is funded by proceeds from an annual walk-a-thon, state and federal funds, and corporate and foundation pledges.

The philosophy behind the program provides a refreshing break from past models.

``For many years, refugees and immigrants have been seen as things, stereotyped and defined'' with a list of missing elements, says Van Duyne. We ``were more concerned with the form than the content. Now we have a holistic approach, an openness to the possibility that there's a whole person there,'' she says.

``It's not a panacea, but in general we think the idea is an excellent one,'' says a spokesman at the Massachusetts Office of Refugee Resettlement, commenting on One With One. That office distributes federal funds for refugees and recently rewarded One With One a contract to provide partners for 20 Cambodian widows.

``It links the neighborhood with the newcomer, and makes Americans advocates and friends of that newcomer,'' says the spokesman.

There is no race or social status requirement for participants.

The program does, however, seem to appeal most to white, middle-class Americans.

Officials at some refugee-related agencies do not see this as necessarily negative. It is especially important to give more middle-class Americans contact with the refugee community, because they're the most likely to be potential employers of newcomers.

Many American participants say they have become more open to diversity, to the ``foreignness'' they once feared. ``I wanted to get rid of exclusivity in my life,'' says Kathy Crockett, one of the program's newest full-time employees. ``Religion, social groups, business organizations, build in exclusion. I wanted to do work that was open to all.''

In interviews with refugees in the program, and public teachers and business people who have worked with some of them, the overwhelming consensus was that the program is meeting not only educational needs but also emotional and practical needs:

Mr. Yem says that he has advised ``quite a number'' of his charges to apply for a One With One partnership. Those who did had ``higher morale, and their process of integration was easier,'' he says.

A refugee was turned down for a job, then hired for the same job after six months of One With One tutoring.

A Chinese woman has received three job promotions to date as a result of her increased fluency and self-confidence, enabling her to finance her husband's entrance to the United States.

A terribly shy Cambodian, largely through the love and encouragement of his partner, has gained the self-esteem to become an interpreter for his community.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to A genuine welcome. Americans work one on one with refugees, immigrants
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today