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Refugees learn what citizens take for granted in cultural orientation classes

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A Virginia state trooper pulls you over for a speeding ticket. Do you get out of your car and follow him to his police cruiser, or stay in the driver’s seat?

For most Americans, the answer is obvious: law enforcement officers will see it as a potential threat if the driver leaves the vehicle. But in some cultures, it’s considered disrespectful to stay in the car during a traffic stop, said Belyaneh Loppisso, program director of diocesan Catholic Charities’ Migration and Refugee Services. 

Learning how to manage normal interactions such as this is crucial for newcomers, so about once a month, MRS offers a cultural orientation class for refugees. Catholic Charities clients who have lived in the country less than three months learn how to obtain employment, interact with police and find all the resources they need to become self-sufficient in the U.S.

“This orientation is to introduce new arrivals to a new way of life and to educate them about their rights and responsibilities,” Loppisso said. “Really, it’s a continuous process.”

Mustafa, 20, and his sister Ayat, 25, were among about a dozen refugees attending a recent orientation in the basement of St. Agnes Church in Arlington Jan. 10. After a presentation about law enforcement by a Virginia state trooper and an explanation of services by an MRS caseworker, they sat down at a table in the church’s pastoral center for a pizza lunch. 

They said that they were already familiar with much of the information that was covered, but some things were new to them. 

“We learned a few things from the officer, like if I’m detained, I’m free to go” in some circumstances, said Mustafa, in flawless English. “I didn’t know that.” 

The pair, who began studying English as young children, left Iraq in 2006. They spent the next 11 years in Jordan, and in 2013, applied to come to the U.S., where they have family. They arrived two months ago, but both said they are ready to rely on their own resources. 

“We’re going to depend on our own,” said Ayat, who studied dentistry in Jordan and hopes to find work in a dental office in Virginia. “We’re fine.” 

Mustafa and Ayat are not alone in their desire for self-sufficiency. Eighty-eight percent of refugee clients eligible for employment obtain it within the first 90 days of arrival, according to the diocesan annual report. Eight out of nine refugees served by MRS are in the country because their lives were endangered for supporting the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many worked as interpreters and have valuable language skills. 

Despite these factors, an important part of orientation is managing expectations, said Loppisso. “We have doctor refugees, we have engineer refugees,” he said. They often have ambitions to work in the same fields in the U.S.  

“A medical doctor taking a job as a cashier at Target … It’s not what you imagine when you come here,” he said. But the reality is, clients “have to be ready to accept any available job in the first 90 days. That way they will be self-sufficient.”
The goal during orientation is to teach clients the most basic aspects of life in the U.S., such as how to apply for a social security card and obtain health care. At that point, they can look for new paths in life, Loppisso said.  

“We give them also hope. This is not just, ‘you are going to start from scratch,’ but ‘you will have opportunities.’ ”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018