Strengthening Refugee Families in Receiving Countries

Anastasia K. Brown, Director of Resettlement Services, USCCB Migration and  Refugee Services
Lecture given at
Women in Contemporary Society: Diasporas and Families

Parallel event to the Commission on Population and Development
April 12, 2010

Sponsored by the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy Se to the United Nations, Path to Peace Foundation, and the Vincentian Center for Church and Society at St. John’s University

I would like to thank Archbishop Migliore and the Vincentian Center at St. John’s for inviting me to participate in this event.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops is the largest resettlement agency in the United States, We serve almost one third of all refugees resettled in the United States through a network of over 100 Catholic dioceses.  This year alone we are planning to assist almost 22,000 refugees from many nationalities.   Currently the three largest populations we are serving come from Burma, Iraq and Bhutan.

Refugee women who flee their native homeland in search of a better safer life for their family remind us of the Holy Family that was forced to flee as refugees to Egypt. Mary, the Mother of Jesus, can be seen as the symbol of all women migrants. She gave birth to her Son in a strange city and was forced to flee to exile in a foreign land. Refugee families face similar challenges. Just like Mary, they fled their home and everything they had to save the lives of their children and their families. How heartbreaking if a family makes it to safety, only to break down facing the challenges of different cultures. 

Refugee women have often survived atrocities almost beyond imagination. Often their victimization does not end with the initial flight. Women are often subject to attack in transit, and in their country of asylum (even in refugee camps, where they are sometimes forced to provide sexual favors just to obtain the aid they are entitled to). Their adjustment in a country of resettlement can be particularly difficult. They are often reluctant to discuss violations, as they can face ostracism from their family and community.

Often these refugees are illiterate in their own language. Frequently, they come from cultures where the traditional role of women does not include working outside the home. Yet, in many cases, their husbands, fathers, and adult sons have been killed or are missing, and they are faced with trying to support their families alone.

Upon arrival in the United States, refugee women are expected to become self-sufficient within a few months. In most cases, both parents will be required to work to support the family. This often puts married women in a stressful position, as they may find their husband is resentful of their employment and work outside of the home. Sometimes, the woman’s work may provide the better part of the support for the family. Children often adapt to different cultures more easily, and the traditional roles in a family can become reversed. Parenting practices from their home culture may not be acceptable in the United States.

Our Bridging Refugee Youth and Children’s Services (BRYCS) is an award-winning national technical assistance provider to organizations serving refugees and immigrants.  As a project of USCCB/MRS, BRYCS strives to ensure the successful development of refugee children, youth, and their families by providing technical assistance that is locally-driven, builds long-term capacity, and promotes collaboration at the local, state, regional, and national levels. BRYCS is available for one-on-one consultation, provides a clearinghouse of resources and publishes their own resources developed specifically for mainstream and refugee service providers. 

The program highlights interviews with refugee parents, which best describe the struggles of women and their families in their own words. An Iraqi mother speaks of the difficulty on being a single mother in the U.S.: “It is very difficult for them… on birthdays because they wonder why he (their father) is not here with them…I try to provide everything I can, so they won’t feel their father’s absence so much, but there is only so much I can do.”

A Liberian mother describes the cultural differences that she has been faced with in the United States: “Here, the children get their own way, but in Africa we can [discipline more harshly] the children. Here you talk and need patience, you advise them not to do that…”

A Burundi mother highlights the challenge of new financial and responsibility issues that are present in Refugee families. “Here we both have to be working, providing parenting, doing the cleaning and cooking—that has been a big shift because we have been able to afford help with this before.”

I would like to highlight one example of a resource developed by the BRYCS program a toolkit for offices working with refugee families called “Raising Children in a New Land an Illustrated Guidebook”.  It is available in several languages, and it provides illustrations and text so that providers can also utilize it for parents who are illiterate.  It leads parents through examples of US laws and expectations such as the differences in discipline.  It can be downloaded at no cost, and has been extremely popular, even being used in other countries.

The resettlement programs strive to overcome problems through cultural orientations, mentoring, and empowerment programs. It is through our local resettlement offices that refugee families receive their first welcome to the United States. There are many wonderful programs that could be recognized here today; unfortunately I can only cite a few examples.

One such program is the Catholic Charities of Galveston-Houston, Texas, which has a Strengthening Refugee Families and Marriages initiative. This program consists of a series of four-hour, interactive workshops offered in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Farsi, Swahili and Arabic. The workshops address topics such as healthy families and marriages, financial literacy, U.S. laws about child abuse and family violence, cultural orientation and life in the United States, preventing alcohol and drug abuse, stress management, and employment. This program is particularly successful because it collaborates with other Houston resettlement agencies and has vital partnerships with several Houston-Galveston Area Churches to reach and support the largest volume of refugees it can.

A current Family Stabilization Services Program in Richmond, Virginia has been very successful in supporting refugee families who are at risk of losing their children. The program provides up to six months of in home counseling by a qualified mental health provider. This system supports the family with therapy, education services, skills training and referrals to community services. This program is able to help sustain families in need of serious help.

Recently, the Kinship Care Resource Network, at the Catholic Family Center of Rochester, NY won the 2008 “National Family Strengthening Award” for its program that assists families, in which; a child is being raised by a relative other than the biological parent. KCRN is a very innovative program that ensures families have access to financial benefits and other supports to meet their basic needs; increase kinship caregivers’ knowledge of their rights, responsibilities, and available services; provide parenting skills for the kinship caregivers; and improve the physical and emotional well-being of caregivers and the children in their care.

We ask a great deal of the families that we resettle in the United States. The most remarkable part is their resilience. They must adapt to our ever changing technological world. We must look at our own families to understand the new culture that faces refugees and their families. Our most cherished possessions have made families here in the U.S. more distant in their relationships. Many parents must check up on their children through their Facebook status or follow them on Twitter. Many parents only experience the joys of parenting via a cell phone. If you would like to watch your baby’s first steps from the comfort of your office, yes there’s an app for that too. Refugee parents must adapt to this world and it is our honored duty to show them they have the strength to do so.

Thank you for allowing me the time and the platform to speak on this most important issue. If you would like more information on any of our programs BRYCS has a wonderful website .