A Helping Hand in a Foreign World
November 6th, 2008
Understanding the difficulties of recent African and Asian refugess & how one group is providing much needed help.
-by Nick Smith
Amram Musungu arrived from Nairobi, Kenya ten years ago with $50.00 in his pocket. He worked odd jobs to pay his way through college and has created success in his life. Musungu is one of two black members in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and received his Bachelor's Degree in Accounting. Musungu has personally worked with over 400 African refugees and has successfully created a charitable organizations to assist them.
Musungu is a volunteer helping families who have little or no comprehension of how to do simple things like using faucets on a shower or the dials on a washing machine -- devices they never used before arriving in Salt Lake City. Musungu knows how refugees can easily get a jolt when first attempting to plug in appliances -- unknowingly placing their fingers between the prongs and the socket. Refugee families and their children are often innocent and naive to the difficulties and obstacles of modern Western society, most want nothing more than to become productive American citizens. However, cultural trappings and lingual
differences often hinder assimilation and education.
Musungu says, without education programs, many refugees will never be productive citizens. He says the younger refugees want to adopt the "Tupak" gangster lifestyle found among many poor American born children. The result is they lack desire to educate themselves or set realistic career goals. Musungu and other volunteers are successfully teaching children principles regarding finances, work ethics and morality. Another big hurdle is teaching refugees contemporary methods of handling problems, because the African ways don't usually go over with American authorities.
In Africa men are always the patriarchal leader of the family. It is not uncommon for African men to beat their wives and children when they determine they are acting unruly. Volunteers have found It is customary in Africa for even neighbors to discipline children -- which usually arrives in the form of beating. Musungu and Angels in Action (AIA) are teaching men how to communicate and discipline in more acceptable ways. However, one recent immigrant says he can still discipline his child by threatening to send him back to Africa to live on a dirt floor with cousins and relatives, who won't hesitate to beat him when needed.
Musungu stresses the importance of effective volunteers in areas such as discipline and family communication. Musungu believes, "If we don't work together as a community keeping [refugees] busy, we are going to spend more money on jails."
The difficulty in handling and helping refugees is not readily understood by the general public because of the lack of understanding of prior living conditions.
Although Nairobi is the largest city in Kenya and host to many contemporary American businesses like Coca Cola, GE and Cisco systems, most residents live in dire poverty; experiencing the ravishing effects of Aids, high crime, as well as very few jobs. Musungu began the Musungu HIV-Aids Support Organization in Utah and has helped many who suffer from AIDS. Besides providing help through his own organization Musungu is also providing assistance to families who have arrived from places such as Burundi, Congo and Ruwanda. But according to many refugee leaders there are not enough volunteers providing assistance to refugees, which has led to serious difficulties for government offices.
Gerald Brown of the new State Office of Refugee Services said on KCPW News Radio earlier this year ,"Utah's refugee services are not well-equipped to handle the large number of refugees being resettled in the state." Brown added that the biggest challenge to the system is, "tracking refugees after their social service benefits end. While the number of refugees has declined since the 80s and 90s, today's refugees require more services."
Brown attributes the increase in service requirements due to recent immigration trends. "Twenty years ago, refugees were mostly Russian or Bosnian. While different cultures, they were still based in Western philosophy. Now, many are from Africa, Asia and the Middle East and their cultural differences are greater," says Brown. In order to accommodate the added needs and services, a local non-profit organization is working to do the added work the government cannot manage.
Angels in Action is a Utah based company that assists this refugee community by pairing refugees with volunteers. Volunteers "Adopt" a family and teach them how to do everything from using showers, to understanding the spin cycle on their dryers. Once these simple tasks are taught volunteers then move on to more complicated things such as learning English, mixing with the right crowd and finding a job.
Diane Bates, one of the founding members of AIA, has been working to establish alliances with corporations, individuals, governments and civic groups. These associations provide funding and resources for immigrants. AIA also manages donation drives to collect household items such as dish soap, clothing, food, furniture and other staples for survival from local residents and businesses.
Through workshops and seminars, AIA is helping refugees to become productive residents. To this end, AIA also provides opportunities for young refugees to have positive community involvement through service projects and cultural events. These gatherings enable refugees to continue their own customs and culture. Bates says that maintaining their cultural identity is critical towards preventing immigrants from adopting urban ghetto culture, or joining gangs; which could result in them getting involved in illegal activity. Diane says, "The winds of change are carried in the hands of service."
"My family has been so blessed by the experience and have learned a great deal about other cultures," Bates says. Currently AIA is in the process of creating a less time intensive volunteer opportunity called the "Special Friend Program". This will allow volunteers to assist with less time commitment. Its Bates' hope that this new level of opportunity will attract a greater number of critically needed volunteers to meet the new challenges of the recent refugee immigrants.
Recently, 200 refugees arrived to Salt Lake City from Nepal. Many were exiled from Bhutan and have lived in refugee camps for more than 17 years. Purna (21) and his brother Saughed (17) said they lived most of their lives in these refugee camps. "America is like Heaven, Nepal is like Hell," says Purna "We are so happy to have the opportunities that we have in America." They are receiving valuable assistance from the state and the Angels group and are willing to do whatever it takes to become acclimated to our customs.
It is time for us to assist these people in learning our culture and cultivating great moral character. Many of them come with this natural affinity to be productive, others deserve more of our mentoring. Take the action now and become an Angel in Action!
If you would like to become a mentor with Angels in Action visit their website at www.angelsinactionlmt.org.
My family felt called to serve one of these deserving families from Nepal and my daughters feel happier just knowing them. I knew it would be a valuable life lesson for my entire family to reach out to these courageous people who risked it all to come to America. We have much to learn from them!
Angels in Action Rocks!!!
From Luke Zeleznick
Angles in action is such a great program that assits with refugees! Great job