By Elena Gilbertson Hall, Clarke Central HS (Athens, Georgia)
Lutheran Services Carolinas (LSC) works with newly arrived refugees to assist in the resettlement process to American life, including providing assistance in finding employment, enrolling in schools and managing culture-shock.
“We can work with clients for up to five years and we basically work with them from the time they arrive at the airport, so we actually go to the airport to pick families up, set up housing, help them access services and find employment, and of course the ultimate goal of the program is self-sufficiency (for the refugees),” LSC Area Manager Lindsey LeDuc said.
Many refugees served by LSC are fleeing persecution and often endure a lengthy and rigorous vetting process before being given a legal refugee status. LSC’s job is to work with individuals once they arrive in the U.S. to help them transition to their new country with the ultimate goal being self-sufficient. One of the first steps in achieving that objective is teaching job classes and English Language classes. These programs have had positive effects on refugees quickly finding jobs in Columbia, South Carolina.
“Employment has been booming. We have actually had employers calling us seeking out refugees — a lot of those reasons come down to that they are legally admitted to the U.S so they have a legal status, a work permit, and they are really reliable workers and they work hard,” LeDuc said. “(LSC) is here to work out communication barriers and cultural differences and possible misunderstandings.”
Two of the biggest obstacles facing many refugees once they are settled in the U.S. are communication and transportation. A majority of refugees served by LSC are families as well as not fluent in English, causing difficulties in adapting to the American education system.
LSC’s refugee and immigrant services education coordinator Laurann Gallitto manages the School Impact Program to alleviate these challenges.
“The intention of the School Impact Program is to work with the high school age refugee students in our city and assist them with academic tutoring, access to different resources and referrals to some of the services they may need, to make sure that they are successful in high school and ultimately graduate,” Gallitto said.
Gallitto, an Italian immigrant, has seen the educational obstacles faced by immigrants and refugees firsthand, which motivates much of her work for LSC.
“I’ve seen the unique challenges that people who don’t know the language face, and who don’t know the systems face because things are different here in the United States and the way that our systems work in contrast to other countries (is significant),” Gallitto said. “I was the first in my family to attend college and go on to graduate school, so many of those things (my parents) didn’t know about. They just simply didn’t have the education or the information. I always wanted to be that person for someone else and kind of pay it forward as sort of gratitude to the people who assisted us along the way.”
Another instrumental aspect of the resettlement process is religion. Although LSC is a faith-based organization, the organization’s goal is to provide assistance to refugees, not to convert them to Christianity.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever met with a refugee that did not identify with some sort of religion. We don’t care where they’re coming from or what religion they have, we serve them regardless. We have Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Jehovah’s Witnesses, we’ve pretty much seen it all. And we serve them the same,” LeDuc said. “It doesn’t matter what they believe, we respect their religion and they are allowed to practice here. That’s a huge education point: they are allowed to practice here, they have freedom of religion. And a lot of them have been religiously persecuted. They were a minority in their country — not always, but some of them are so that’s why they had to flee, because they were not able to practice their religion and were forced to practice another.”
Respecting all refugees’ cultures is important to insure that not only do refugees acclimate to the U.S. but they are also able to retain any of their customs, traditions or cultures that they wish to keep.
“Each person is different and each family is different. Some families want to leave what happened behind them. Other families are likely to want to bring it with them and what you generally see is a divide. The kids divide and adjust, they’re in school and none of their classmates wear a burqa or a hijab,” LeDuc said. “They tend to resist their parents’ desire to hold on to the culture and so there is a little bit of a divide sometimes between the children and the parent.”
LSC aims to have all refugees in the program become financially stable as well as comfortable in their new country.
“I want to see that Columbia, South Carolina, becomes home for refugees. They feel comfortable going to the grocery store, riding the bus and they know their neighbors and they feel like they have a place here, a place here where they know who their child’s teachers are, and they feel comfortable going to the school for parent teacher meetings,” LeDuc said. “They will go downtown and experience the culture here. I think for me when we talk about self sufficiency and the goal of (LSC refugee and immigrant services), it’s so much more than financial. It’s that emotional that sense they they feel like this is their home.”