Stephanie Horton, a program facilitator at Refugee Assistance Program (RAP) under City School District in Syracuse has two decades’ experience working closely with different refugee groups. Her interest in languages led her to a place in Albany, the capital city of New York, called the International Center in early January, 1990.
Initially, she worked as a job developer to assist the refugees finding employment. As her interest put her further towards to the service of the refugees, she moved to Syracuse. In Syracuse, she worked at the agency now known as Inter Faith Works for a couple of years and in the meantime worked on her teacher certification as an English as a Second Language (ESOL) teacher. Eventually in 1992, she started as a teacher with the School District. When Bob Huss, former program facilitator of RAP retired, she took his place. Horton talked to Kazi Gautam of BNS about the assistance they have been providing to the refugees and the challenges that refugees have to face in a new country. Excerpts:
How does RAP assist resettled folks?
RAP tries to assist refugees to access to different facilities or directly provide many services that will enable them to become self-sufficient. We offer ESOL classes to adults, job development services, help with getting connected to the Health Care System. Mixed in with that, we assist with cultural orientation and helping to provide a framework in which newly arrived people can start to understand their new home. Thanks to the Refugee School Impact Grant that we share with Catholic Charities, a wing of United States’ Conference of Catholic Bishop that has been helping refugees get resettled, we are able to help by providing cultural orientation to K-12 students and their families and to help register the kids in school and provide support services to the kids, families and schools.
We also try to help refugees indirectly by educating the community at large and advocating for the refugee population. Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance (BRIA) provides us with funding to assist those who have been in the country for five years or less. Some people need assistance for a shorter amount of time and some people are needier and will seek our help for up to five years and beyond. In the current economy, it has become increasingly difficult to continue to assist people who have been here a long time, but everyone does their best to either help or find someone outside the program to help them.
Can you give background of the program?
The program started in 1978 as a temporary answer to the influx of Vietnamese refugees. It was clear that these folks needed support and when money became available for the program, the School District applied it.
Does it work in collaboration with any other agencies?
We collaborate closely with Catholic Charities and InterFaith Works on a daily basis. We collaborate with many agencies in the community and I see it as absolutely essential to our continued success that we reach out to agencies and organizations within the community.
Did you find any differences among the refugee groups?
There are too many to list here. That is one of the greatest parts about working for RAP to learn about all the different groups.
How do you evaluate the Bhutanese refugees’ progresses in terms of learning English?
The Bhutanese have been a unique group to work with as many have come with English skills. The young people have just taken off and I have noticed that some of the older folks have learned a lot as well. I think that one of the greatest strengths the Bhutanese community has is a strong sense of unity, which provides for a strong support for its members.
What could be the greatest challenge to the Bhutanese refugees?
Hard to say, maybe having patience. This is such a hard time and there are not enough jobs, classes are full-along with other resources being in short supply. I think in the long run this community will be tremendously successful, but this beginning period is difficult.
What about the aged people getting assimilated?
Not sure if they have been assimilating. I think that resettling in another country is the most challenging for the elderly. They are at a linguistic disadvantage, may not be able to work, may have health problems, etc. They are forced to rely upon the younger generations much more than they might have been at home and I think that makes for a difficult situation for them. I hope that they would be able to become somewhat assimilated but that it is a longer and bumpier road for them.
Number of refugees getting resettled have been rising. Do you think you can provide good services to them?
I think it is impossible to provide the same level of services to the people who are coming now as compared to years ago. More people are arriving and the funding, staff and other resources have not changed (actually despite the rise in arrivals, the money has decreased a bit). This is a source of frustration for many of us who sincerely want to help because there are only so little hours in the day and with this many things don’t get done. One of the most wonderful things about the Bhutanese community is that I see many people helping each other. That is a major strength that helps both the community and programs like ours. What we really need is a pile of money and double the staff that we have.
Where do you see the Bhutanese refugees in ten years from now?
In 10 years, I see a well-established, strong community with many successful members. I imagine Bhutanese owned businesses (including one or two restaurants) and most members living as productive, happy citizens.
What are the future plans of RAP?
To try and continue and improve the services we offer, to reach out more to the Syracuse community to help us with our mission and also to collaborate more with the ethnic communities we have served and continue to serve. Collaboration is the surest way that we will continue and thrive.
Any message for those who are planning for resettlement?
Yes, you should not worry about a new world. However, you got to learn some English, have some basic knowledge of computer if possible. We are here to help you get settled.