Hundreds of thousands of people around the world desperately wish to leave their homelands and travel to the United States for a variety of reasons. Often, their dreams for a new life parallel the motivations that caused the Pilgrims to leave their own homelands for America.
Many who hope to escape war, persecution, famine and poverty believe they will find relief on U.S. soil. A Bosnian couple — who fled persecution and war to eventually settle in Richmond, Virginia — expressed to a local press outlet, “We want a normal life and jobs. … We just want a future for our daughter’” (fmchr.ch/perfectlyamerican).
However, immigrants often meet challenges upon their arrival that they never anticipated. These difficulties range from navigating legal complications to understanding complex transportation systems, securing living arrangements and employment, and battling culture shock, psychological distress, depression and despair.
For immigrants and refugees, relocating to the United States is no small feat. According to “Becoming Intercultural” author Young Yun Kim, “The process of crossing cultures challenges the very basis of who we are as cultural beings.”
Though various agencies have been instituted to assist immigrants and refugees from the moment they arrive on United States soil, the immigrant and refugee population still experiences a wide range of emotional, psychological and physical stress during their first year in the States. Many have never experienced anything like the lifestyle that we take for granted and must transition unaided to the modern conveniences typical of American life. Former Mayor Lee Swaney of Clarkston, Georgia, described this phenomenon in a congressional report on refugee resettlement: “I know that when the health department and I went into some of these [refugees’] apartments you would not believe what we saw. They had no idea how to live in one of these places and I fault the agencies that brought them here” (fmchr.ch/auacongress).
In “The Art of Crossing Cultures,” author Craig Storti describes the profound effects of living in a culture different than one’s own. Immersing oneself in a new culture almost always causes the absence of everything familiar. Everything from hygiene routines to food choices to methods of transportation must be relearned. New habits must be formed, and once-familiar options must be lived without. When the necessity of constant adjustment and relearning is concentrated into a small amount of time, lasting stress may affect the body and spirit.
Another formidable difficulty that immigrants and refugees face upon arriving in the United States is the language barrier. More often than not, immigrants reach the United States with a less-than-fluent grasp of English, and refugees often arrive with even less English experience. A 2009 study by the Georgetown Law Human Rights Institute — based on consultations with Iraqi refugee communities in Washington, D.C.; Detroit; San Diego and the country of Jordan — found that “refugees have difficulty accessing
English language training, the quality of instruction is poor, and there are simply not enough classes available for all refugees.”
Language barriers cause huge difficulties and make simple interactions seem like daunting feats. Employment, transportation, legal responsibilities and receiving assistance in each of these areas are more difficult without a firm grasp of English. A study of a group of Burmese refugees provides another example of the stress the language barrier can cause. Besides the drastic lifestyle changes that most immigrants and refugees face upon arrival, other differences between the United States culture and cultures left behind can cause difficulties. For instance, refugees and immigrants may not take necessary safety precautions because they didn’t experience the same types of crime and robbery in their homelands, and thus may be targeted by criminals when they settle in urban settings.
Our economic system, much more complex than the survival environment that many refugees escape from in their trek to the United States, can become an insurmountable challenge for immigrants and refugees. According to a 2010 congressional report on the state of the U.S. refugee resettlement program, “many refugees lack a legitimate shot at becoming employed, conversant, and self-sufficient under the current system” (fmchr.ch/auacongress) and are, therefore, much more susceptible to inescapable poverty.
Though surface-level culture differences cause some difficulty, experiencing fundamental differences between cultural norms and values can cause deeper problems. Americans don’t often realize the depth to which cultures can differ from each other because we’ve only experienced our own. In “The Art of Crossing Cultures,” intercultural communications expert Craig Storti writes, “Because of cultural differences – different, deeply held beliefs and instincts about what is natural, normal, right, and good – cross-cultural interactions are subject to all manner of confusion, misunderstanding and misinterpretation.”
Many cultures hold to values, social expectations and methods of interpersonal interaction fundamentally different than those considered “normal” in the United States. In the book “Today’s Immigrants: Their Stories,” an Italian immigrant exemplifies a fundamental difference in social values between American and immigrant cultures: “At parties, you [Americans] ask people what they ‘do.’ For us [Italians] that’s really rude. And what is most embarrassing is how you talk about how much progress you’ve made. Even your presidents brag about how poor they used to be. …. We never talk about [that] – except to our closest friends who already know. Here in America, I never know what to say when somebody starts to tell me how successful he is. I am embarrassed.”
These types of value differences make it difficult for immigrants and refugees to relate with others in American culture. Misunderstandings between cultures are far from a one-way street. Americans expect immigrants and refugees to conform to U.S. cultural norms and are often taken aback or offended by the differing points of view they encounter in new arrivals. According to Kim, “Hosts tend to expect greater cultural conformity and proficiency from sojourners staying for longer periods, especially immigrants, and may react negatively when their expectations are not met.”
Immigrants and refugees often confront blazing misconceptions of their homelands and cultures. These cultural misunderstandings can make the transition to American life overwhelming. The stress of the resettlement process can cause myriad ailments for immigrants and refugees. Psychologically, the effects of sudden change and culture shock can wreak havoc on the mental well being of immigrants and refugees. These stressors can build over time and cause lasting mental disorders and lapses if they aren’t dealt with in a healthy manner. During the resettlement process, even physical health can be affected.
Resettlement for immigrants and especially refugees can cause significant mental and physical ailments that can become permanent if they don’t receive assistance in the acclimation process. The circumstances that necessitated their relocation to the United States often involved a great deal of mental and physical stress (especially in the case of refugees who, by definition, are fleeing from war or another form of involuntary expulsion from their homeland). Coupled with the challenge of meeting basic physical needs, refugees and immigrants are uniquely susceptible to the stress of culture shock and other psychological burdens. We as the church need to recognize the amplified magnitude of the needs that our immigrant and refugee populations encounter.
Lauren Schwaar is a 2013 graduate of Greenville College. While a Greenville student, she wrote an honors thesis on the role of the U.S. church in caring for immigrant and refugee communities.
- Have you had misconceptions about immigrants from another culture? Do you know someone else who has had misconceptions?
- What can the church do to help immigrants and refugees adjust to life in the United States?