Fran Braverman, M.A.

© 2017 Fran Braverman. All rights reserved.

Note from the Author

Over the years, I have learned that although there is a universality that informs global cultures and languages, within these broader cultures groups show significant differences. Working with refugees for the last nine years, I have observed that members of the refugee community, regardless of cultural background, not only have unique needs but also an amazing resiliency and capacity for love.

By definition a refugee is “a person outside of his or her country of nationality unable or unwilling to return because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality membership in a particular social group or political opinion.” This document highlights the strength and needs of refugees.

Volunteers working with refugees also bring strengths and needs, however. In particular, volunteers often need to acquire knowledge of how best to assist. The ideas and suggestions included in this document were developed with those needs in mind. Since teaching is always taking place when volunteers interact with refugees, whether in informal home visits or in more formal educational settings, suggested teaching/educational strategies are also included.

When I began this endeavor, it was for my congregation that was sending volunteers to a local school where there were large numbers of refugees. My suggestions, and the categories I have outlined, have morphed into a document that I hope will benefit a larger audience. To contact me, please use:



at The UPS Store

520–742–6211 or email


In 1907, Ellis Island, off the tip of Manhattan, processed 1.25 million immigrants (most of them European), all of them heartened by their first sight of the Statue of Liberty rising out of New York’s Atlantic harbor. In dozens and dozens of lines, streaming through the gates, men, women, and children were asked a few questions, given a new “American” surname, and dismissed to find their way into U.S. culture and to assimilate into our country’s “boiling pot” culture. These immigrants chose to come to the U.S. in hopes of becoming a part of the “American Dream.” They were not served by a large and highly structured network of social services; social services did not even become a recognized field until the late 1950s and 60s.

Today, 120 years later, the numbers of immigrants to the U.S. continue to rise and are expected to reach 60 million over the next 30 years. However, the focus of immigration has shifted to a new arriving population of Middle Eastern and African citizens desperately seeking asylum to escape war, starvation, persecution, and even genocide back home. And the field of Social Services is now a massive network of official organizations — made up of both professionals and volunteers and funded by grants, private organizations, and often religious groups — that is charged with the complex challenge of resettling these “refugees.”

Refugees in the 21st century present a significantly different challenge on a variety of levels, including social, cultural, economic, and psychological. The optimum framework, within which professionals and volunteers assist refugees most effectively, should include an overall recognition of what the various team areas and members “bring to the table” as the process of resettlement proceeds in an effective and efficient manner.

There are two parts to this proposed handbook. The first addresses the strengths and needs that refugees bring when they arrive in the United States. The second part addresses the various categories of strength and needs to be considered in developing suggested guidelines for American Refugee workers, both professional and volunteer. It focuses on identifying areas of strength within the community of social service professionals and volunteers, as well as those areas needing improvement. Finally, it provides suggested strategies for working with refugees.


Strengths Refugees Can Draw Upon for Success

Refugees arrive in America having left their homes and previous lives, often under sudden and traumatic circumstances. It is important for professionals and volunteers to begin the transitioning process with a deeper understanding of the qualities and experiences these refugees bring with them.

  1. Refugees come from varied faith communities. The major religions include Christianity, Islam, Hindu, and various indigenous minority sects.
  2. 2. Many are well educated professionals and entrepreneurs. Others may have had limited access to higher education and career opportunities.
  3. 3. Men and women may have occupied specific gender roles within their culture. These roles may be defined differently depending on whether they occur within the family, community, or broader socio-political areas of the culture.
  4. 4. Refugees may be accustomed to engaging in rituals and following rules specific to their culture. These practices most often have shaped their previous family and community interactions.
  5. 5. Their inherent values are based on unique world views. These may have given rise to identifiable traditions and perspectives that affect intercommunication (reciprocal interaction patterns such as personal-space traditions, eye-contact when speaking), foods they eat, clothing they wear, music, and daily activities.

​It is also important to recognize the positive, and potentially adaptive, characteristics that refugees bring with them when they arrive in this country. These cultural, emotional, and behavioral characteristics should be regarded as strengths which professionals and volunteers can work with to make the transition and assimilation process more positive. These characteristics include:

a. A deep capacity for love

b. Dreams for the future, for themselves and other members of their family

c. Hope for a better life

d. The ability to be flexible

e. A willingness to learn

f. A desire to succeed

g. A strong work ethic

h. The kind of resilience that ensures survival

​With these inherent strengths, refugees can be encouraged and assisted to find ways to adapt to new situations without losing their cultural heritage. They may demonstrate the willingness to welcome and accept new friends. They may be eager to seek and experience new educational opportunities. They are likely to adjust (at least temporarily) to lower-paying nonprofessional work to achieve financial stability.

Refugees’ Prior Experience Presenting Challenges to Their Success

​The sudden, often traumatic dislocation of individual refugees, or entire families, is likely to present obstacles that must be overcome for a successful transition and assimilation into American culture and society. It is important for professionals and volunteers to consider these challenges as they begin working with arriving refugees.

1. Many may have experienced the sudden, often involuntary move to a new geographic area, usually far away from their homeland.

2. Many may be going through the grief of losing longtime familial and community support.

3. Those who have been through the death of family members and friends in the course of escaping their countries may be experiencing more severe and longer-lasting grief.

4. Some may be so affected by a sense of isolation as to present the symptoms of psychological disorder, particularly PTSD.

5. Many have left behind relatives still living in danger and experience the continuing stress of worry about their safety.

6. Families may find that adjusting to new social norms may create confusion and possible conflict.

7. Men and women may face difficulty adjusting to significant change in gender roles and expectations.

8. Younger members of families may wish to become “Americanized” immediately, leaving their parents or grandparents in a cultural dilemma.

Refugees’ Needs to be Addressed for Successful Transition

​Arriving refugees face transition and assimilation into a new country and culture that presents a complex set of issues which must be addressed by both professional and volunteer personnel. It is equally important to bring these concerns, if possible, to the attention of the refugees themselves so that they may participate in fulfilling them in a team setting. Within the community of professionals and volunteers involved, there is a system designed to direct refugees to the areas set up to solve specific problems.

​Refugee issues that need to be met can be divided into four categories: Cultural Assimilation Needs, Emotional/Social Needs, Adaptive Needs, and Practical Needs.

Cultural Assimilation Needs to be Met for Refugees’ Success

1. Refugees’ need for rapid inclusion into the American experience should be met by invitations to participate in cultural and social activities.

2. Physical and behavioral health services need to be culturally appropriate.

3. Professionals and volunteers need to transmit American attitudes and beliefs such as holidays, cultural traditions, foods dress, and other broad cultural norms.

4. Professionals and volunteers need to be sensitive to indigenous patterns of interaction, and the effect that new, unfamiliar patterns may have.

5. Refugees need to be received into an environment where no one makes assumptions or judgments about their previous cultural beliefs, social values, and faith practices.

Refugees’ Emotional/Social Needs to be Addressed

1. Refugees need to be welcomed into a safe, non-questioning environment where they can share their stories, including trauma experiences, when they are ready.

2. Refugees need a sense of community that makes up for family support lost through moving to a different country.

3. The varying ages of refugee family members need to be considered in terms of levels of ability to adapt.

4. Refugees need relationships and friendships that provide them with feelings of trust, safety, and appreciation without judgment.

5. Individuals and families have a need to be shown when, where, and whom they can ask for help on a variety of issues.

6. Refugees need to know when to dial 911 for emergency services (i.e., police, fire, and ambulance).

7. Refugees need to be informed of their rights with regards to letting public service personnel enter their homes.

8. Refugees need to have their personal/social norms — for example “touching or hugging” respected.

Refugees’ Adaptive Needs to be Addressed (largely in language category))

1. Refugees need to be immediately set up to learn English.

2. Refugees need to be made aware of availability of free English instruction.

3. Refugees need to be taught how to apply for federal student loans if attending English language classes at college level.

4. Refugees need out-of-home opportunities to practice language skills.

5. Refugees need access to bilingual dictionaries, including online, audio, and visual aids to bridge transition from native language to English.

6. Refugees need to be provided with translation/interpretation assistance.

7. Refugees need introduction to a wide variety of resources to support successful functioning in areas requiring use of English.

8. Refugees need professionals and volunteers to be patient and willing to repeat new language, enunciate carefully, or respond in appropriate ways to increase their understanding of English.

9. Volunteers and others need to be aware that refugees who speak little or no English may have particular difficulty with pronouns, adjective noun sequence, idioms, past, present and future tenses. Additionally, they may have difficulty forming unfamiliar phonetic sounds.

10. Refugees may find English Language classes to be a safety net whether they are adults or children.

Refugees’ Practical Skills Needed for Basic/Daily Functioning

​There are a wide variety of essential skills that must be made available by professionals and volunteers and acquired by refugees in order to navigate successfully through the social/economic services that are available, meet the requirements, and benefit from these services.

1. Refugees may need training on how to utilize technology which may be unfamiliar to them.

2. Refugees should be given information regarding available resources, such as clothing banks, thrift shops, affordable retail outlets for clothing, furniture and household supplies.

3. Refugees need assistance in learning the locations of appropriate faith and houses of worship, as well as same or similar ethnic social gathering places.

4. Refugees need to understand that translating English over the phone or on the computer is problematic.

5. Refugees need to be taught how to navigate the automated phone systems or computer websites in order to set up appointments.

6. Refugees need guidance and assistance with setting up necessary appointments for services, such as medical, financial, nutritional, and educational assistance programs. (i.e., Primary Health Care, Food Stamps, Emergency Cash Assistance, Housing Assistance, DES Vocational Rehab services, Behavioral health agencies.)

7. Refugees may need explanations and demonstrations on following medical care advice and on getting and using prescriptions.

8. Refugees should be made aware of opportunities for seeking employment as quickly as possible.

9. Refugees need to have protocol for job interviewing explained and demonstrated to them.

10. Refugees should be taught currency and money values as well as writing checks, establishing savings accounts, and using ATM machines.

11. Refugees need notification and assistance regarding filling out W-2 forms, and filing of tax returns for monies earned.

12. Refugees should be given the opportunity to tour the community and get assistance on how to get around. (i.e., transportation services, availability of bus passes, car-pooling opportunities, or purchasing and use of auto transportation requiring driver’s license and auto insurance.)


Professionals and Volunteers Interactions Considered Effective in Refugee Resettlement

​Receiving agencies, consisting of certified, trained, and experienced professionals, are often underfunded. They depend largely on philanthropic donations or grants from individual and organizations and/or assistance from various religious groups or denominations. Therefore, resources and personnel for making refugee resettlement even possible in the U.S., necessarily count very heavily on the willingness for a large number of volunteers to give of their time and resources to help solve this significant social challenge.

​The following sections address both the strengths that professionals and volunteers bring to their work with refugees as well as topics which might need special emphasis in order to be effective. These sections should be applicable to any paid workers and volunteers who have direct contact with refugees and refugee families.

Overall Areas of Strength Professionals and Volunteers May Bring

1. Many professionals and volunteers have advanced and higher education in a variety of fields.

2. Many bring widely varied life experience including familiarity with other national cultures.

3. Many have considerable ability and experience navigating the system refugees will face in the resettlement process.

4. They offer a broad perspective on educational opportunities and professions.

5. Many can offer knowledge, experience, and skills in specific academic areas.

6. Many have a significant understanding of how the American K-12 school system works — with particular knowledge of grading practices.

7. Increased professional staff and volunteers can enhance the fostering of small group or 1 on 1 instructional opportunities and relationships.

8. Many professionals and volunteers have sufficient skills to tutor/mentor in a variety of academic areas.

Emotional/ Personal Support Professionals and Volunteers Bring

1. Most professionals and volunteers are motivated by a deep desire to help.

2. Most are able to move beyond their inherent or perceived status and work effectively with refugees regardless of education, race, economic or social class, gender, or language barriers.

3. Professionals and volunteers bring an overall positive outlook and presence.

4. Most are eager to become role models and/or mentors.

5. Most extend acceptance of individual and families of refugees that fosters hope for a better future.

Adaptive Characteristics Professionals and Volunteers Bring

1. Many professionals and volunteers bring experience or are familiar with a wide variety of recommended teaching strategies.

2. Many are aware of the vast variety of ways to adapt and learn, and understand that these goals are not always reached by following a straight or standardized path.

3. Many can learn to be sensitive to discovering and capitalizing on refugees’ areas of strength for optimum learning.

4. Many are able to gain deeper appreciation of the customs and traditions of unfamiliar cultures.

5. Many are able to gain deeper appreciation of value systems different than their own.

6. Many are willing to learn enough of a new language to enhance bonding and bridge-building with refugees.

Professionals and Volunteers Need Awareness of Refugees’ Emotional/Social Needs

1. Professionals and volunteers should recognize that confidentiality and privacy are critical to creating trust.

2. Professionals and volunteers need to recognize that economic poverty does not mean refugees are not rich in other forms of wealth, such as closeness, shared experience, community support, and traditional bonding.

3. Professionals and volunteers need to understand that refugee families may have family members dispersed to many countries around the world.

4. Professionals and volunteers need to understand that other cultures have specific rules about greeting each other, so learning appropriate social behavior norms is critical. For example, side hugs may be acceptable but face-to-face may not be.

5. Professionals and volunteers need to recognize that refugees may have come from large, extended families and communities that were either structured differently than their own or unstructured due to the refugee experience.

6. Professionals and volunteers need to remember that refugees’ holidays may differ from American holidays, creating a special need for cross-cultural sensitivity to celebration traditions.

7. Professionals and volunteers need to understand that rapid-fire questioning may cause undo anxiety.

8. Professionals and volunteers need to be aware that refugees may be reluctant to talk about personal subjects and should therefore choose other topics such as sports, hobbies, movies, favorite foods, or what refugees like about their new city and home.

9. Professionals and volunteers should always ask for permission to take photos and should never post photos on social media unless refugees agree.

Educational Strengths Professionals and Volunteers Should Bring

1. Professionals and volunteers should be aware that educational strategies can be used with English Language Learning students of all ages, but with modification.

2. Teachers must accept every adult/child student where they are in terms of learning and build on that knowledge.

3. Professionals and volunteers should enter the teaching process without pre-determined or personal agendas.

4. Professionals and volunteers should know the importance of learning teaching techniques designed to effectively help refugees learn, including developing creative new ways of communicating information.

5. Professionals and volunteers should be aware that the curriculum of American/Western culture is imbedded with unfamiliar facts that must be explained so failure is avoided.

6. Professionals and volunteers should be aware that formal school learning may not have been available to the refugee.

7. Professionals and volunteers should remember that many refugees may not have experienced independent learning since prior learning may have been within an extended family and community-based model.

8. Teachers must be sensitive to the prevalent fact that instability in refugee life may interfere with learning.

9. Teachers should create structured schedules and lessons to reduce the refugees’ fear and anxiety of the unknown.

10. Professionals and volunteers should make note of the fact that in the school setting, if a student shares a personal issue possibly needing intervention, the administration must be made aware of and deal with the issue.

Recommended Teaching Strategies for Work with Refugees

1. Teachers and volunteers should utilize multi-sensory materials and techniques: art, music visual, and drama.

2. Teachers and volunteers cannot assume that all children have experienced holding a pencil, using crayons, cutting with a scissors or using glue.

3. Teachers and volunteers should employ and encourage interactive activities whenever possible.

4. Teachers and volunteers should create group-level cooperative learning experiences as often as possible.

5. Teachers and volunteers may want to develop cues so that students understand what is going to happen next.

6. Teachers and volunteers should select a limited number of behaviors at a time for mastery.

7. Teachers and volunteers should use behavior modification techniques and positive phrasing such as “I like the way he is sitting quietly.” “You tried 3 times and now you have it! Great!”

8. Teachers and volunteers should use reflective responses when told a personal story or a current traumatic or a past event. For example, “That must have been very difficult.”

9. Teachers and volunteers should ask direct questions often to determine comprehension, and should ask appropriate questions to determine students’ clarity of communication and understanding.

10. Teachers and volunteers should remember to moderate how rapidly she/he speaks.

11. Teachers and volunteers should reinforce skills and understanding by having students verbally explain what they have heard, read, or learned.

12. Teachers and volunteers should be prepared to clarify and explain cultural concepts and idiomatic or challenging English phrases.

13. English proficient students should be paired with ESL students whenever possible.

14. ESL students should be mainstreamed into regular education classes but may feel isolated and remain very quiet and disengaged. They may even leave the room unexpectedly during a class room period.

Challenges for Professionals and Volunteers during Teaching/Learning Process

1. Teachers and students may experience culture shock.

2. School expectations that are taken for granted by Americans may need to be taught and modeled.

3. Volunteers and professionals, and refugees, should keep in mind that learning often takes 2 steps forward and 1 step backward before long-term understanding/learning goals are reached.

4. Professionals and volunteers in teaching settings should be aware that “vicarious” refugee trauma experiences may affect them personally and should seek appropriate emotional, psychological, or other support.

5. Professionals and volunteers should be aware that they cannot fix everything — and in some cases should not attempt to.

6. Professionals and volunteers should not identify or compare their own life experiences with that of refugees.

7. Professionals and volunteers should not expect disciplinary norms of American education culture to be effective with refugee students. Visits to the homes of refugees to observe and to interact with parents may help teachers decide how to handle classroom discipline.


It has truly taken a small village to produce this booklet. I would like to thank the following people for being part of this journey:

Deanna Campos,

Principal, John B. Wright Elementary School

Julie Kasper

Director, Center/Sponsored by Refugee Focus

Karen Benally

Ph.D., Cultural Anthropology

Marcia Zacarria

Educator, M.A.

Marge Pellegrino

Director, Owl and Panther Project

Leila Hudson

Associate Professor, Middle Eastern Studies /University of Arizona

Andrea Hammond



Refugee high school student from Kenya who shared his bright spirit and ideas at Center

Rebecca Salome

My wonderful editor who made my ideas come to life.

And last but certainly not least, my thanks to Ismat Shafiqullah, who invited me to the Noor Women’s Association fundraising picnic, which was my first introduction to working with refugees and to Refugee Resettlement. I have been humbled to work with so many loving, appreciative refugees over these last years. These relationships have expanded my knowledge of humanity and the human spirit. I am most grateful!


Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Fran Braverman’s story.