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Orientation program helps refugees in Baltimore

At the Baltimore Orientation Center in Highlandtown, where refugees from distant countries learn practical skills to succeed in America, one of their most valuable lessons comes from a game of musical chairs.

"This game is a little bit like looking for a job. Can you tell me how?" coordinator Sara Bedford asked after a recent game among a dozen men and women who had fled Burma, a Southeast Asian country also called Myanmar that is under de facto military rule.

"When they give you an interview time, you need to go fight," answered Nang Nu Nu Khaing, 38, who arrived in the U.S. last month and has two teenage children. "You have to motivate yourself."

Bedford put an even finer point on the comparison: In musical chairs, competitors usually head for the closest chair; if they're choosy, they lose. For your first job in the U.S., she tells them, you can't be picky.

The International Rescue Committee's five-day cultural orientation program, developed by the group's Baltimore office, is responsible for helping hundreds of new residents adapt to their new home. Lessons cover a range of topics, such as how to behave in a job interview, ride in an elevator and write a check for utilities toBaltimore Gas and Electric Co.

Most of the refugees come from Burma and Bhutan, Iraq, Eastern Europe and Africa. They're primarily drawn to Baltimore by rapidly expanding networks of family and friends resettled in and around the area.

The IRC, which has operated in Baltimore since 1999 and is currently the city's only resettlement organization, has steadily increased the number of refugees it assists in Maryland each year.

A decade ago, fewer than 200 refugees — predominantly from Africa and Eastern Europe — were helped by the organization. In its most recent fiscal year, almost 800 refugees were settled in the Baltimore area by the IRC, and more than two-thirds were from Bhutan or Burma.

In the Burmese group's game of musical chairs, filled with laughter over pop music, the final competitors were Ngun Khen, 29, and her husband, John Biak Peng, 31, who arrived in the U.S. at the end of January.

"I am so happy," said Khen, after claiming the last empty chair. She grinned as two interpreters — one to translate Burmese, a second to translate a regional language called Hakha Chin — relayed the winner's message to the rest of the competitors.

It took the IRC more than a year to develop a week's worth of lessons, like this one, that would stick in refugees' minds.

Before starting the program in June, IRC caseworkers, located in its Baltimore Resettlement Center across the street from the classroom building, had to provide orientations to refugees individually.

Training efficiency is key for the organization, which has limited space and personnel but a growing demand for services. The ground-floor waiting room of the resettlement center is frequently crowded with refugees seeking assistance.

Over the five days of orientation, refugees are introduced to the resources available from the IRC and Lutheran Social Services, which offers employment placement assistance and has counselors at the resettlement center.

"It provides refugees with power and with information," said Bedford.

In one portion of an employment class, groups of refugees decide what they would do in hypothetical work scenarios, such as choosing between a job that pays under the table and one that deducts payroll taxes.

"Refugees are often excited to pay taxes and make use of the benefits from those taxes, like schools and roads," Bedford said.

Two days deal with housing issues, safety and budgeting. The students practice dialing 911 and are taught the basics of depositing money in a bank, an institution unfamiliar to most of the refugees.

The last day of class covers health insurance and visiting the doctor. The session culminates in a tour of Baltimore Medical System's Highlandtown facility, a community health center that has partnered with the IRC to welcome refugees and offers interpreters who speak a half-dozen languages.

The tour includes a primer on riding an elevator.

"When it comes, notice that the top one lights up," said IRC health advocate Karine Nankam, pointing to the glowing signals above the lobby's elevator bank.

Working well for a growing population

More than eight in 10 of the IRC's arrivals since June have gone through the orientation program; that's just over 360 people.

"Our goal is to get everybody the key information as quickly as possible," Bedford said Wednesday, shortly after the end of the final day of the Burmese group's class. "Our goal is to have them become part of the fabric of Baltimore."

The program is getting good reviews from both IRC staff and the students.

"Caseworkers say that [the refugees] understand these core concepts much better" than when orientation was offered on an individual basis, Bedford said. For instance, she said, refugees who have gone through the program seem to have less confusion about when their cash assistance is scheduled to end.

Plus, she said, the classroom environment gives the refugees an opportunity to talk about the daily issues they face, no matter how small.

"At the lunch break, you'll hear one person telling the others, 'I tried to use my [bus] pass, and it didn't work and I had to pay money,'" Bedford said.

Bawi Sang, a 21-year-old who came to the U.S. in mid-December, was originally settled by the government in Burlington, Vt. He soon moved to Baltimore and was part of the orientation class that ended Wednesday.

There was no one up north, he said, who spoke his language. But the network of Hakha Chin speakers, who originate from a northwestern state of Burma, is strong in Baltimore.

"We don't know anything about America" upon arrival, Sang said through an interpreter. He has never been to school and cannot read or write. He lived for four years without documents in Malaysia, fearful of arrest and deportation, before getting permission to come to the U.S.

So far, he said, the adjustment has not been difficult. The ease of the transition has come, in part, from the orientation program.

He lives in southwestern Baltimore County, near the city line, is taking English classes during the day — Baltimore City Community College has a classroom inside the IRC's orientation center — and started a night job this week at Under Armour.

A first graduation

At the end of the whirlwind program comes another first for most of the refugees: a graduation ceremony, complete with a certificate and handshakes.

The informal ceremony, held in a first-floor room that looks out onto the intersection of Eastern Avenue and South Conkling Street, is used to reinforce lessons from the class on social interaction.

Before receiving a certificate of completion, refugees are asked to introduce themselves in English, both formally and informally, and then say "Nice to meet you." Sometimes the refugees offer their street addresses.

Then diplomas are handed out and the refugees go through a round of handshakes from IRC staff members.

"And remember the good United States handshake, not the bad handshake, right?" Bedford told her row of students through the two interpreters before handing out their certificates of completion. She held a hand out in front of her, hanging from a limp wrist, demonstrating a shake that Americans find unappealing.

It was just one of the many lessons John Biak Peng — who lost the game of musical chairs to his wife — intends to remember from the orientation program as he starts his new life in Maryland.

After more than six years living without legal status in Malaysia and struggling to find jobs, the couple spent a day in Florida before moving in with relatives, also refugees, who settled in Savage.

Peng said he had to leave a younger brother in Malaysia, but they hope he will join them soon in Howard County.

"For the first time, we'll have to stand on our own" in the U.S., Peng said through an interpreter after the ceremony. "It's taught us a lot and we've learned a lot, like how to use insurance and get a doctor's appointment."

"Find a job," his wife chimed in.

Before everyone parted ways, to meet with IRC case managers for one-on-one advice, Thang Cio Tluang Ceu, a member of the class who became known for making speeches over the course of the orientation program, asked to say a few words.

He thanked the orientation staff and closed the graduation by saying, through a Hakha Chin interpreter, "God bless America."

steve.kilar@baltsun.com

twitter.com/stevekilar

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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