Refugees face cultural barriers

Published: Dec. 22, 2015 at 10:00 PM CST|Updated: Dec. 22, 2015 at 10:18 PM CST
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By John Kanelis

First of a two-part series

Amarillo is known as a haven for immigrants, particularly those defined as "refugees."

They come here seeking escape from persecution and physical harm in their homeland. They come here in search of work and safety.

Do they assimilate readily into American culture? That's been a sticking point, according to Amarillo Police Sgt. Brent Barbee, who runs the police department's crime prevention unit.

"Language is the linchpin for everything," Barbee said. "Without communication, nothing else matters."

Barbee said the police department runs into difficulty at times while responding to calls for help from refugees. It has to do with how the police are perceived in the home countries of those who make the call. "Police and soldiers often aren't the good guys," said Barbee of some refugees' perception of law enforcement officers.

This presents a bit of a "cultural barrier," he said. "Are we past it? Not yet," Barbee added.

Thuraya Lohony, herself a one-time refugee, serves as the resettlement director for Catholic Charities, the organization known formerly as Catholic Family Service.

Lohony has worked with Catholic Charities for 19 years; she came to the United States from northern Iraq, the region known as Kurdistan. She calls herself now a "proud citizen of the United States."

"We take 160 new arrivals annually," Lohony said, explaining that the number has decreased over the years.

She said that Catholic Charities processes the refugees – who come here from some troubled nation, such as Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), Somalia, Laos, Eritrea, Kenya and Sudan. With the crisis erupting in Syria, Amarillo hasn't received refugees from that region, although it remains something of an open question of whether any Syrians will arrive here eventually.

"Those who come here need to have someone already here to sponsor them," Lohony said. "Often, they'll join family members who already are living here."

Lohony referred to the sponsoring family as "anchors," indicating that the new arrivals should "have to know the individuals or the family members."

Barbee said that much of the crime committed by refugees involves cases inside the refugee community. Given many refugees' inherent distrust of police, Barbee said, "They often don't call the cops. If they don't call, well, we can't help them."

Barbee has been an Amarillo police officer for 36 years and has seen a lot of changes in the immigrant community from the time he first joined the police force. "We don't see as much assimilation with many of the current refugees as we did back when I started out that we did with the Latinos," Barbee said.

He explained that many of the Latino immigrants he worked with when he was a young officer now are grown up, have reared their own children in Amarillo and those children do not face the types of language barriers that their parents faced years ago.

Barbee said students in the police academy today are given detailed instruction on how to deal with cultural barriers; Barbee added that such instruction was far less structured when he was going through the academy.

"Today, the officers need to find a way to communicate with the people who do call for help," Barbee said.

Given that many of the current refugees don't "assimilate" quite as readily as before, he said, the police department has to rely on translators. Often, the translation comes from the children of refugees who have learned English in school and can relay information to and from their parents, Barbee said.

Lohony said Catholic Charities has a team of interpreters who can translate roughly 30 languages. Refugees come as well from countries where citizens speak in multiple dialects, which places an additional hurdle in front of the translators assigned to serve as go-betweens with government agencies and the refugee community.

"We are able to get through to some of the refugees," Barbee said.

"Yes, we have cultural issues," he added, "but you can get around them if you have a common language. That would be English."

Next week: KFDA NewsChannel 10 talks to a dispatch supervisor about the unique issues facing those who answer emergency calls from refugees.

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