Professor helps refugees assimilate to United States

July 26, 2018
Mark Lepore
Mark Lepore, associate professor of rehabilitation sciences, has been helping refugees adjust to living in the United States since the 1990s. He said refugees are the best neighbors you'll ever have.

You may, at some point, find yourself living next door to a refugee. If you’re not neighbors with one, you will most likely find yourself interacting with or working with someone who has been directly affected by the refugee crisis.

At the end of 2017, the United Nations Refugee Agency reported that 68.5 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes due to persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations.

In 2015, the number was at 65.3 million. In two years, the number has increased by 3.2 million people.

According to the World Economic Forum the largest number of refugees come from the Syrian Arab Republic, Afghanistan and South Sudan. In 2016, the United States accepted 84,995 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syrian Arab Republic, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Iraq and Somalia.

Clarion University's associate professor of rehabilitation sciences Mark Lepore has been working with refugees since the 1990s and says refugees will be the best neighbors you've ever had and encourages people to extend a hand to them.

"I first got interested in working with refugees when I was a school counselor at Baldwin Whitehall School District in the 1990s," Lepore said. "At that time the school district had zero percent refugee population but over a five-year period that population went up to over 15 percent of the student population."

He was involved in Project Liberty, a committee that helped to secure grant funding to meet the needs of students and their families.

Since his time at Baldwin Whitehall, Lepore has spent time working with, observing and supporting refugees through their specific support groups sponsored by the Jewish Family and Children's Services in the Pittsburgh area.

One Syrian refugee family that has resettled from Jordan to Sicily was Yasir and his wife Suhir and their daughters and son. They arrived in Sicily in March. Their family fled Dara'a in Syria in 2011 and lived in Jordan (near Irbid) for seven years. They stayed in Syria for as long as they could before the bombing, destruction and devastation became too bad. The day after they fled, their house was destroyed in a bomb. They had very little idea what to expect when they arrived in Italy and for the first 15 days they felt very isolated and questioned their decision. Much like the refugees Lepore helps, they didn't speak the language, and the culture, food — everything — was completely different.

"The challenges these individuals face in navigating their way to resettle in a foreign land are formidable, finding housing and employment, navigating transportation options, learning a new language, understanding new customs and cultural imperatives, to name a few," Lepore wrote in paper called "Flourishing in Partnerships: Observations of the Acculturation Needs of Refugees" that was published in the Journal of Psychology and Brain Studies. "Understanding their experience is vital for those assisting them to become successful as new Americans."
Lepore, who has attended support groups for refugees from Bhutan, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Sudan, and Myanmar (formerly Burma), said no matter which group he was observing they all desired to assimilate to American culture.

"It was uplifting to see that people from other parts of the world still see America as a place to be free to be who you are and to be respected," Lepore said.

However, coming to the United States isn't without its challenges.

Refugees often have to face many misconceptions about themselves. Lepore said there has been a mistaken notion that refugees are on public assistance indefinitely and that taxpayers are supporting these families.

"In truth, the families were only given three months of assistance and had to find gainful employment at that time while facing a myriad of challenges in terms of acculturation."

In addition to fighting untrue stigmas, refugees are also coping with the scars of the past.

"People don't have any idea what some of these families have gone through," Lepore said. "Not only are they escaping religious and political persecution in their home countries but they were also then often forced to live in refugee camps where they endured huge deficits in resources and lived with trauma and uncertainty on a day-to-day basis."
In addition to coping with whatever traumas they've endured, refugees must learn the customs and day-to-day practices of American culture and, often, their children grasp the language and culture sooner because of they are in school. While this can be helpful, Lepore said it often reverses the roles of the parents and children causing some frustration for the parents.

Lepore was able to help refugees in these support groups by discussing common cultural courtesies and customs to help them better assimilate.

One group got into trouble with women because they read female interaction as a signal that the woman wanted a relationship. Another group found trouble by pointing in someone's face, which isn't seen as offensive in their culture but is seen as a sign of aggression in the United States.

Refugees market
UNHCR / R. Arnold / January 2008

Refugees from Myanmar (formerly Burma) fill the street at Mae La Refugee Camp in Thailand. Across the globe, millions of people have been displaced from their homes due to their specific country's political climate or regime.

There also was some confusion, but also hope, about socio-economic statuses and how Americans can change their status, but in other countries you are born into a certain status or caste system and you stay there.

There also were hopes and fears associated with citizenship. Some worried that if they couldn't achieve citizenship, their relocation and assimilation efforts would be rendered meaningless. Others feared they wouldn't have enough money saved for retirement, because they will have only be supported by social security for a few years.

Another major concern for refugees is that their degrees often don't translate to the United States.

"For example, many individuals had degrees in engineering or law and came here and had to take menial jobs like delivering pizza, but they did whatever they could to earn money," Lepore said.

Lepore said he believe colleges and universities could potentially help fill in the gaps for these people in order to match their standards to ours. Then, they could perform the jobs they were trained to do, which he believes is better for society in general.

Lepore recognizes that the standards issue is complex for any college or university to undertake.

"However, I do think it could be done, but it would require institutions to review the requirements of particular countries to obtain degrees and then match them to our own standards."

In addition to colleges and universities helping refugees, Lepore said there are a few ways, we as citizens, can help refugees assimilate.

"Locally, one of the best ways to help is to just be friendly, show interest and understanding of their culture," he said.
Most local communities have a designated agency that supports families who are refugees and/or asylum seekers. One such agency in Allegheny County is the Jewish Family and Children's Services, which offered the support groups Lepore observed. People can volunteer and donate resources and money to these agencies.

Finally, Lepore wants people to understand "the appreciative way that they (refugees) approach living in the United States is readily apparent in their positive attitudes and they embody the vision of the American dream in that they still believe that anything is possible."


Last Updated 7/26/18