Every June, we celebrate World Refugee Day to commemorate the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees around the world. When a refugee family arrives in Austin, the Caritas of Austin team works closely with the family to provide everything they need to build wellbeing: groceries, a safe place to live, furniture, financial assistance, English language training, and employment assistance. The resettlement process happens very rapidly, though, due to federal requirements. A family must reach stability and independence within their first four to six months of arrival – all while being in a wholly unfamiliar country.
To help reduce the culture shock, Refugee Cultural Orientation (RCO) is a specialized four-week adult curriculum to prepare our newest Austinites for life in the United States. In their first week of RCO, refugees learn U.S. cultural norms, methods of transportation, employment practices, and various systems they may engage with in their new home. Only this first week is mandatory per government requirements, but because of your support, Caritas of Austin also provides three additional weeks covering gender dynamics, job readiness, and workforce development to better help each person reach their full potential.
This RCO program has long had positive outcomes in building wellbeing for adult refugees, but at Caritas of Austin we were finding that the children of refugees were also experiencing culture shock of their own, and were in need of support for coping with an unfamiliar school environment. Beyond the usual first-day jitters, children were entering a world of unknowns in an unfamiliar setting: a new language, new environment, and new social norms and expectations that must be understood in order to make the most of educational opportunities. “As Caritas of Austin always does, when we see a need for something, we find a way to do it,” says Adelita Winchester, Director of Integrated Services. And so we did. A week-long Children’s Refugee Cultural Orientation program was developed in partnership with Austin Independent School District.
While their parents are attending their first week of RCO at Caritas of Austin, kids now receive their own orientation where they learn to navigate the places important to them: classrooms, school cafeteria, playground, and more. They learn what it’s like to ride a school bus and what a school day will look like: how to go from class to class and where to put their belongings. Students watch videos and see a school similar to the one they will attend, and Caritas of Austin Education Specialists support them with lessons that prepare them for new rules and proper behavior. The kids also write and speak about their dreams and goals for the future.
A generous grant from the Andrew & Lillian A Posey Foundation has helped make this opportunity available to refugee children, and the success of the program is evident when speaking with the families who have participated: “We were all given information about American customs, how we should compose ourselves, and how people interact with one another in this country,” said one mother of four students.
Last week, spring graduates from the children’s RCO program were recognized and celebrated for their hard work, and each student was given a new backpack stuffed with school supplies. With a greater sense of preparedness, these students are looking forward to the beginning of school this fall.
We’re grateful for our community’s support and incredible outpouring of compassion for our newest Austinites. In working together, we truly can make Austin more vibrant for all. We hope you will join us this Saturday, June 16 to celebrate Austin’s World Refugee Day at the Bullock Texas State History Museum. Learn more about this free, family-friendly event HERE, and but sure to tag us and use the hashtag #RefugeeDayATX on social media posts about World Refugee Day. We can’t wait to see you!