Refugees in US suspicious of everyone
August 1, 2009 5:07 AM   Subscribe

My girlfriend works for a non-profit that helps refugees adjust to living in the U.S. On Monday, she has to show an Iraqi mother and her son how to use D.C. public transportation. The problem: since arriving in the U.S., they have been extremely suspicious of everyone and everything.

For example, their first couple nights here, they refused to drink water, eat food, or even open the window because they feared they would be poisoned. Apparently, the mother is also prone to screaming, hysterical outbursts, where she has claimed that people follow them on the street, or that their main case worker (at the non-profit) is lying to them about everything.

Not to be an armchair psychologist, but from what I've heard, everyone else in their family was killed in Iraq, so their behavior could be resulting from PTSD or the like.

How can my GF deal with this? How can she get these people to trust her, or at least not freak out, when she has to show them the Metro and bus routes?
posted by aheckler to Human Relations (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Seems to me that the non-profit should have anticipated something like this and sought professional assistance. Your GF is a well-meaning amateur, but this is probably out of her reach.
posted by megatherium at 5:31 AM on August 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Are there other Iraqi refugees/expats in the community she could introduce them to, who could vouch for her trustworthiness (and generally mentor the family through this transition)?

I hope they're receiving some sort of counseling.
posted by availablelight at 5:33 AM on August 1, 2009

They don't need to be shown how to use public transport - they need serious psychiatric care. If I were your girlfriend, I would refuse.
posted by Mwongozi at 5:52 AM on August 1, 2009 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Non-profits, especially in this field, have incredibly limited resources. I've volunteered with these non-profits before, and though professional counseling would be great (as megatherium suggests), resources can usually only cover the basics: getting refugees out of danger and setting them up with a place to stay in the US.

As far as introducing them to other Iraqi refugees/expats, that can also be dangerous -- at least from the perspective of your girlfriend's clients. Many of the Iraqis who have resettled in the US are terrified of it becoming known that they are here. Not only do they fear for their own safety, but they fear that if word gets back to Iraq, their friends and family could be in danger.

Your girlfriend is doing really difficult work and I'm sure she has received some basic orientation and training in how to work with the refugee family. In my experience, the only thing that really helped was time. Does the family speak English?

Just being willing to talk will probably help to build a foundation of trust. And being willing to start the conversation is huge -- but probably best to keep the conversation casual. I wish I had more helpful advice about the metro trip specifically because I'm sure your girlfriend already knows everything I've said. Maybe try going at an odd time to ensure that the metro is not too crowded?

Good luck to her and to the family. I hope they are able to find some peace.
posted by ihavepromisestokeep at 6:11 AM on August 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: ihavepromisestokeep has it.

From the GF: setting up counseling, which the non-profit is working on, takes time and can't be provided yet. The family speaks limited English; my GF will have to call an interpeter on the phone in order to translate some things.
posted by aheckler at 6:16 AM on August 1, 2009

Response by poster: FYI, I'm loaning my account to my GF for the day, so any further comments here are from her.
posted by aheckler at 6:22 AM on August 1, 2009

As to the call of the question, public trans, even in DC, can be rather stressful, particularly if done during business hours. I would highly recommend setting up an appointment with this family around 7:30PM. It'll still be light, but most everyone will be home by then, and there will be far, far fewer people around. If this women won't open the window for fear of being poisoned, I can't imagine that a DC rush hour would be a terribly pleasant experience. It might also be worth taking the bus out to a smaller station to start. Introducing them to the Metro system at Metro Center or L'Enfant Plaza is probably a bad idea. I'd pick a station which is only served by one line.

On to collateral matters. Two words: social services.

Since this family are refugees they almost certainly have some form of appropriate visa status. This should probably be handled on the organization level, but your girlfriend's organization almost certainly does not have to do this on its own. Entities exist to provide mental health services for those who can't afford it. She should look into them.

Though, I don't know anything about this family or their situation, but sounds to me like it might be worth asking whether things aren't perhaps going a bit too fast. They're obviously not comfortable where they are. Mom is quite possibly paranoid and has obvious trust issues. Might it be worth waiting a week or six? Just because the organization has a Schedule for how to orient refugee families to the US doesn't mean that The Schedule is what's right for this particular family. If your girlfriend isn't free to deviate from The Schedule as a matter of discretion, she might want to have a probing conversation with her superiors.

Come on, fear of being poisoned through your windows just isn't rational, even for someone from Iraq. That isn't how people die there, and even if it were, closing your windows isn't likely to make a difference for very long.
posted by valkyryn at 6:35 AM on August 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

Are there others at the non-profit (or another one doing similar work), perhaps who are more experienced than your GF and can give her some pointers? Maybe do a little mentoring for her to set her up with some trust-building techniques unique to this scenario?

(P.S. - Wow, what an incredible thing she is doing!!)
posted by bunnycup at 6:48 AM on August 1, 2009

Perhaps this might be of some use. IANAD and the post didn't mention torture, but the nature of the PTSD sounds familiar.
posted by B-squared at 7:24 AM on August 1, 2009

The PTSD Sourcebook might be a helpful read. It's a basically a textbook for dealing with people with PTSD. Here's another one at the library

Basically, I think you're being asked to to the impossible. It would be difficult to teach someone with little English how to use the metro even without all these other issues. For someone who has trouble walking down the street, I think it would actually be impossible. I'm not even sure it's wise to try.

Have you reached out to other NPOs working with refugees to see if they can spare a therapist? Ideally someone who speaks the language? I know there are a couple.
posted by meta_eli at 9:48 AM on August 1, 2009

Mundane suggestion: think about which Metro stops might be useful for them to know. Eg, do they need to use it to go to the grocery store, or to social services, or to a job, or to a mosque? If possible it would be good to introduce them to Metro at whatever their most natural Metro stop is. It would be nice if they had a map of the system that they could take with them.

Does she know if they have connected to a local mosque (or whatever religious community might be relevant for them) that might be another avenue for them to get help?
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:55 AM on August 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't have any experience with refugees, but I do teach English to absolute beginners. I'd say that getting a paper copy of the map they can follow along with - heck, get four or five and leave them around the house, in her handbag, whatever - will be key. Also make sure she knows these words (off the top of my head, these would be essential for understanding any metro system) -

- The next stop is.../What's the next stop?
- The last stop was.../What was the last stop?
- My stop is ... on the ... line.
- Excuse me, I want to go to ... .
- train
- ticket
- fare
- SmarTrip card - here's a quick guide
- What's the fare to ... ? (fares vary by time of travel and by destination)
- transfer
- open/closed (as in when the system opens and closes)
- limited/express (or whatever the DC metro's version of this is)

If you had really, really limited English, you could make up some simple flash cards with images on one side and the words/sentences on the other, then practice that. Also, it'd be amazing, though I can't find one online, to get a copy of the map, or just a description of the system, in Arabic.
posted by mdonley at 10:19 AM on August 1, 2009

Best answer: Pocket guide to DC Metro in Arabic (pdf)

The English version locked up my computer, but here is the main page with different languages.

I can't help you with the PTSD stuff :(
posted by desjardins at 12:13 PM on August 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

As LobsterMitten suggested, maybe a first step would be to have them use the metro to get to a place that's friendly and safe, such as a mosque or Iraqi-owned store. That way they could associate the metro with something positive.
posted by PatoPata at 5:33 PM on August 1, 2009

Not to be an armchair psychologist, but from what I've heard, everyone else in their family was killed in Iraq, so their behavior could be resulting from PTSD or the like.

Or, based on their actual experiences, their distrust of Americans could be, like... completely fucking logical.

I admire what your girlfriend is doing. I think baby steps is definitely the way to go. Accompany them on the first trips, take the same trains many times over until they become familiar, and then branch out very slowly. Don't try to throw them into the whole system at once.

Remember when you were young, and you took just one train (or bus) every day until it became second nature? Foster that.
posted by rokusan at 6:25 PM on August 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the help everyone, it's very much appreciated.
posted by aheckler at 6:46 PM on August 1, 2009

Find out if they're Sunni or Shia or Christian and get a local Arab from the appropriate community involved! You don't have to find another Iraqi expat, they might unwilling to reveal themselves, just find the right kind of Arab - preferably a woman, preferably one that dresses like your client (headscarf or no headscarf, jilbab or pantsuit, etc). You can do this is 10 minutes over the phone, the Imam/Pastor can probably hook you up with someone.

(Emphasis on finding the right kind of Arab, don't go to some random mosque or church - you need find one from the right sect/religion).
posted by exhilaration at 1:28 PM on August 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Agreed - try to involve a sympathetic extra who will be able to communicate easily with this woman. And for the love of god, do not make this woman do the math of figuring out what her based-on-time-and-distance fare will be. Get her a day pass, or a sufficiently stocked SmarTrip card.
posted by D.Billy at 10:31 PM on August 2, 2009

I highly recommend your GF talk to the client and work with them to determine how best to meet their needs. Ask them about their fears, as well as their goals. They may be completely different from her expectations.

The best way for your GF to get the client/clients to trust her is to try to listen to them.

The Iraqi embassy/consulate may also be able to provide materials that may be helpful.

As for the metro, take them for a walk around the neighborhood, and if it's not to far maybe to the next stop on the metro, and show them how they related on the map.
posted by gryftir at 11:19 AM on August 3, 2009

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