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How to be a cultural broker

Things you can to help refugees in your town.
By Mary Pipher
July/August 2002 7.1.02

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There are two main ways that refugees are educated. One is through the media and omni-present advertising. The second is through cultural brokers—schoolteachers, caseworkers, public health nurses, and American friends who may teach them to make intentional decisions about what to accept and what to reject in America. Cultural brokers help ease people into each other’s cultures. Foucault wrote that “information is power.” Cultural brokers give newcomers information that directly translates into power.

Here are some ways to help:

  • Come to the assistance of refugees whenever you can, on the streets, in the stores, especially when you see someone looking lost or confused.

  • Help when you can identify that help is needed. For example, a woman in Lincoln knew a boy with an Afghan mother who didn’t have anyone to help him with homework. She volunteered to go to the school one hour a day and tutor him. Now she wants to organize all our parent/teacher organizations to recruit volunteers to help kids in their study halls.

  • Encourage your church or civic group to adopt a family.

  • Join a group that is helping new Americans learn English or work toward a GED. Teach classes to newcomers.

  • Volunteer at an agency that serves immigrants and refugees.

  • Make a contribution of cash or goods. Find a program that serves refugees and ask what they need. Cars, bicycles, clothing, furniture, appliances, and tools can be put to good use.

Every newcomer needs someone who knows how to get things done locally. Communities are nuanced cultures, and the nuances are precisely what newcomers need help with. One aspect of being a cultural broker is being an introducer. Cultural brokers can attend every first meeting between a refugee and a caseworker, doctor, banker, or employer. Just being present as a supportive friend helps these first meetings, often filled with anxiety on all sides, go more smoothly.

People come here traumatized, and the trauma doesn’t end with arrival. But having a cultural broker can make a tremendous difference in how successfully a new family adapts to America.

Adapted from The Middle of Everywhere: The World’s Refugees Come to Our Town, copyright © 2002 by Mary Pipher; published by Harcourt, Inc. Reprinted by permission. See sidebar for links related to this story.

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