Invisible Boundaries: Refugee Cultures in New Haven

August 26, 2014 • Features, Print • Views: 1011

By Anna Meixler

“It is a hard thing, to be without your home,” an Iraqi refugee said. Hands clasped tightly in her lap, her gaze settled on the off-brand cola and packaged cookies set beside an intricately engraved silver teakettle. “But I will never go back,” she said. Her son, sitting on the opposite couch, hardly looked up from his chemistry textbook. He was only three when their family fled Iraq, and “[doesn’t] remember it well enough to miss it,” he said.

For refugee families, adjusting to American culture and its social and political climates inevitably poses challenges – but those challenges are also exacerbated between generations, at times creating divisions within families. This is the case in one of New Haven’s Iraqi refugee families. There is a disconnect between the sons, a high school student and an elementary school student, and their parents. While the boys speak English comfortably, their parents struggle to string together sentences, insisting that the family speak Arabic at home. While the parents are frustrated by English, the sons are irritated with their parents lack of fluency, which has rendered them reliant upon their boys to translate for and guide them. The sons are tired of this dependence, and their parents are uncomfortable with this shift of familial power. “I wish my parents could help me apply to college. I am trying to do everything by myself—financial aid applications, the Common App. It’s too much, ” said their seventeen-year old son, Aban.*

A participant in IRIS' past World Refugee Day, a celebration of New Haven refugees' lives and cultures.  (Photo Courtesy of Marilyn de Guehery for IRIS)

A participant in IRIS’ past World Refugee Day, a celebration of New Haven refugees’ lives and cultures. (Photo Courtesy of Marilyn de Guehery for IRIS)

Though they cannot help their children with school-related matters, the parents strive to maintain their familial structure, having the father settle most affairs with the family’s only cell phone, despite his wife’s and sons’ greater English fluency. But generational differences within refugee families can seem insurmountable. While the parents miss their social lives in Iraq, their sons have friends from all ethnicities at New Haven schools, and are less privy to the isolation and loneliness their parents feel. While their sons have embraced American education, the parents cannot partake in this learning. Aban tried to patiently explain his report card to his parents, but they do not seem to trust his translation. “Is that really what it says?” probed Aban’s mother upon hearing translations of Aban’s teacher’s comments. “Does it say you are doing badly? I will go to school to speak with your teacher.” Aban immediately tried to dissuade her from doing so.

Such cultural disconnect is common within refugee families, and is often tied to language, a challenge that is both technical and cultural. Since IRIS (Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services) opened in the 1980s, many refugees have settled in New Haven. “Refugee comfort in the U.S. is closely related to their English abilities,” said Laurel McCormack, the IRIS volunteer coordinator. Many refugees noted that, even after gaining proficiency in English, they grappled with American communicative norms. For example, a middle-aged Iraqi refugee described that when Americans offer him refreshments, he is “not sure if I am to accept. I do not know if they are truly offering. Hospitality is very different in Iraq.” This refugee also mentioned that, while retaliation after insult is expected in Iraq, he was informed not to respond to racism or assault in America, “because I do not want trouble with the law. I fear that they will send me back to Iraq if I do something wrong.” But younger refugees seem immune to legal fears, perhaps because they have lived most or all of their lives in the U.S., not their families’ repressive countries of origin. They also seem better acclimated to American social norms; refugee children who attend New Haven public schools have friends from diverse backgrounds and sometimes participate in local sports leagues. Malik*, an Iraqi third grader, is comfortable showing up at his neighborhood friends’ homes uninvited, and Aban said he has made friends “of many races, who are American and immigrants, and some are refugees, like me.”

Adult refugees, however, go to great lengths to preserve their cultures in New Haven, despite the pushback they may receive from their children. Many cook traditional foods, despite the difficulty in finding certain ingredients and their children’s predilections for Western tastes. “I’ll eat at Brian’s,” Malik called to his mother one afternoon, “they’re having pizza.” Hospitality customs are also commonly upheld in New Haven, across nationalities. Nearly every Yale student who volunteers with the Yale Refugee Project (YRP), which provides tutoring and assistance to New Haven refugees, is offered food and drink when they visit their refugee partners. Brett Davidson, ES ’16, stressed that “reciprocity and demonstrations of gratitude” are paramount to the Ethiopian man with whom he works, who offers Brett small gifts whenever he visits. But many refugees, who could once display lavish hospitality in their countries of origin, cannot afford to express generosity in the U.S. McCormack described the distress refugees feel when they must budget their finances given low-paying jobs and higher pricing; “they often cannot be generous while still being able to live,” she said. She recounted that refugees “surviving on food stamps distributed from IRIS insist upon bringing platters of food to the agency when they come for language classes.”

Refugees make other efforts to maintain their cultural identities. Some uphold religious tenets, for example, many Muslim refugees continue customs of diet and modest dress, with women covering their hair. Religious refugees strive to find worship communities, and many attend local church services and partake in holiday celebrations. Preserving religiosity in New Haven is difficult, however, particularly for observant Muslims. “Many work in food services, and it is difficult to find employers who do not require that they handle alcohol, or will give them time during the workday to pray,” explained McCormack. While some refugees have abandoned observance to secure work, others have not, and “are unemployed for months,” she said. “And while American labor culture is more conducive to Christian lifestyles, many Christian refugees cannot find communities of worship that speak their language. “

Unfortunately, cultural separation also exists between refugees of different nationalities, whom IRIS strives to connect. McCormack, who explained that refugees are very appreciative of the language, legal, financial, housing, and educational assistance that IRIS provides, added that they can feel disconnected from the agency upon which they rely. “We realize everyday how little we understand about what’s going on in their communities,” McCormack noted. “But I’ve observed that groups are insular based on nationality,” she continued, describing the cultural boundaries. Some refugees work contractually with IRIS, and express to its staff that some refugees do not attend IRIS language classes due to divides between ethnic groups. Social tensions exist, but when IRIS workers have tried to confront this problem, “so much is lost in translation,” said McCormack.“Rumor mills are strong,” she added.  For some refugees, “family image is more important than learning a new language; they fear others’ gossip.” She also noted that some of IRIS’ programs aren’t compatible with refugee lifestyles, for example, few attended an IRIS walking group, as it conflicted with time refugees use to pray and nap.

Most adult refugees thus spend time with their families or other refugees from their countries of origin. Sadly, many do not leave their homes often, and their social circles are restricted to the refugees with whom IRIS has paired them to live. IRIS takes great consideration in their housing arrangements, striving to house refugees who share nationality, gender, and stage of life, so they can best relate to one another. In fact, a single, female Eritrean refugee opted to live with a group of single Eritrean men instead of women from different nationalities, an arrangement that would be taboo in Eritrea. There are very few female Eritrean refugees in New Haven, and another “lives with a Congolese mother, also a very rare arrangement,” said McCormack, who says that IRIS “is instructed to almost never house refugees together from different nationalities.” Though divides exist between refugee groups, IRIS tries to foster friendships through the agency, but refugees “get tired of having to speak English with one another,” said McCormack. However, Arabic speakers of different nationalities have formed friendships, as have those from the same religious backgrounds.

Despite the isolation and tensions refugees may feel given their cultural differences, “they take great pride in their traditions and customs,” said McCormack. McCormack recounted that many refugee musicians and artists bring their work to IRIS to spread interest in and knowledge about their cultures. “It needs to come from them,” said McCormack, who expressed that IRIS’ efforts to showcase cultures have lead to unrest. “Many request cultural celebrations,” she said, but “if we host an Iraqi culture day, we must immediately have a Congolese one. Everything must be in measure, which makes it difficult to give enough attention to each nationality’s arts, dance, and cuisine. A lot of times we just don’t do it, which is a shame.” IRIS is working to empower their clients to share their traditions, and many now posses the knowledge, bravery, and resources to share their cultures in America, a difficult feat.

Complex cultural boundaries separate refugee groups from one another, and cause divides within families as younger generations grow more Westernized. But most refugees, regardless of age and nationality, express that they have gained more than they have lost in assimilating. Most appreciate the liberty they feel, embracing American norms of freedom of speech and expression. “I could never dance when I was with my family,” said an Eritrean refugee. “Here, I am free to dance.”

*Name has been changed to protect refugee anonymity

Anna Meixler ’16 is an Ethics, Politics, and Economics major in Ezra Stiles College. She can be reached . 

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