Refugees fleeing war-torn countries have a difficult time communicating and understanding differences in culture and daily life. Concordia students are engaging in service learning activities that help clarify simple activities like grocery shopping and going to the library.
Communication Studies and Theater Arts Professor Hank Tkachuk’s Intercultural Communication course uses relationships with refugee families in Fargo-Moorhead to apply coursework and learn intercultural communication first-hand. You can learn by doing studies, and you can learn by reading essays, but experience teaches in a different way, Tkachuk said.
“You have to go to a Somali apartment and have people just keep showing up and showing up and showing up to understand [the difference] between cozy and crowded,” he said. “Your [definition] and theirs are not the same.”
Students in Tkachuk’s course learn about cultures through statistics and research, interpretive experiences, and the study of power. Work with refugees helps with the humanistic experience, Tkachuk said.
There is a significant difference between a refugee and an immigrant. The United Nations requires a well-founded fear of persecution to be classified as a refugee, Tkachuk said. They are not voluntarily coming to America; they are fleeing a war-torn country. The federal government provides minimal financial help for six months and then provides them a loan that must be repaid, Tkachuk said.
Melissa Rasmussen, a senior, is in a group with two other students working with a 22-year old mother of a three-month old baby. Their situation is unique, because the mother did not know any English at the beginning of the semester, and usually someone in the household has some English, Tkachuk said.
On a short-term basis, the students have helped her get diapers, buy food, and find shoes to replace the one pair of flip-flops she owned.
“She had never experienced weather like this,” Rasmussen said. “We worked on getting her boots.”
The big picture includes teaching this refugee English. It is particularly difficult, because she is illiterate in her own language, Rasmussen said. They use a lot of pictures to build a vocabulary because helping her learn English is essential to her getting any sort of job. It is a complicated process.
Tkachuk has been teaching this course for 17 years and estimates that his students have helped over 850 individuals, he said. English Professor Bill Snyder’s Global Literature and Human Experience course is also involved in service learning work with refugees, but this is only the second semester Snyder has been teaching the course.
Snyder read “Outcast United: A Refugee Team, an American Town” by Warren St. John and decided to make the nonfiction book a cornerstone for the course. He found other books dealing with refugees or culture differences to fill out the course material, he said.
The service learning is not always related to the variety of texts read in class, according to Kara Schwartz, a junior. However, their work is related to the goal of the glass, she said in an e-mail interview.
“Working with refugee families has opened our eyes and changed stereotypes that previously existed for many of us,” Schwartz said. “I think every course at Concordia should incorporate something like this.”
Small groups of students spend a few hours each week with their families. Schwartz is working with a Tanzanian family with five children ranging in age from 3-19. Most of her time is spent helping the family learn English or helping the kids with their homework.
The youngest is not yet in school, and the oldest are working on graduating high school, she said.
“I learned what real hard work is,” Schwartz said. “[It is] trying to pass a high school physics course with limited English… or getting dropped into a world where technology runs every day, and 30 hours ago they didn’t even have running water near their home.”
Darci Asche is the community liaison for New American Services, a program run through Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota partnering with the United States government. Both Snyder and Tkachuk do their service learning through NAS.
Parents learn so much from college students in regards to their own children growing up in the United States, Asche said.
“[Refugees] may have heard terrible things about teenagers in America,” Asche said. “Having nice college students come into your home and being willing to help you out is sort of reassuring.”
The program is not without challenges, however. Scheduling is a nightmare, Tkachuk said. Some groups are linked with families right away in the semester, but some of Tkachuk’s students were not paired with a family until nearly mid-semester break.
“Experiential education is messy, and you must learn to live with messy arrangements,” Tkachuk said. “Syllabi are clean and neat. Experiences are not.”
Tkachuk’s course prepares students to work with refugees, and he gives his students lengthy Refugee Mentoring Suggestions packets. NAS also provides training to prepare volunteers.
“I thought I was really tolerant and really open… because I love learning about other cultures,” Rasmussen said. “It opens your eyes even more.”
People can volunteer in groups or as individuals. Visit lssnd.org for information on becoming a volunteer.
I am a senior majoring in political science and journalism, and I am minoring in music. Next year, I will study law at the University of St. Thomas, and I can’t believe my time at Concordia has gone so quickly.