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Conference Addresses Needs of 'New American' Workers

Over the past five years, more than 350 Somalis have arrived in Barron to work in the Jennie-O Turkey Store. In the early 1980s, up to 1,200 Southeast Asian refugees, mostly Hmong, made their home in Wausau. More arrived later, as refugee camps released people.

These are just two examples of dramatic changes that are taking place in some communities, and the challenges residents face when non-English speaking people relocate into their community. The issues surrounding immigrants and refugees that have occurred over the past years were the focus of a conference held June 4 at UW-River Falls, titled, "Changing Workplaces, Changing Communities: Easing the Transition to Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Workplaces and Communities."

The event was attended by employers, educators and other professionals from communities in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Chancellor Ann Lydecker in her opening remarks noted that it was the first time the University held a conference like this, but the University has a commitment to its undergraduates and its community, and an international component would be a welcome addition to undergraduate studies.

Break-out sessions throughout the day focused on legal issues confronting employers, law enforcement officials and health care workers when working with immigrant workers, and on working with interpreters. When immigrants come into a community, they are in need of health care, education, housing and good jobs. For health care, they need an interpreter who can be trusted with confidential information. The pharmacy must be able to tell them how and when to take medication. For education, they need certified interpreters and they need to be taught to speak the English language. Housing can pose problems for people of some cultures, such as the Somalis, because boys and girls are supposed to be kept apart. The Hmong, on the other hand, want to be together with all of their family members. Finding work can be a problem for Somali women, because they cover all but their face and hands when they dress, and some employers have dress codes to ensure safety. Both men and women must pray three times during the day when they are at work, and their prayer times do not coincide with traditional break times.

In her keynote address titled, "Recognizing the Broader Issues Facing Immigrants, Refugees, and Guest and Undocumented Workers," Jane Graupman, director of the International Institute of Minnesota, noted that there is a difference between an immigrant and a refugee. "Refugees have no choice; they are fleeing their country," she said.

"They are sometimes victims of torture, and they are often ill. They suffer from anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and grief from the loss of family members. They have lived in refugee camps, sometimes for as long as 10 years, with little food, and they are malnourished. The children do not receive any education while they are in the refugee camps. An immigrant leaves his or her country by choice."

Graupman recommends using the term "new Americans" to refer to refugees and immigrants, and being sensitive to all the challenges they face in their new country. She offered a number of suggestions to employers for ways to work with new Americans that included the advice to keep orientation sessions short, not use jargon in the sessions or on signs, understand that it is very difficult to learn the language and don't expect them to know it too soon, and offer on-site English language training during work time, as people often have other jobs, only one car, or childcare concerns.

Graupman develops programs at the Institute that help new Americans maximize their talents and become fully participating and contributing members in American society. Her recently-published book, "Finding Common Understanding: An EmployerÕs Guide to a Cross-Cultural Workplace," is designed to assist employers with commonly-asked questions when working with new Americans.

At a round-table panel discussion, participants discussed ways to prepare a community for a changing environment, and ways to integrate the new members as smoothly as possible. It was recommended that businesses bringing people in should let people in the community know about it ahead of time, so they can make preparations. The police, health and human services, and the job training office in particular should be notified.

Sometimes it is necessary for the police to go to the schools and let the students know they will not tolerate abuse of the refugees. It is important for refugees to understand that, if they are abused by other members of the community, they can report crimes against them to the police. Many refugees and immigrants are afraid of the military and the police, because in the countries they came from the military and the police may have been corrupt and violent.

Employers can act as advocates for their workers, and they can do liaison work with the police.

Clergy can help to educate their community, and encourage members to treat newcomers with respect. It also helps to form a diversity council and get the elders from the new group to join, because they can make decisions and influence their people. Sports were suggested as a neutral arena in which to bring people together, as was food. A food fair with booths serving ethnic food could teach people to appreciate an aspect of a culture they find otherwise difficult to understand.

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