Cultural orientation gives refugees a glimpse into their new future

Burmese (Myanmar) refugees are told that when they get to their new host countries they can expect to gain some weight because of the richer diet.
(Brennon Jones/IRIN)

“We had a case once of a Burmese [Myanmar] refugee family who were resettled in Australia . . . they had a fridge full of food and once they ate it all, they just went hungry,” Genevieve Dooley, the Australian global cultural orientation (AUSCO) coordinator for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), told IRIN. “It turned out they were too shy to go out or to ask for help.”

Some 20,000 Burmese refugees, mostly from the Karen minority group, will this year leave refugee camps on the Thai side of the Myanmar border, where they have lived in semi-permanent houses, enduring long-term unemployment for years, even decades, to resettle in Australia, Britain and the United States. They follow about 40,000 others who have been resettled since 2004.

To help the refugees cope in the parallel universes they will soon call home, IOM provides three-to-five day cultural orientation sessions tailored to the legal and citizenship requirements of the host countries. “Obviously the facts about the countries - their rights and responsibilities, tax and health benefits - differ for each country,” said Peter Salinkowski, IOM’s cultural orientation programme coordinator for Southeast Asia.

“We teach them the basics,” Nuttakarn Sumon, an IOM cultural orientation instructor, in Mae La camp in northwest Thailand, only a few kilometres from the Myanmar border, told IRIN, and that includes everything from how to shake hands rather than doing the traditional “wai” greeting, to how to be convincing in a job interview.

Photo: Brennon Jones/IRIN
In a cultural orientation session for Burmese refugees who are to be resettled in the United Sates they get their first glimpse of a Social Security card

The refugees get their first real glimpse of their new worlds in small, rudimentary classrooms in the refugee camps. “We show them how to use the airplane toilet, how to transfer planes,” Sumon said. “Most have never flown before.” They also provide them some “survival” English, key words and phrases to help them out in a jam, and, as importantly, the meaning of directional signs.

“We discuss the kitchen and the homes and play DVDs that show the kinds of places in which they will live,” said Salinkowski.

“We don’t want people to get over-inflated expectations,” said Dooley, “They are not off to a land of milk and honey.”


“We find the Burmese refugees don’t want to make waves ... it’s part of their culture to keep their problems within the family,” Salinkowski told IRIN. “So sometimes when a problem arises, they don’t tell the resettlement agencies about it and they go for months without dealing with the problem.”

It is not just shyness that must be addressed, said Dooley. “There are big changes in the family relationship that occur as the children take on more prominent positions and move more freely in the world.

Photo: Brennon Jones/IRIN
A session in the cultural orientation programme in Mae La refugee camp on the Thai border with Myanmar in which refugees draw a tree symbolising aspects of their lives

“We do sessions with children six to 12 years of age. We talk about getting ready for school, about making new friends. A session also targets teenagers and discusses building relationships, how you go about the whole dating thing and about how people dress in their adopted countries.”

Feedback on the cultural orientation sessions has generally been positive although one IOM instructor told IRIN: “I feel the programme and training is good but time is a constraint and perhaps it should be longer.”

Some of the refugees, while appreciating the programme, felt the period for studying English was insufficient and some complained that the DVDs were not in the Karen language.

The one session that was most popular with the refugees involves their drawing a tree, its roots, trunk and branches symbolising aspects of their lives. “We want them to remember their identities,” Sumon told IRIN, “the good things, who you are, where you came from, what made you strong, your achievements and your dreams.” According to Sumon, this will be, perhaps, the most important baggage they will carry into their new lives.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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