After moving to the United States, every knock on the door sent a wave of fear to Daniel Min Redamwang.
The trauma of the violence and harassment he felt in Malaysia lingered when the refugee from Myanmar landed in Colombia.
Such damage is an unintended consequence of changing countries after fleeing a war-torn country. But Redamwang found Columbia to be a welcoming city after moving here in 2020 and learning about American culture.
“I’m really, really happy, and now my kids are so happy too,” he said.
Help for refugees
Lori Stoll, refugee care coordinator at the City of Refuge in Columbia, has seen firsthand how disorienting moving to a new country can be for refugees.
“When we are in a house, we notice all the things that need our attention.” said Stoll. “Here’s a mail and they didn’t know what it was. So I read this and find out that a doctor’s appointment is coming up.
After seeing the difficulties immigrants and refugees face when trying to cope with routine tasks in a new country, Stoll and his colleague, Jen Wheeler, decided to take action.
In 2010 they opened City of Refuge, a non-profit organization that works with an average of 300-500 families per year. Volunteers work with families to navigate unfamiliar customs and obstacles they encounter.
According to the Center of Immigration Studies, immigrants made up 14.2% of the total US population in 2021, the highest percentage recorded in more than a century.
Community Response How immigrant and refugee families adjust can largely depend on the role the community plays in their transition.
The move puts a strain on children and adults adjusting to a new environment, according to Francisco Palermo, a professor in MU’s Department of Human Development and Family Sciences.
He explores ways to strengthen families so they can overcome adversity and succeed in a new setting. His research focuses specifically on the effects on Latino children and their socio-behavioral health, English level and academic performance.
The best way communities can help these families adjust is as basic as creating a welcoming environment, Palermo said. This means providing real opportunities, offering consistent help, and following through.
“If you spend time welcoming these people and giving them a few opportunities, they will jump at (the chances),” Palermo said.
Positive action Gustavo Carlo, Millsap Professor of Diversity in Human Development and Family Studies at MU, recommends strategies along the same lines. He stressed the importance of positive community action towards immigrants and refugees.
“We have to invoke moral principles or moral values about kindness and consideration towards people different from you,” Carlo said.
Practicing what he calls “prosocial behavior” may be the most important way to develop strong relationships with those who come from another country, he said.
“It’s so important that we start to understand how we can… increase that side of the equation so that future generations of children are more morally inclusive,” he said.
Still, Columbia is considered a good place for refugee and immigrant families, Stoll said.
“It really opened my eyes to see what a friendly city we live in and how people are really eager to help out,” she said.