In the Work of Resettling Refugees, Cultural Sensitivity Matters

After fleeing the civil war in Syria, a man arrived in the United States with his wife and four young children all under the age of seven. He and his family did not speak English and carried with them just a few bags of belongings. This family was utterly and completely at the mercy of those who resettled them. Their housing, food, job opportunities, community involvement, future self-sufficiency, and more all depended on the interactions that this family shared with the organization resettling them.

I witnessed these exchanges first hand during my internship with a refugee resettlement organization in Baltimore this summer, and I learned that one of the most crucial aspects of sharing interactions with refugees is cultural sensitivity.

What does it look like to be culturally sensitive when resettling families in homes or communities who have been affected by the refugee crisis? Cultural sensitivity pushes past simply being politically correct; it requires taking into account the varying habits, beliefs, rituals, and customs of another culture. Cultural sensitivity creates space for people to share their differences and restores a sense of humanity to those who have already lost so much.

How can we begin to instill a culturally sensitive mindset when thinking about how to implement these practices on a broad scale? Refugee resettlement organizations like the one I worked with this summer utilize simple and replicable methods like specified grocery shopping, preparing the homes ahead of time for new arrivals, and trying to place people from the same country in the same area.

Though it is a simple action, customized grocery shopping, for example, is something many may not consider when thinking about the logistics of refugee resettlement. The organization I work for buys food for a newly arriving family that is intended to be enough to last them for the first couple days while they get settled. However, we don’t just buy Wonder Bread and apples and call it a day. There is a manual that outlines what to buy based on where the refugees are from. For example, for a family from Syria it suggests buying pita bread, bananas, apples, halal chicken, plain yogurt, eggs, tea, rice, hummus, za’atar (a Middle Eastern spice mixture), and figs (eaten during Ramadan to break the fast), among other things. Where as for a family from Ethiopia, it is suggested to buy a rotisserie chicken, flat bread or injera (an east African spongy sourdough flatbread), tomatoes, onions, potatoes, string beans, eggs, coffee, and tea, among other things. Food is something that provides great comfort and solace in uncertain times, which is why we should go to such an effort to put something familiar in their fridge.

Cultural sensitivity creates space for people to share their differences and restores a sense of humanity to those who have already lost so much.

Another aspect of the resettlement process is setting each newly arriving group up with a place to live. The logistics department at my organization is responsible for completely preparing the homes ahead of time so that when the refugees arrive, their homes are move-in ready. There is a warehouse filled with everything needed to prepare a home, things like: couches, lamps, dining room tables with chairs, dishes, silverware, beds with sheets and pillows, cribs with diapers, shampoo, conditioner, soap, and toothbrushes. The homes are furnished and stocked prior to the arrival date. It is of the utmost importance to make sure that the clients are safe, comfortable, and feel welcomed. After living in less-than desirable conditions and traveling for days on end, it is our responsibility that the arrivals have a safe place to lay their heads when they arrive in the United States.

Another act that sounds simple, yet goes a long way in restoring a sense of humanity is placing people from the same countries in the same geographic area. For example, Syrian arrivals are currently being placed throughout a specific neighborhood and many Burmese clients are living in apartment complexes in close proximity to one another. It’s important for these people to have that foundational community that they are familiar with and can lean on for support as they journey through this new and uncertain phase. Community is crucial for integration into society.

As Christians, we should not lose touch with this crisis as the number of displaced persons continues to rise. Let us stay vigilant and refuse to let this tragedy turn into a list of statistics. Being cultural sensitive isn’t just a good idea, it’s a calling that God has placed on our lives as we interact with people from around the world and view them as fellow human beings made in the image of God. It is because of our identity in Christ that we have an inherent dignity. It is this same dignity that can be restored and upheld through culturally sensitive practices.

The family mentioned in the very beginning of this article fled their home country of Syria and sought refuge in Jordan for the past three years while waiting for their paperwork to be processed. After three consecutive days of traveling, they arrived in the US and were greeted by welcoming faces inviting them into their new home and their new life. After having a few minutes to look around the house the father remarked, “I was feeling sad before and now that I have seen how welcomed we are, I feel happy and hopeful.” The reemergence of hope in times when it seems most scarce is rare.  Let us be vessels through which Christ can show his redemptive truth and love by restoring hope to the hopeless. 

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

John 13:34-35


-Katherine Fritzeen is a junior at Taylor University studying Developmental Economics with a passion for international rights issues and social justice.