With so many Americans nationwide offering help to Hurricane Katrina evacuees, we consulted some of the experts whose job it is to resettle international refugees--people displaced because of war, famine and political instability. What should Good Samaritan families do to help evacuees? What should they expect?
One group with answers is Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. The 56-year-old organization has published a guidebook for volunteers resettling Katrina evacuees. (Download here. Free Adobe Reader required.) We asked Denise M. Peterson, Director for Congregational and Community Outreach, to summarize its points.
Get acquainted with local groups and local organizing efforts so you are never working alone. Which social service agencies are in your area? What can physicians provide the newcomers? What can local churches, synagogues, and mosques do? Stay connected so you can learn from each other's discoveries.
Build your "sponsor" team. You can call it whatever you'd like, but understand that it is a team working together for a period of time to accomplish a goal: help a family get established in a new community. Your pastor or other leader will be instrumental in guiding the team through the challenges and blessings ahead.
Plan to meet the family's basic needs at the beginning of their arrival. We strongly recommend that families move quickly to their own place--whether an apartment, house or even a simple dormitory, as long as it is clean and safe. Help them fill the apartment with decent furnishings (they don't have to be new, but be respectful), food, tools, bedding, toys, office supplies, telephone, lamps, and anything else you know you would need.
Be sure to work with the family at all times to accomplish their goals. Help and assistance should end, but friendships can last a lifetime. Foreign-born refugees often tell us, "I know I need a sofa and chair, but more than anything I need to know that someone cares about me." This theme resonates with those displaced by natural disasters, too.
Get the family immediately connected with local and disaster-related services like the American Red Cross, FEMA, social service agencies, schools, medical services, religious organizations and employment opportunities.
Remember what it felt like to be new in an area and not know where the nearest discount store was? Help the new family learn the public transportation system; give them the map of their new city. Attend a baseball game, go to the mall, or watch a movie--something that is familiar and comfortable. Simple things that would be minor challenges in the past can bring on renewed trauma to an already traumatized family. Adding daily structure to life, having the ability to navigate a new community, and making new friends are all part of rebuilding a new life in a new place.
The new family will want to stay in touch with friends and family across the country. You can help them get internet access either at churches, through home computers, or at the public library. Phone cards or a cell phone are also good options. And, remember, if the family wants to move on to another location, that is their choice. You have been an important part of whatever next steps the family needed to take.
As a sponsoring team, you may be tempted to take on more than you can handle. Set boundaries you can all respect. Agree that you will check in with each other at least weekly at the beginning (a one-hour meeting can be sufficient to process thoughts and assess directions) and that you will keep records of everyone's activities. If there should ever be a question about what was done for and with the family, your records will indicate the who, what, when, where, and why of actions taken.
Your new friends have been through severe trauma. Nightmares, insomnia, general anxiety, confusion, physical aches and pains and depression are examples of what people may carry with them. Children also exhibit these symptoms. Be prepared to offer information on local mental health assistance.
"It's a good feeling to help someone; it's a better feeling when they don't need your help anymore," says Pat Friar of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Ft. Worth, Texas. This is the goal: to move from assistance to friendship. Celebrate every chance you get!