Relationships and Trust Are Key Relationships and trust are essential for success when working with refugees, and they make work easier, faster, and more effective. As you build relationships and trust, you will also be overcoming the barriers described above. It can be difficult to work with some refugee groups if you have not first built up a good degree of trust. Especially at the beginning of relationships, non-refugees have to pay close attention to building trust, and budget the time necessary to build it.
Personal relationships normally have priority over business relationships for many refugee communities. Personal and public relationships frequently overlap or mix, and it is hard to separate them from each other. Long-term relationships play a very important role in facilitating or easing the work with refugee individuals, their families, and their communities.
Culture and past experiences influence matters of trust among refugees. In general, refugees are more likely to trust people only after they have demonstrated their trustworthiness, while mainstream people tend to trust people until there is reason to withhold their trust. When trust is not present, some people do not say what they mean, nor do they do what they say they will.
However, when relationships and trust are damaged, everything may be lost, and sometimes it is hard or impossible for to rebuild trust. Broken promises, dishonesty, inconsistency, self-promoting behavior, or unethical behavior all generate distrust. If you or your organization has lost trust among refugee groups, regaining it takes time and effort.
There are a number of ways to build (or regain) trust with refugees:
Treat refugees fairly and with respect—the way they want to be treated
Learn more about their cultures, customs, values, and cultural practices
Demonstrate consistency between word and deed by avoiding all hidden agendas, hidden interests, or secretiveness
Show your motivation or willingness to work with refugees and do not expect them to always come to you
Keep your promises—say what you mean and do what you say—and inform refugees if changes are taking place
Do not harm or discredit refugees for your own personal gain
Accept your own mistakes by showing your willingness to correct them
Set aside time for face-to-face meetings with refugees periodically to find out if anything is going wrong between you and them
Answer questions honestly
Yorn Yan uses a simple model he calls “Trust Backward” when starting work with a new group of refugees and with refugee individuals. Yan calls this model Trust Backward because its initials are TSURT—TRUST backwards. The end result of this model is to help you build closer relationships and create more trust.
T Try to learn about and get to know individuals or a group of refugees more—their backgrounds, developmental stages, problems, needs, and assets or strengths. AND, try to change your behavior when you make a mistake or when you do something that's not appropriate for the culture.
S Seek similarities or experiences you have in common with different groups of refugee people. For example, your ancestors came from Europe as immigrants or you have a friend who is a refugee; while part of the mainstream culture, you come from a group that is historically oppressed; your background, like the particular refugee's background, emphasizes closely knit extended families; while your foods are different, both your culture and the refugee's culture use large, ritual feasts as a part of social bonding.
U Understand refugee individuals better—especially their cultural values and beliefs, norms, experiences, thinking processes, and nonverbal communication behaviors such as personal space, time concepts, silence, relationships, etc.
R Relationship - building is essential to improve communications and work more effectively between mainstream and refugee individuals. Learn the role of relationships in work and personal life for the culture you are interacting with—and follow them. In some cultures, one develops a warm personal relationship first; a good public relationship will follow.
T Trust-building is a key to success when working with refugee people. Refugees tend to distrust a stranger or outside groups—both because of traumatic, past experiences and, in some cases, because their culture influences matters of trust in others. Most refugees are more likely to trust people only after they have those people have shown they are trustworthy.
Three major challenges confront both refugees and non-refugees when working together. These challenges are
Lack of cultural competency
Lack of experience working togetherLanguage barriers
Language barriers need to be seen from two perspectives. Some refugees simply have not yet learned to communicate well in English. Similarly, most mainstream people who want to help refugees have a language problem—they usually speak one language, and that's not the refugee's native tongue. Non-refugees must learn how to listen to people who speak English with different accents, especially those who come to America at older ages or those who come speaking more than one language.
Language difficulty doesn't mean that refugees and non-refugees can't work together. They can help each other through interpreters or signals. When interpreters are not available, family members, friends, volunteers, or staff from refugee-run organizations can usually help with translation.
Lack of Cultural Competency
Every human being is a member of one or more cultures, and these cultures influence an individual's beliefs, practices, behaviors, and personality. A person who has cultural competence has specific knowledge of other people's cultures, backgrounds, values, and beliefs as well as skill in obtaining that knowledge which he or she lacks. This competency includes a universal sense of openness and acceptance of other human beings.
Cultural competency helps eliminate, overcome, or reduce cultural barriers when working with diverse groups of refugees and communities. Lack of cultural competency causes problems. For instance, most Somalis share the same language, religion, and culture, but they are divided into groups by a deeply rooted clan structure. Because of deep clan divisions, a person who works with one group of Somalis and then tries to generalize his or her experience to apply to all Somalis can meet devastating failure.
Lack of Experience Working Together
Lack of (or limited) experience working together is one of the major challenges faced by both refugees and non-refugees. Problems range from different communication styles to different work approaches, from lack of patience to personality clashes, or from lack of time to lack of trust.
While there are many categories of difference from one group to another, these elements require conscious attention as the relationship is developed:
protocol among authority figures
concepts of time
patience with differences
Appropriate protocol among people with authority
Cultures vary in their approaches to authority—and typically, when an outsider approaches a refugee group to provide assistance, that person automatically has "authority." He or she must also know the rules for how authority is granted and how authorities treat each other within the culture. These rules are usually unspoken and may be expressed through nonverbal cues.
Different concepts of time
Mainstream Americans who do not have experience with refugees often grow impatient with what they perceive as wasted time. Mainstream people tend to perceive time as a linear movement. In contrast, some (not all) refugee groups perceive time as a circular movement and pace themselves around activities and relationships. Here, mainstream people need to understand the different approaches to time. But refugees also need to learn and change their attitudes, behaviors, and practices when using their time with mainstream people. Above all, non-refugees should remember that each individual and each group is different and adjust work processes accordingly.
Patience with differences
Patience, commitment, and persistence are necessary for those who work with refugees in all communities. Meeting times may change during planning and implementation processes, often due to commitments within the extended families and communities of refugees. Therefore a person planning to work with refugee groups must expect, accept, and plan for these changes. The net of connections and obligations many refugees must manage may also make response time seem slow. Misunderstandings often occur due to communication barriers, cultural differences, or lack of experience working together. It's better to plan for such occurrences than be taken by surprise.