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The Many Faces of Immigration

May 12, 2014

“USA: The United States of Answers.” Olatunde Olusesi, an adjunct lecturer at the NYU Silver School of Social Work, opened his keynote address with this comment at the April 25 seminar, The Many Faces of Immigration. This seminar marks the fourth in the ongoing series of monthly events, Fridays at Silver on the Square, organized by the Office of Global and Lifelong Learning. Beth Silverman-Yam of Sanctuary for Families and the Columbia University School of Social Work gave the seminar’s featured presentation, and a panel discussion followed.

Olusesi’s talk, “Servicing Strangers in Sweltering Paradise: Challenges Confronting Newest Immigrants in the US and What Social Workers Must Do about Them,” evoked images of the United States as the ultimate paradise, one that makes individuals willing to sacrifice everything to be here. Pulled in by such evocative promises as “land of freedom, democracy, and opportunity,” “solution to problems,” “wealth,” and “no longer living in fear,” only after arriving do they find the push factors: poverty and hardship, civil war, political upheavals, military dictatorships, and terrorism. Do they realize their dreams?

Olusesi explained that many new arrivals to the US feel like wanderers without anything familiar in environment, family, customs, or language. Immigrants often find themselves coming and going between their homeland and the US, if they are able. Most troubling, the strangeness of the new environment is a magnet for psychopathology: the person does not understand society and society does not understand the person. He or she believed in hope, but can no longer find it. Instead, what is found is long working hours, crowded living conditions, and little money. The responsibility to send money home to families pushes the person to work even longer and harder, often in dangerous situations.

Olusesi put forth in powerful language—and as a charge to the social work community—that immigrants are not going away and, therefore, it is incumbent upon social workers to learn about immigration and how to work with this population. The issues of disappointment, family dislocation, lack of support, anxiety, depression, and uncertainty all run rampant among immigrants, apart from a lucky few.

He clarified micro issues of isolation, lack of information, lack of adequate preparation, a wayfarer mentality, and unrealistic expectations, as well as the macro factors of global recession, discrimination, prejudice, cultural barriers, and structural inadequacies. He advocated that social workers who engage with immigrants have to address each person’s pre-migration, migration, and post- migration/resettlement experiences. The key principles of anti-oppressive practice are what he advocates as the driving factors. They include: self-reflection; anti-oppressive assessment; assessment of the individual’s oppression experience; empowering clients/working in a partnership; and minimizing intervention, thereby mobilizing the client to do as much as possible for himself. The delivery system must be culturally sensitive with access to accurate information, community empowerment, inclusion in civic activities, courses and training, vocational English, psycho-education, childcare, attitude sensitization, and mobilization.

Prevailing attitudes of mere assimilation—“Get over it already!”—are not effective. Social workers must strive for full integration: “Don’t drop your beliefs—apply your beliefs, but adapt to the new environment.” His remarks were powerful and direct, emphasizing the challenges the immigrant community faces and the need for social workers to understand their immigrant clients as individuals, each with a unique life experience. He ended his presentation with an appeal for advocacy as an integral role of social work professionals.

Beth Silverman-Yam, clinical director at Sanctuary for Families and an adjunct associate professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work, spoke about “Crossing Frontiers: Empowering Immigrants through Social Work Practice.” She began her presentation emphasizing acculturation, multiculturalism, and ethnography as guiding principles. She talked about the images and fantasies that immigrants bring with them to their new environment and the importance for social workers to understand these visualizations and hopes. She advocated a strengths perspective in the face of the trauma experience many immigrants have had in their homeland and continue to experience in the US. She distinguished between immigrants, who travel to a new place to follow a dream, and refugees, who often escape torture and death. She reiterated the importance of knowing each person’s pre-migration, migration, and post-migration experiences.

Silverman-Yam discussed issues and questions relevant to the pre-migration experience. She noted that it is often very hard to hear the full story, as many are painful, frightening, repressed, and difficult to share. It often takes years to finally, if ever, learn the truth of the person’s life that they carry around like a heavy burden. She questioned how many social workers strive to learn about the pre-migration experience of colonial legacy, home settings, sexual trauma, what drove the person out, age of leaving, nature of family configuration, family constellation, and sex trafficking experiences that their clients have brought to the United States.

For the migration experience, she suggested questioning the manner of transport from being smuggled in a trunk to being on a boat to crawling under a fence. It is important to assess the level of terror, the perilous journey, the cost and debt involved, the transit experience, and refugee camp experiences.

For post-migration, she emphasized the need to understand and assess family fragmentation, identification with country of origin, intergenerational conflict, accumulated stress, layers of trauma, and the grief and loss process. The losses include customs, language, social status, gender roles, trust, self-esteem, separation from children, anxiety, phobias, as well as trauma triggers such as police presence and fear of deportation.

Silverman-Yam continued, emphasizing counseling and stating that the concept of counseling is very alien to many immigrants. Counseling is not a part of their history and trust is a large factor in “airing your problems.” People need to be oriented to counseling, what it means, and how it can help. She clarified what she saw as the most relevant counseling issues and concerns. Over-interpretation might be more a symptom of not wanting to share personal information while somatization might be a symptom of a person having much more than he or she can bear to discuss. She talked about paranoia, frequent for individuals who have been tortured. There is strong evidence of survival guilt related to the  circumstances of leaving one’s country of origin. She made reference to the frequency of PTSD. She proposed the value of interventions related to autonomy as well as the pressure of family obligations, the use of time and space, and issues of intimacy that follow trauma, torture, and abandonment. She underscored the goal of individuation and helping each person gain his or her own voice. Her model emphasized trust and collaboration.

Alla Bazay, Brooklyn Resource Center clinic manager, FEGS Health and Human Services System, talked about “Mental Health Issues in the Russian Community.” She discussed issues of PTSD, anxiety, and depression, and reflected on the impact of ethnic cleansing that preceded the immigration of many from Russia. She shared the impact of immigrants’ frequent loss of social status and the resultant feelings of loss, depression, failure, and isolation, which often lead to cognitive decline. She encouraged the availability of supportive resources, help in talking about problems, and intervention in the face of somatization and the stigma of psychological distress.

Maria Monica Andia, BS ’14, and founder of the DREAM Team at NYU, gave a talk titled “From Social Work to Social Action: Undocumented Youth Movement, Community Organizing, and Activism.” She discussed the experience of undocumented youth, being marginalized and barred from higher education, and the fear of undocumented families. A strong proponent of advocacy work and the value of social media, she emphasized how social media can effectively transmit a message and how advocacy can make a difference in passing laws allowing education for undocumented youth. With the Dream Act passed, individuals can now have driver’s licenses, health care, and education. She is a strong proponent of advocacy and demonstrated through her own work, as well as the value of social media, how advocacy can make a difference.

Carolien Hardenbol, co-director of Immigration Intervention Project Sanctuary for Families, spoke about the role of attorneys in the immigration experience in her talk, “Opening our Eyes and Ears (and Hearts): How to Best Help Abused Immigrants Formalize their Status in the United States.” Hardenbol’s remarks focused on the role of attorneys in not-for-profit agencies who assume a significant level of legal work on behalf of immigrants. She encouraged anyone seeking immigration legal services to conduct a careful examination of attorney services and attached fees. To represent a client, Hardenbol must do a rapid but detailed assessment so that she can prepare the correct defense and not be disarmed by a change in narrative that could upset the case. To prepare the best argument, she said she needs the whole story and can work very well with social workers to achieve her clients’ full narrative. She also stated that many clients are fearful of the legal system and have to be well prepared to best present themselves.

Muhammad Waseem, research director in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Lincoln Medical & Mental Health Center, Bronx, New York, presented his talk, “Working with Diverse Population: A Pediatrician Perspective.” His remarks focused on the bullying experienced by immigrant children. Waseem said immigrant children are very vulnerable to verbal attacks as well as assaults and often feel victimized. At the same time, parents working two or three jobs create very complicated family situations with parents who lack time to go to their child’s school, lack full command of English, and have a fear of authority figures. Waseem indicated that the suicide ideation with which many immigrant youth present is a challenge for the hospital staff, further compounded by the multiplicity of clients’ cultures. He shared some vivid pictures created by some of his patients depicting intimidation, suicide ideation, and helplessness.

By Eileen Wolkstein

Type: Article

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Left to right: Alla Bazay, Carolien Hardenbol, Beth Silverman-Yam, and Olatunde Olusesi