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Refugee assimilation: Fire kindles concern

Posted by keshiaclukey on May 9, 2013 at 7:25 PM

Refugee assimilation: Fire kindles concern

Unfamiliarity with cultural changes could prove dangerous


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UTICA - Before Lul Mohamed moved to Utica eight years ago, she never had electricity, running water nor a bathroom in her home.

As a Somali refugee, learning to live and cook with modern appliances was a challenge.

"The most difficult was the stove and heater," she said.

In Somalia, she would cook on a wood fire - a long process - giving her time to talk with others and play with her children.

In America, it's quite different.

"The stove is faster than firewood," said Mohamed, an interpreter for the Multicultural Association of Medical Interpreters in Utica. "If you put it on and play with the kids, it's already burning."

It's more than a learning curve when refugees and immigrants move to the U.S. The fire that tore through an apartment Friday at Adrean Terrace Apartments demonstrated just how dangerous that curve is and how potentially hazardous differences in culture and lifestyle can be.

A fire originating in the kitchen of the apartment left a Somali family of 10 displaced and critically injured a 4-year-old girl.

The girl remained in critical condition Tuesday at Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, said fire Chief Russell Brooks, who said the cause of the fire has not been determined.

Brooks said oftentimes cultural differences contribute to potentially dangerous situations and the language barrier often proves difficult to surmount.

"It occurs very often on medical calls and also fires, where we have to act immediately, where lives are at risk," he said.

Brooks said traditions from refugees' homelands can be problematic.

Many Somali refugees decorate their homes with tapestries and fabric along the walls and entryway - that was the case in the Adrean Terrace apartment. Those materials feed a fire and contribute to excessive heat and smoke, Brooks said.

In addition, most refugees are not familiar with stoves - something that has not been ruled out as the cause of the fire.

Not having had them before, some refugees might use stoves improperly by leaving them on when they're not in use, using them to heat the house, pouring water on cooking oil fires, or cooking with firewood on top of the stove.

But the list of potential dangers goes beyond the kitchen.

According to Brooks, other cultural differences are:

* Lack of understanding about traffic and being able to cross the road.

* Not knowing when to call 911.

* Distrusting police and fire officials due to incidents in their own countries.

To help avoid dangerous situations, the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees provides a cultural orientation to new refugees, said Executive Director Shelly Callahan.

"One of the very first things we do with folks when they get here is make sure they can say their name, address and dial 911 on the phone," Callahan said.

The refugees also are given an identification card.

"We work with them to preserve their traditions, but to be safe," Callahan said.

The Municipal Housing Authority, which owns Adrean Terrace, also has an orientation with its residents.

Following the fire at Adrean Terrace, the authority inspected its buildings for possible issues, something it does regularly, said Executive Director Taras Herbowy.

"There are a plethora of issues that do come up that aren't covered in the orientation," he said. "We try to include that once we are aware."

The Refugee Center has worked with the fire, police and health departments to help them prepare to handle the diverse communities through competency training, Callahan said.

"We are always learning and we are always updating things," she said. "If we see needs coming in that haven't been addressed or haven't been a problem before, we update the cultural orientation."

Cultural Orientation

Refugees and immigrants are first exposed to an orientation prior to coming to the United States.

Upon arrival they are given an in-home orientation through the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, which takes about three hours and includes essentially safety information and how to properly use appliances in their home.

The center then does a more in-depth follow-up orientation and in-home visit within a few days. Refugees and immigrants are given booklets of information in their own language. For those who don't read or write their own language, a video is available through the center.

The center then does an about 90-day follow-up where a quiz is given. If they do not know the information or are having further issues the refugees are then referred to a different program for more help.

Source: Dzevad Racic Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees director of resettlement.

How to help

Utica Mayor Robert Palmieri and Fire Chief Russell Brooks said donations will be used to assist the family with travel costs and replacement of lost property. Donations can be dropped off at the Utica Fire Department headquarters at 552 Bleecker St. For information, call 792-0264.

Agencies and community members looking to assist in outreach to area refugees can contact the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees at 738-1083.

By the numbers

Since 1979, about 14,139 refugees have arrived in the area, according to November numbers from the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees.

About 273 Somali refugees have arrived since 1996, the main influx was about 113 in 2004.

About 4,449 Bosnian refugees have arrived in the area since 1979, the majority coming between 1979 and 2002.

The most recent wave of refugees are from Burma, with 2,626 arriving since 1997. About 151 arrived in 2012 as of November.


The Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees: 738-1083.

Compass Interpreters: A 24-hour hotline through the center at 749-7080.

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