There are an estimated 15.1 million people around the world who have been forced from their homes by violence, according to the latest figures available from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. While the majority of these refugees and asylum-seekers are in sub-Saharan Africa (4.1 million) or Asia and the Pacific (3.8 million), considerable numbers also reside in Europe (3.5 million) and the Americas (753,000). These resettled refugees face unique challenges in integrating with their new host nations, especially in light of recent xenophobic media coverage that has the effect of equating all refugees with criminals or terrorists. This inaugural episode of the “We Help” podcast examines the role refugee social workers play in helping refugees find a second chance.

Ena Ackerman-Offer is a refugee social worker at the Forest Hills, Queens, branch of the YMCA. Although it was never her intention to focus specifically on displaced people (she had originally intended to become a therapist), Ackerman-Offer has found her work with refugees to be some of her most rewarding professional experiences.

“The refugees and asylees are by far the most grateful population that I’ve worked with,” Ackerman-Offer told “We Help” host Arly Nguyen.

As Ackerman-Offer explains, the process social workers take in assisting refugees in resettlement begins the same as with any other client: completing intake forms, registering the client, and establishing goals for employment and education. Where the refugee course diverges from other clients is in eligibility. Because refugees are forcibly displaced (rather than having voluntarily chosen to migrate), they are instantly eligible for government services that other immigrants would need to wait for. Due to this special status, social workers are able to refer refugees to a wider variety of agencies and programs, such as Medicaid or English as a second language courses.

But, as mentioned, refugees also face particular challenges in resettlement, many of which hinge on being a stranger in a strange land. Language barriers and culture shock — not to mention the traumatic experiences that often precede becoming a displaced person — can leave even well-educated refugees relying heavily on social workers to help them navigate the job market or benefits process. This can exasperate social workers accustomed to clients who are more familiar with the system and what it requires of them. To this end Ackerman-Offer gives refugee social workers two pieces of advice:

  1. Provide refugees with clear instructions on what is required of them, such as a list of all the documentation they must bring for their next visit.
  2. Remember that refugees are people with skills, motivations and dreams, and treat them accordingly.

That second piece of advice is underscored by the other subject of this episode of “We Help”: Mohammed, an Iraqi refugee who arrived in the United States in 2011. (Mohammed’s name has been changed to protect his identity.) Before leaving his homeland, Mohammed worked with U.S. forces and publicly supported women’s rights, which eventually drove him from Iraq. After arriving in the United States, Mohammed connected with a social worker who, far from helping him, simply dashed his dreams. Despite his Microsoft certifications, bachelor’s degree in business administration and a decade of professional experience in IT, this first social worker told Mohammed, according to his words, “Whatever you were doing [in Iraq], it doesn’t mean much over here. ... There is a job at a warehouse if you want it. If not, I’m sorry but I can’t help you.”

Mohammed was dejected but thankfully met another social worker who inspired him to keep looking for work in his field. That small bit of encouragement revived Mohammed’s hopes and aspirations. It didn’t just help him to land a job in IT, which he did a few weeks later, it also made it possible for him to believe in himself and take charge of his life. A few kind words (and a little help formatting his resume) helped Mohammed do all of the things that social workers wish for their clients.

Sometimes it may seem like social workers, despite their best efforts, are powerless in helping their clients. But as the stories of Ena Ackerman-Offer and Mohammed illustrate, the potential of social workers to help actually grows in these dire situations. Refugee social workers play an important role in the resettlement process that displaced people must undergo in order to successfully make new lives for themselves. In leaving behind a homeland plagued by violence and corruption, and arriving on foreign shores, refugees have taken one of the most difficult steps imaginable. It’s up to social workers to help them stay the course.

To learn more about what you as a social worker can do to help refugees, please visit: The Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors; The National Association of Social Workers; and The Social Work Policy Institute.