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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, Published September 27 2012

North Dakota social workers relate with combat vets, refugees

GRAND FORKS – You’re a social worker assigned to help a combat veteran reintegrate into life in America and a “new normal” with family, friends and a job.

Or your assignment is a family of refugees who fled war or persecution in their homeland, fled across a border and spent years in a refugee camp before coming to this exceedingly strange place called North Dakota.

The word Thursday from two professionals: empathy.

“You have to understand what people go through in the military, how deployment impacts the family and the deployed service member before, during and after,” said Randy Nedegaard, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who for seven months supervised mental health professionals working with forward-deployed troops in Afghanistan.

And when dealing with international refugees, “think about the physical and emotional separation they faced,” said Tara Dupper, resettlement coordinator for Lutheran Social Services New Americans in Grand Forks.

Social workers from across the state gathered in Grand Forks this week to consider those and other challenges at their annual conference, “Creating Stability in a Time of Change,” at the Alerus Center.

On Friday, they’ll take up the social welfare implications of western North Dakota’s oil boom.

Nedegaard was deployed to Afghanistan from mid-2009, at the start of the troop “surge” there, to early 2010. He joined UND’s social work faculty last year.

In Afghanistan, Nedegaard sent and sometimes accompanied teams of two or three mental-health professionals to forward operating posts to see how the troops were coping.

“I was appalled at some of the tactics the Taliban used to undermine morale and shake people up,” he said.

He also heard soldiers and Marines “talk about going out on missions like they were bait. That’s hard on morale, especially when there are casualties.”

He listened as troops wondered why they were there.

“But I was impressed,” he said, “by the dedication they brought to the mission, the way they put aside those questions about why and went out and did what they were supposed to do.”

There is “no easy way to step out of” such an experience, Nedegaard said, and “there’s a lot of things people need to understand if they’re going to work with the military, if you’re going to get veterans to trust you and talk.”

It may be as simple as understanding military jargon and shorthand – that MOS means military occupational specialty, or the difference between the ranks of major and sergeant major – so the social worker doesn’t have to interrupt a veteran to clarify such things.

Nedegaard said he is helping a North Dakota Army National Guard psychologist develop a military culture certificate program, a short course for lawyers, pastors, social workers and others who work with returning soldiers.

“I think we’re going to be dealing with this a long time,” he said.


The flow of international refugees into Grand Forks and other North Dakota cities also is expected to continue, likely growing beyond the numbers seen so far: approaching 100 a year in Grand Forks.

The United States resettled about 56,000 international refugees in the fiscal year just ended, Dupper said, out of about 15 million people identified by the UN as refugees. About 30 million more people are characterized as people “of concern,” including people displaced in their own countries.

“This is a large crisis worldwide,” she said.

Many refugees “have been ripped apart from children or parents, or lost someone along the way,” and she told of a woman, resettled in Grand Forks, who recently was reunited with a son, 13 – a boy she hadn’t seen in nine years.

The refugee facing a social worker may have frequently gone days without eating or drinking, suffered neurological problems due to a vitamin deficiency, and left behind a skill or trade that once gave him identity and purpose but doesn’t transfer well here.

Here, they often must grapple with shifting family roles, a dependence on others, as well as prejudice and discrimination. In flight and in the camps, they had to learn to assert themselves to survive, and that assertiveness can be misunderstood as an “entitlement” mentality.

“Communication is the most critical thing in working with refugees,” Dupper said, to make sure that the refugees understand what is expected of them and how our systems work.

And ask questions if a facial expression or gesture doesn’t seem appropriate; it may indicate a cultural difference. Dupper smiled as she said that and shook her head back and forth, typically a negative response here. But when talking with a Bhutanese refugee, that gesture “shows they understand,” she said.

Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald.

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