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Chuck Haga, Forum News Service, Published May 04 2013

Refugees balance old and new as they seek identity

GRAND FORKS – As dozens of international refugees gathered here last Sunday for an annual picnic, an old man – still wearing the traditional clothing of Bhutan – stood off to the side, nodding as a younger man translated for him.

He stood with quiet dignity, curious about the strangeness surrounding him but not afraid, proud but not haughty.

“How long have you been in America?” a man asked in English, and the translator reported his response:

“Four days.”

Eyes meet, and unasked questions come to mind: Will this ever be “home” to this man? If he returned to the distant place he left many years ago, the place where he was young and grew to manhood, would that still seem like home? What of the refugee camp where he spent so many years in between, in limbo?

Across the room, another man who also had spent much of his life in a camp in Nepal cradled his infant son. He smiled and turned the boy’s face toward a stranger who had stopped to admire him.

“How old is he?”

“Four months.”

The father, who may have only weary memories of long years in camp – can he ever feel “home” again? Not there, certainly. Not here, probably.

But what of the boy in his arms?

“That sense of home is important to their sense of identity,” said University of North Dakota student Beatrice Hill, who has worked with teenage refugees who have made Grand Forks their new home.

“It’s a great balancing act,” she said, “balancing who they were and who they want to be.”

Fred Schumacher, who lives near Orr, Minn., also has studied the immigrant experience, but from a different background. He was a child when his German-speaking family lived in a camp for displaced people in Austria after World War II.

Many years later, he interviewed people in North Dakota who had been through a cultural uprooting.

“If you were young when you left, only a couple years old, you made yourself part of the new country,” he said. “If you were older when you left the camp, not born there, you had a connection to the old country that continued.

“Those people would tell me, ‘We always wanted to go home.’ ”

A world through two lenses

Hill wrote her UND Honors Program thesis this year on a youth mentoring program that aimed to ease the transition of New Americans into a world “viewed through two sets of cultural lenses.”

High school “is already a challenge for any adolescent,” she said. “Coming from another culture takes that to another level.”

Throughout the 2012 fall semester, 11 college mentors worked with 11 young refugees enrolled at Red River High School. The pairings increased to 19 in the spring semester.

The refugees met the same stresses a typical student faces, she said, but they did that while “learning a new language, adjusting to an unfamiliar culture, and discovering their own place within their school and local community.”

In weekly tutoring sessions and at public events, the young refugees “would develop a larger sense of confidence,” she wrote in her thesis. Also, as they become comfortable, “many refugee youth serve as cultural and language mediators for other members of their family.”

But she cited research from the UCLA Center for Mental Health in Schools to show that “many stresses accompany this transition, mainly surrounding the refugee youth’s sense of identity.”

They may be seen as not American at school, but at home parents or other family members may fret over the pace of their “Americanization.”

“The most resilient kids do a lot of cultural switching,” Hill wrote. “They act American at school, traditional at home. They are bicultural, or in many cases multicultural, and they know when ‘they wear each culture.’ ”

Camp memories

Schumacher learned many of those lessons six decades ago.

His family was ethnically German but had lived in Yugoslavia for generations when World War II began.

“We were similar to the Russian Germans who moved into the Black Sea area about the same time,” he said. “But unlike the Black Sea Germans, the Balkan Germans became pretty intermarried and multilingual. My mother’s family spoke Croatian at home.”

Schumacher was 7 when his family arrived in the United States in 1956, settling in western Pennsylvania.

“I took my catechism in Croatian, spoke German at home and English at school,” he said.

“My grandfather grew up on a landed estate in a very Hungarian milieu. … He played the accordion, and when he sang he sounded like a Turk, very nasal. His native language was Hungarian, he spoke Croatian with a Serbian accent, his German was atrocious and his English unintelligible.”

Schumacher married a North Dakota woman and farmed near Kindred, adding to his polyglot background by absorbing some Norwegian culture.

In 1976, he took part in a photography project documenting surviving immigrant culture in North Dakota, using his language ability to visit with Germans from Russia. He also took classes from the Rev. William Sherman, a Catholic priest and sociologist who researched and wrote about the ethnicities of North Dakota.

That led to Schumacher presenting a paper at a history conference on people who had been children in refugee camps.

“Mine was Haid, 13 kilometers south of Linz, Austria,” he said. “It was the largest refugee camp in Austria.”

His family was settled there in 1947. He was born in 1949.

Being apart

“I had good memories of growing up in the camp,” he said. “You’re a child. No matter where you are as a child, you make good memories.

“We turned blocks of wood from a saw mill into toys. We had noodles to eat, not much meat. I walked across a field with my grandfather to a farm to buy eggs.

“Life was simple.”

But in his research, he found that “when you grew up in a refugee camp and then emigrated somewhere, you don’t belong anywhere. You always have that feeling of not being part of something. You are an outsider.

“I was born in Austria, but I don’t belong there. I have lived in this country 56 years, but I always feel like an outsider. By the time I was 8 years old, you couldn’t tell I wasn’t born in the United States. I adapted. But the feeling of homelessness is hard to get rid of.

“You feel like an anthropologist on Mars, observing everyone around you.”

What advice would he give to New Americans from Bhutan, Iraq, Burundi and Somalia?

“Accept the condition you’ve been given,” he said. “You’re going to have this feeling of homelessness. You’re not going to change that. But accept what you have been given.

“The process of Americanization is very powerful, especially with the young because they want to become American. The old will always have one foot in the old country and one in the new.

“Understand that you can’t fully express to someone else what you’ve experienced – they won’t understand it – and that adds to your sometimes feeling so utterly isolated.”