Role Reversal: Teenage Refugees Take On Parent’s Responsibilities

By Gabriella Alvarez

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Image Credit: World Relief Spokane

How would you feel if your 16 year old made sure all of the family’s bills were paid, did all of the grocery shopping and scheduled appointments? Would you trust them to be your sole source of communication outside of the family? Most parents would say, “Absolutely not,” but this is exactly what refugee teenagers are expected to do on a daily basis.

When a refugee family arrives in a new community, the ones who pick up English the fastest are the children. This is because the children are enrolled in school and are immersed in English for hours during every school day. In refugee families, there is a tremendous amount of stress put on teenagers by their family to interpret and coordinate daily household functions. Responsibilities such as paying bills, grocery shopping and making appointments all fall on teenagers as they take on roles usually reserved for the parents.

“There is a lot of pressure on teenagers to grow up too fast,” explains Jordan Bemis, Resettlement Program Manager at World Relief, an organization that helps refugees assimilate in Spokane, Washington by providing vital services that include preparing their new home with furniture and basic household items, arranging medical visits, and providing job skills.

Refugees, who are forced out of their home country due to persecution or war, typically live in temporary camps provided by the United Nations. While they are there they spend around six to seven years, but in some cases up to 20 years, applying for entry into the United States. All that time is spent going through extensive interviews, background checks and security clearances to prove that these refugees are who they say they are. Met with many challenges, refugees have numerous obstacles to face, but teenage refugees face challenges that few would expect.

Everyday decisions that we take for granted can be daunting for young refugees. They come from a place where they have very limited choices or the freedom to make their own decisions and it is overwhelming for them to be at the grocery store suddenly facing twenty different brands of toothpaste. “These teenagers are living between two worlds,” Bemis states. They have one foot still in the refugee camp and one in this new unknown world.

With all these challenges these new members of our community face, teenage refugees still come to the U.S. advanced in math and science. For their first year they struggle in social studies and English but according to Bemis, “They are very smart and are quick to learn.”

Loneliness is also a difficult emotion for these refugee teenagers to overcome. In the camps it is all communal living; the kids play outside while the parents converse. Here in Spokane, the community is spread out. “Everyone is living all over the place, so they feel more alone and isolated. Some kids have to take the bus for 30 minuets just to see their friend,” says Bemis.

Refugee families offer so much to our community and workplaces. They bring vibrancy, life and culture to our city.

As difficult as it is to be a teenager trying to figure out who you are and your place in the world, these refugees are navigating their teenage years in an unknown country as well as having the responsibility of being the sole communicator for their family. Helping refugees adjust to their new life requires the community to offer support services for their newest members. Some high schools have new student centers for refugees and many churches offer refugee events.

“Spokane is generally a welcoming and warm city to refugees,” says Bemis. “World Relief has support from the mayor and from a lot of different organizations and churches. Refugee families offer so much to our community and workplaces. They bring vibrancy, life and culture to our city.

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