Understanding the culture of the refugees your Community Sponsorship Group are supporting is very important in the process of building rapport with the refugee family. Cultural awareness can include so many different areas – from understanding the family’s preferences or taboos to being able to help them celebrate their religious festivals. In this resource we will share some tips for bridging cultural differences.
While we are quite an international team we are not from the Middle East and are not experts on the cultures of that region. We can, however, tell you what steps you can take effectively learn about the culture of the family your Group are supporting. There are also, of course, things you can do to prepare before they arrive (and we’ll get to that in a bit). There are things you can read and podcasts you can listen to, which are listed at the end of this resource, but the first thing to realise is that the family you are supporting are the best experts you can learn from!
In simplifying the complexities of world cultures we are often guilty of grouping them together. We all, at times, think about the Middle East as a homogenous region understood through a bunch of clichés. In reality the culture of a family from Baghdad will be very different from one from Damascus and that in turn different from someone brought up in rural regions of Syria. When thinking about the customs and preferences of refugees arriving from the Middle East it’s easy to revert to a number known assumptions, it’s much better to just be open to learning from and asking questions of the family after they arrive.
Here are our key tips for learning about the culture of the family you support:
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions – it sometimes may feel intrusive, but in reality most people really enjoy being asked how and why they do things! However, if you notice someone becomes uncomfortable when talking about certain aspects of their culture, be prepared to stop. Holidays or certain cultural practices can be reminders of traumatic experiences so don’t forget to read the room! The relationship between a Group and a refugee family may at times be a bit one sided – the Group taking on the role of mentors and guides to life in the UK and the refugee family taking on a role of students. Trying to find out about the refugee family’s culture and asking them questions about it, at least for a short time, reverses that power dynamic and allows the family to share their own experiences and expertise. And, of course, you are also going to learn things!
- Be open to new experiences – once you had an opportunity to get to know the family you support you can explore if there are any celebrations you can join or any other traditions you could take part in. If the family are Muslim then you can organise a time to break a fast together during the Ramadan (or perhaps you could go a step further and even fast for a day?). We all want to celebrate annual holidays that are important to us with our close ones – friends, family. A newly resettled family may find those times more difficult if they don’t have anyone already in the UK. Celebrating together will not only, at least partially, help with that, but also give you an opportunity to practice their culture!
- Be prepared to have your mind changed – when the Home Office matches a family to your Group, some of the Group members will receive information about the family including their religion, where they are from, their level of education, their political affiliations and the experiences that caused them to flee their country. Although this is very personal information, it won’t include more nuanced information. For example, if you are told the family is Muslim, you won’t know more nuanced information such like if they fast during Ramadan or if they even go to mosque. We can’t help but make assumptions but just remember that until the family arrives, you’ll be working in the abstract!
- Prepare before the arrival – finally, you can do some preparation before the family arrives. We put together recommendations of things you can do as you wait for the family to arrive. At the moment our arrival planning resource is somewhat centered around Middle East, but we will expand it as we learn which other countries Community Sponsorship will be welcoming
The brilliant IOM Refugee Information Sessions are now running again! They are, of course, adapted as online sessions, you can find out more here.
Bayt UK – a series of videos by Abdulrahman, who was himself resettled to the UK. The videos are primarily addressed to refugees arriving in the, but in the first episode Abdulrahman talks a bit about his experiences and the resettlement journey, it’s definitely worth a watch!
Integrate that – a podcast by two Syrian refugees about their experiences of living in the UK and the challenges that may, perhaps be less obvious than one may think. They’ve been running for only 2 months, but already made it to the pages of the Guardian, amongst others!
Refugee stories podcast – as the name suggests a podcast exploring life stories of refugees. Each episode focuses on a different person from different part of the world.
The Ungrateful Refugee - what immigrants never tell you by Dina Nayeri
Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami
A taste of home by Nisreen Kanbour and Malak Albetare