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Aiding Families in Transition

Below are the main points of the strategies Jeremy Schneider discussed in his presentation to the United Nations Women’s Guild.

First: Rituals and traditions.  Many of you, I presume, come from cultures that are rich with traditions and rituals.  Don’t put them aside just because you have moved away from where you learned them.  Hold onto your traditions and treat them as a lifesaver. It is important to be able to incorporate rituals and customs from your own country and combine them with life in this country. You may have found you were having some difficulty following or observing your rituals in this country when you first arrived.  It is very important in situations like these to celebrate them anyway – even if you have to make some adjustments.  Here are some questions to ask to yourself in considering these changes.  Would it be okay if people who were invited weren’t of the same religion or culture?  Can new friends & neighbors be invited and be part of the ceremony while you explain to them what is happening?  Can you mark this special event with only your family?

Major life events are too valuable to miss because it is too difficult to perform the ceremony here the way it was done in your country.  It is healthier for everyone in your family if you can tailor the ceremony to what you can do here and start your own traditions as a mixture of the past and present.  That will be a special gift you can give to your children who will learn that becoming a part of this country doesn’t mean giving up their old one.


Second : Food.   Have you ever had food remind you of another place and time?  When I have hot fudge ice cream sundaes, I always think about when I was growing up and my grandparents would take me out and treat me to ice cream.  It is a special memory for me.

Food and the smell of it will remind you and give you the feel of your home country.  Take advantage of the power of food and it’s connection to your homeland.  One wonderful way to get through a bad day is to plan a homeland evening.  Try to bring together as many reminders of your culture and homeland as possible. If you have special clothes from your country that you don’t normally wear here–put them on.  Play some special music while eating specially prepared food just like you would have it in your own country. Just because you have moved here does not mean you have to cut-off from the connection to your old country.


Third: Religion.  One of the first things you can do is try and find your place of worship.   This can be done by asking people you meet if they know of any places, looking in the yellow pages for religious institutions or places of worship or by calling information and asking for the name of a place if you have heard of one already.

This important for several reasons. Whether you find your particular place of worship through the yellow pages or by asking people that you meet it is very important to make the effort to find a place where you feel comfortable.  And if remaining connected to your culture is important to you this is one of the most valuable ways of keeping that connection as well as meeting new people who may share similar experiences and may be able to offer other ideas about how to make moving to this country a little bit easier.

Fourth: Organizations.  This kind of organization is important because it offers resources to get help, learn English, find places where you can observe your religion and culture and a place to meet people who are experiencing the similar sorts of concerns and questions with adjusting as you are.

There are groups of hundreds, if not thousands, of people who share common backgrounds with you right in this city, some of them are in this very room. Please don’t give up if you don’t find a place you feel comfortable in  right away.  I’m sure if you keep looking You will.

Often when people are looking for help they overlook what is right in front of them.  Try not to take for granted an organization that is a sanctuary from the trials and tribulations of adjusting to a new world.

FifthLanguage.  Beyond learning the language there is the issue of what your native language means to you.  I’m sure many of you were or still are afraid of losing your native language or that your children will not use it.

One idea that I’ve come across which is very helpful in situations like this is native language days.  Once a week, say a Sunday, everyone in the family will speak only their native language for the entire day or afternoon or whatever is decided upon.  This not only helps keep your native language fresh in your mind, but also will help to create a new ritual and tradition for your family that brings them together in a new yet still special way.

Sixth: Maintain consistency.  For those of you who have children this is the most important section for you.  I say that because children will experience a change very deeply.  But if things do not change too much in their routines it will be easier for them to adjust.  Try to keep things such as their bedtime and dinner times the same.

Many parents read their children a story before bedtime, others devote a Sunday afternoon to spend together.  One of the best things to do is set aside a certain time each day for one meal that the whole family can eat together.  Many a marriage has been saved by this simple idea.

Remember to try and keep these rituals as consistent as possible.  This way even though the place where the family lives has changed, what happens with their family doesn’t.

Also many parents may feel guilty about making their children move to a new country and forcing them to make all of these changes.  Then because of their guilt, they don’t enforce the rules that their children are supposed to follow and then don’t discipline them when they break the rules.  This generates a very difficult situation for the entire family.  Just as children need the consistency of the positive experiences with their family to remain, they need the rules and discipline to remain consistent as well.  Children need structure in their lives otherwise they get very confused and frightened.

They need to be able to reach out and feel that you and your rules are still there in this new and scary world.  It is more damaging to them when parents let their children get away with everything.  It’s perfectly okay to feel guilty, but try not to let it hurt your children or everyone will feel worse.

Seventh: Preconceived ideas. Many people when they first come to this country have already made up their minds as to what Americans are like.  Especially in the beginning, newcomers to this country think Americans can be cold, mean, rude, and obnoxious.  Some of that may be true, but think about what kind of effect that has on your life.  What if you had come in here today thinking “Oh he’s an American what does he know about us?  What can he say that could actually help me?”  And whether I have said anything that helps you or not you wouldn’t have been able to have heard it because you already assumed that what I had to say was not important.

What if I came in here today with my own preconceived ideas about you and thought “Oh they’re foreigners they won’t understand me.  Anyway, I certainly don’t want to trust them with anything about me.”

What if this little talk of mine didn’t include anything about myself to explain these strategies?  Would it have the same effect?  I don’t think so.  If I had assumed you weren’t trustworthy, then I wouldn’t have given you the chance to be trusted and I would have walked away believing you’re not trustworthy.  A self-fulfilling prophecy.

But we are lucky.  We both came here with an open mind and we both will hopefully walk away today having gained something from trusting the other. Now you know how destructive these preconceived ideas are to people.  They keep us from becoming connected and having friendships with others.  Try not to let your preconceived ideas prevent you from getting to know the truth about the other person.

Eighth:  Mourning.  Many people think of death when they think of mourning.  But mourning helps us recover from loss whether this loss is from death, divorce, or moving away from your home.  It doesn’t matter if you were forced to leave your country or chose to move here–it will still feel like a loss.  One of the most important things you can do to help yourself adjust to being in a new place, a new environment, a new home is to let yourself mourn this loss. If you act as if it doesn’t affect you, it will only make the entire situation even worse.  Let yourself feel your loss.

Please remember to give yourself the time and space to mourn your losses without getting upset with yourself that you are not adjusting to this new world fast enough.

Ninth:  Family meetings.  If there is one thing you get out of today I hope it is this.  Family discussions, talks, chats, meetings, however you and your family choose to call it are the most valuable way of keeping the family together and connected and helping each other through whatever problems develop.  It is also the best way to put in place some of the ideas I’ve talked about today.

Everything I have already mentioned, rituals & traditions,   food,   religion,   UNWG,   language, maintaining consistency,   preconceived ideas and mourning can all be planned, talked about and determined through family meetings.  Family meetings give each person a chance to speak their mind and express some of their concerns, fears, successes and also insures that the family will remain connected with each other even though everything around them has changed.  The family meetings can even include several of the ideas I have talked about.  It can be done in your own language and/or around the eating of your special food.  This can be the time where you share what you are learning about this new culture you’ve entered into with each other.   This can be the time where you talk about some of the preconceived ideas you have about the people of this country and whether you are finding them to be true or not.   This can be the time to share your pain and sense of loss and how much you miss your native country.   This can also be the time to share your successes and what you’ve learned and how you’ve grown with each other and gain new found strength to adapt and adjust better to this country.

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