Some choose to be unaware…
I initially spoke with Loretta in the winter of 1994. I was essentially asking her help in finding people who would be willing to talk with me about their experiences of being the victims of human-inflicted trauma. Loretta did not know me at all. However, she very graciously agreed to help me with my project. I sent off several letters of introduction and reference, and very soon after this, I interviewed a man who Loretta knew and who was a former political prisoner in Vietnam. It was more than a year later that I spoke with Loretta directly about exactly what it is that she does. This interview is that conversation. I have changed some of the grammar in places where the spoken conversation would be difficult to understand in a written format. All the comments in italics are mine. I hope this is true to the spirit of our discussion.
Mary: Loretta, would you say something about what you do, and how people find you?
Loretta: People wind up on our doorstep in this way: overseas, the decision is made as to what national voluntary agency will be receptive (to a given case). In our case, I work with the United States Catholic Conference (USCC). Once that decision is made, then the national office in New York of the USCC contacts one of the other local voluntary agencies across the United States and asks if they would assure this case for settlement. Of course, if that refugee overseas has a family in Tucson, for instance, then most likely, that’s where they’re going to come. Once we assure this case and get the first notice of their arrival, we start preparing for their arrival. By that, if it’s an individual that does not have a family here, then we will find the housing and pay the first month’s rent, deposit, and utilities. We will see that the apartment is set up with the basics, see that there’s food in the apartment on the day of arrival. We will greet them at the airport, and then within the first week that they’re here, a caseworker will do an intake with them and see that all their papers are in order. We try to do that on the day of arrival because if their I-94 card is missing a number or something of that nature, maybe we can take care of that within the next 24 hours. Otherwise, we’ll have to deal with INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) here, which isn’t a hassle–it just takes longer.
Mary: Their I-94 is their immigration card?
Loretta: Right. The I-94 states that they have refugee status and that they have the authorization to get a job here. Then, starting that first week after arrival, the caseworkers do basic core services that were contracted with our national office, make an appointment for them to get a complete physical, have a health screening done by the Health Department (for T.B. for example). We will make an appointment for a complete dental exam, put in their social security card applications, register them at Job Service, register them with English classes, if there are children in the family, register them in school. These are pretty much the basics. During that first month, we will continue to buy food for them. By the end of the first month, they either do one of two things: they apply for refugee cash assistance through the state, and then they are eligible to receive cash assistance for up to 8 months. Or if it looks like they are easily employed, we can enroll them in our match grant program. We work very hard with them to ensure they have a job within one hundred twenty days of their arrival. If they get a job, the income of which is above the eligibility limit for cash assistance, then assistance is cut. They also get refugee medical assistance–an insurance program similar to ACCCHS (state-funded health insurance for low-income families), and they are eligible for that up until eight months. If their job provides them with insurance, or their income is too high (making them ineligible), then that’s discontinued after five months.
Suppose it’s a family that comes to a family here. In that case, part of the sponsorship agreement that family makes with us is that they would want to provide such things as housing, or they would at least assist us in looking for housing, and assist us in getting the core services–getting them to the doctor or the dentist for instance. In the case of a sponsoring relative, we ask that they try to do as much as possible.
Mary: The money to do all these services is provided by whom?
Loretta: Ultimately, the federal government. The USCC or other national volunteer agencies have an agreement with the Department of State to resettle refugees. The funding comes from the Department of State, through the national office, and then to the local voluntary agencies who contract with their national office to resettle so many refugees during a calendar year. We receive supplemental funds to do that in our administrative budget. Then a revolving fund to give direct assistance to the victims covering the cost of housing. There are a couple of other programs that we have: Relocation Adjustment, which is for those refugees who need continued service after their first three months. Those funds come through the State Office of Refugee Resettlement at DES (Department of Economic Security). We have a subcontract with them to provide counseling and see that they get continued medical care if that’s what they need. No financial assistance is given. It’s strictly social services. One of the other programs we had, which is just about over, has been our foster care program for Vietnamese and Amerasian children who escaped Vietnam without their parents or legal guardians. In that program, we recruited, trained, and licensed foster homes to take in these children. That also is a contract through the State Office of Refugee Resettlement, ultimately the national Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). That was very well funded because our government had a real commitment to these kids. But with the current economic problems, funding is going down.
Mary: Obviously, the funding decline is a real problem. What is your belief about the Department of State and the U.S. government’s motives in providing these services?
Loretta: That’s quite a question. I don’t know if I want to answer it! Well, when I came into Refugee Resettlement, it (the work) was predominantly with Southeast Asians. Due to a lot of things I hear, I think part of the reason our government was so committed to it (refugee resettlement) was because of our role in the Vietnam War. Outside of that, I don’t know. The United States government has always seemed to have this ‘big brother’ outlook. I think that’s from where it comes. That’s the only way I know how to answer that.
Mary: Basically, the big brother as a caretaker? The idea that the United States is going to do some taking care of people who are in trouble.
Loretta: Right. Those less fortunate or oppressed. The Statue of Liberty, ‘Give me your huddled masses,’ whatever those words are.
Mary: What do you believe the value is of doing this work of resettling refugees?
Loretta: I think our history of being a country of immigrants, and what this has brought to this nation shows the value. We wouldn’t be here otherwise. I’ve always been in service work. It’s important to me. That would hold for whether I was a refugee. My Christian upbringing gives another depth and aspect to it. That (her Christianity) has great value when I run up against a difficult situation.
Mary: Your spiritual values are helpful in the work that you do?
Loretta: Definitely. There are times when you can get very discouraged, very frustrated. There are days when I’m sure Mr. C (a man, a refugee, with whom Loretta works) would like to send letters to the editor. I (as a professional) maybe sound better than them (the refugees) because I have more knowledge about all situations. For example, when we are questioned about “Why are we doing this when we have so many homeless people on our streets?” and that kind of thing, and “we better start taking care of our own.” At times, I think it’s a matter of just looking at everybody as an individual. Not this one is a refugee, and this one is an American citizen, but this is a person who’s been through such and such and needs something right now. If we can help alleviate some of that pain, then that’s what we’re here to do. And it’s not always easy. There are some questions that come across my mind a lot. I think, “Why can’t the U.S. mind its own business once in a while?” I sometimes think, “They go in someplace, and they’re going to help, and they end up making it a lot worse,” instead of letting some of these places try to take care of themselves. Maybe they’d be better off (without the United States). I don’t know. I’m far from being political. But these people are here, and they need help, and I’m able to try and do that.
Mary: How long have you been doing this work?
Loretta: Ten years. I started with a refugee foster care program with the unaccompanied minors. I’d been directing that. In the summer of 1990, I started with the adults and families that would come over, in addition to staff and unaccompanied minors.
Mary: How many refugees do you think you’ve been involved with?
Loretta: I can start with the unaccompanied minors, there had to be about sixty of them. Just within the directing of the settlement aspect of the program, since 1990, we’ve probably resettled five hundred or close to it, I would think. I’ve been involved either directly or indirectly with all of them. Probably more indirectly with those individuals who are in the Relocation Adjustment Program, indirectly in the sense that I supervise the caseloads. I don’t always have a lot of direct contact with those refugees, but then some of them I worked with when they were in the resettlement phase.
Mary: What kinds of situations do people come out of?
Loretta: For the Vietnamese, it was the Communist takeover after the fall of Saigon. These people experienced the oppression of not being able to work because they were formerly in the South Vietnamese Army (SVA). Their children were not allowed to go beyond a certain grade level because the parents had been in the SVA, or because they worked for an American company before the war. Then you have the men who spent anywhere from three to sixteen years in a ‘Re-Education’ camp (political prisons), and what they and their families have gone through. I’m not as familiar with the Cambodian and Laos situations, but I’m sure they were similar. We’ve only had a few Somalian and Bosnian families come. That’s still going on. The Bosnian women, I haven’t spoken to them yet to hear their experiences. The Somalian women have been raped, beaten, and some of them saw their husbands killed, they’ve described a lot of horrific conditions. You must separate yourself somehow, to hear this day in and day out. If you really let it get to you, it would take its toll on you.
Mary: Some of the abuses that people have suffered who come through your office are quite extreme?
Loretta: Yes. More than I think we’ll ever know. I don’t think that even they are willing to share some of it.
Mary: You’re quite sure that they keep a lot to themselves about what they’ve experienced?
Mary: Do people tell you that, or indicate that to you?
Loretta: Yes. Some have.
Mary: What are the kinds of consequences that you see? What are the effects on the people who have come through your office? What seems to be linked to their experience of being in re-education camps, or having been raped, or having experienced other violent situations?
Loretta: Physical effects and being in poor health. These people are very, very nervous. There are other emotional effects. Resistant to wanting to get a life going–maybe that is, not the way to phrase it, but we’re mandated to get these people employed as soon as possible so that they are self-sufficient. I can understand that, but when you have somebody who has been in a concentration camp for ten years or some kid who’s been in a refugee camp for ten months, I think the culture shock is a lot greater. They’re not, at least with the adults, feeling that they want to get into the job market right away. They don’t feel confident enough.
Mary: So, there’s a toll on self-esteem as well?
Loretta: Yes. I think to some extent there is. That varies with individuals, too. I see the ones that are very appreciative of being here, grateful for anything you could do for them. Those who want very much to give of themselves to help the other refugees come in and assist us and what we’re doing to help those people. At the same time, there’s an underlying sadness that you referred to before (Loretta is referring to an earlier conversation of ours in which I’d commented on a sadness I’d noticed while interviewing a re-education camp survivor). They’re also trying to survive here and get both feet on the ground. It weighs very heavily. If they have loved ones left behind, that’s an extra burden on them.
Mary: What kinds of tolls on the family have you seen on the people who were not in the camps but were waiting for their partners/fathers?
Loretta: I think the role of the woman changed. They had to become a mother, father, and head of household. Then when the father came back, they try to be a family again, but it’s a trial. The father tries to become the disciplinarian, which he was originally (but has not been for some time). As far as marital relationships, I’m amazed at some of these women. A husband and wife weren’t together for two or three years because of the war going on. He was in the army, let’s say. Then the war ends, and he’s put in a re-education camp for five years. Basically, there’s been no marriage. All of a sudden, the day comes, and he’s released, and they’re supposed to go back together again as man and wife. Or maybe there have been some cases where the wife hasn’t been able to wait until the husband returns, and she’s married to someone else or has a relationship with somebody else.
The kids are split up, or they have become street people (many of the children of political prisoners, as well as other children in Vietnam, became ‘street people’). When the family was given permission to come to the United States, this child who has spent three years roaming the streets joins the family to come to the United States, and they’re supposed to live together as a family? It’s crazy. It’s just not going to happen, because they (these families) are here suddenly. Maybe the situation is that the husband gets out of the army, and away from the family in a concentration camp, and he escapes from Vietnam and comes here. He still tries to support his family back home and survive here, never knowing whether he’s going to see his family. So, he starts another relationship here. It has a lot of effect on these families. I admire the ones who have been able to stay faithful. I don’t know how rare it is, but I know some of them who have started a second family or whatever, and I’m not saying that that’s good or bad, but they did. They did what they had to do. You try to think about what you would do in that situation. Most of these men who were in re-ed camp, they weren’t permitted to work after they got out. All their papers were taken from them, so the wife continued to be a provider for the family. These men’s self-esteem went down because they were not able to be the provider in the way they had been. The other result I see of all of this is the alcohol problems.
Mary: Would you say something about that.
Loretta: It’s there, and it’s not good. It just seems to happen a lot and ends up with a domestic violence issue. We see more and more of that.
Mary: So, people seem to develop alcoholism that hadn’t been present before?
Loretta: Well, I don’t know if it hadn’t been there before, but I know that it’s here now. I think maybe to some extent it was there previously. What was perhaps more acceptable in their home country isn’t acceptable here. It gets to be seen more as a problem. In many foreign countries, the children grew up drinking wine with their dinner or something, and here that’s not OK. I see that, even if it’s something that occurred before or as part of the culture, it’s gotten out of hand, and people are hurt, sometimes physically. Then that becomes shameful–you lose face with that. I see this as a big issue, and the domestic violence problem has grown. The problem of increasing alcohol and drug use and problems with violence in the home are concerns for many who work with refugee communities. These are concerns voiced by the refugees themselves.
Mary: You mentioned something about losing face, how much do you think that shame is a factor for people who have been through political violence? What I mean by shame is how much a sense of a diminishment in their self-esteem or their value because of some of what they’ve gone through?
Loretta: Losing face because they’ve gone through what they did?
Mary: Yes. Do the Re-Education camp survivors tend to be self-effacing?
Loretta: I’m not sure how to answer that. I haven’t seen it too much where they’re self-effacing. I’ve seen instances where maybe in an attempt to bolster their self-esteem, an individual might be more demanding, and less likely to take less because of their (former) high rank in the military, or the good job that they carried out before. If they had a really good position, they have come here to the United States, and they feel almost as if the U.S. government should be helping them get as fine a position as they had. They feel that they should not have to start out being at an entry-level. Especially if they communicate in English, in some professions, I will tend to agree with them. When I first started working in refugee work, I met people like doctors or people in the healthcare professions. I believe it would be valuable if one of your ethnic group were treating you. So, I don’t understand why the U.S. government did not set up a program where doctors could be resettled and put into a program where credentialing would be a lot quicker. There are so many cities that have universities and have medical and nursing schools. I’m not saying resettle them all in the same city, but work something out–give grants to some of these universities to take in these people. Get them intensive English language training so that they can then pass their certification boards and practice medicine to treat the people that are here, too. Instead, the few that have been able to do that are concentrated in large cities, and there are smaller areas that are in just as much need for mental health or medical staff. (It is essential to consider Loretta’s remarks and be aware that professionals who are also refugees have language skills to work with other refugees and specific knowledge of the ‘home’ culture. Lorretta’s suggestions could allow refugees to use their valuable training and abilities. This would speed their recovery and serve the larger community.)
Mary: Some of the valuable resources that these people have brought with them in terms of their training and abilities have been wasted or not used as well as they might have been?
Mary: What do you believe is the level of information that most Americans have about the problems that refugees have coming from war-torn areas?
Loretta: General information level is close to zero, I think. Just seeing an article in the newspaper about refugees, is few and far between. Because you don’t hear about it for a long time, you get replies like the one I got one day when I was calling around trying to arrange a house, “We’re still getting refugees from Vietnam? I thought that was over years ago.” I think a lot of people are unaware of and choose to be unaware.
Mary: Why do you think they would choose to be?
Loretta: I think that with awareness, maybe they’d have to do something about it. They don’t like it.
Mary: Do you think people, Americans tend to deny the reality of the kinds and amounts of atrocities in the world?
Loretta: I’m sure some deny, but I feel there’s a greater percentage that doesn’t necessarily deny, but it doesn’t affect them, so it’s not necessary for them to be aware. It doesn’t carry the impact because it’s not something that’s close to them. A person who has suffered torture in Bosnia can understand the person who suffered torture in Vietnam or Somalia. An American who has never experienced torture would have a much harder time relating to it. It’s not happening in Casa Grande and, therefore, it’s not that close, and they don’t need to worry about it.
Mary: Do you think it would in some ways benefit the average person who hasn’t experienced that kind of trauma to know something about it?
Loretta: Yes. Because I think all of us need to have our consciousness raised in the area of social justice.
Mary: Why? Why would that be a concern? If it’s not happening in Casa Grande, why do I need to know?
Loretta: Because it just might happen in Casa Grande. You look around the world today, and it’s like, ‘ is there any place that is not having some kind of unrest–even in the United States?’ Los Angeles isn’t that far away. For example, currently, in Tucson, there is the Irish American who is being tried for helping or assisting their countrymen (who was in the Irish Republican Army). It’s not that far away. Before, what I said about the United States having a big brother complex, I mostly referred to it negatively.
On the other hand, I think there’s a lot to be said for being aware or sensitive to the needs of the people around us. I believe the world would be a much more peaceful place if people of the world had a strong community concept. It is important to know that there’s somebody across the street or down the street that you can turn to in a time of need is important. I think that’s what a lot of these other countries see in the United States. ‘We can turn to them, and they will help,’ and this is very acceptable. But I think as individuals, that concept or reality of community is crucial. For people who are churchgoers, I think that’s what keeps them together–this is my family, in a sense–an extended family. Most of us don’t have one anymore.
Mary: What do you think the effects are of human-inflicted trauma on the individual’s spiritual life?
Loretta: I can only answer this based on the close relationships I have with individuals who have been through the experience. I can’t necessarily tell you about the individual I don’t see often. Maybe I see him every two months or so. For those who have been through the experience (of human-inflicted trauma), whom I have worked with day in and day out, I see a very profound spiritual effect. Probably though, the foundation was there before the experience occurred, and it’s that spirituality that helped get them through the experience that allowed them to survive it both physically and emotionally. The people I know who have been tortured and have been through some horrendous experiences are deeply spiritual. They are concerned about their fellow man, are kind, gentle people–interestingly enough– given what they’ve experienced. I would have thought that they’d want to lash out at anybody and everybody.
Mary: How do you think this work with people, the refugees, and the people who have been tortured, how do you think this has affected you?
Loretta: It’s given me a much greater appreciation, I think, of the freedom that we have here in the United States. I’m very grateful that I haven’t had the experiences they’ve had. I’m grateful to God for having put me in a situation where I’ve encountered these people and have gotten to know them. They are fine people. Those I’ve known over the years are very inspirational. One of the refugees said to me one day, and I had given him something based on a previous conversation. I saw this magazine article, and I thought of him and gave him the magazine. He was elated. He came to my office and said, “You know, I think the Holy Spirit is using you as an instrument.” Well, I could have said the same thing. I could have turned that around very easily because each encounter raises your awareness of what you have, and what your spirituality is. The job, in general, has been very much an addition to my spiritual belief. My spiritual foundation has been strong, but I think, and I don’t think I’m alone, that many of us get caught up in our everyday lives to the point where what you do to make a living, and what you do spiritually is separate. You get caught up in the frenzy of every day, and you don’t see the interconnection a lot of times. I think in the refugee resettlement work, you better see that end of it (the spiritual), or if you don’t, you’re often reminded of it. My desire is to be conscious of God’s presence in my life. I think that desire has increased. I had it maybe at one point in my life, and then, as I say, you just get caught up in one kind of survival so that you let it (the spiritual) kind of get away from you. Then you realize when you’re doing this sometimes, why you’re doing it, and why you must keep that presence there or recall that the presence is there.
Mary: If you could do anything, what would you do regarding this whole issue–of people who have been tortured, who have been through these situations–in terms of culture in general?
Loretta: It’s so vast a problem area. I don’t know what you could do or where you would start. Probably with the children….one of my pet peeves is that you need to work with parents. I think the children in our world today are the ones who need to be given the values and the foundation so that history doesn’t repeat itself. They need to be taught tolerance, acceptance, and not always ‘me first.’ There are times when it has to be me first, but not all the time. Less materialistic–that’s a big lesson plan! I think kids are so pressured to excel, instead of being taught that you have these gifts, and to use them to the best of your ability. That is the way you’re excelling. It’s not important that you be at the top of the class or the A student. I can think of a little, not so silly, example, of a couple of years ago when one of my daughter’s classmates–my daughter had gotten a B or a C in one of her classes, and her friend asked her what her parent’s reaction was.
My daughter said, “my mother asked me if I had put my best effort into it. I told her that I thought I had, and she said fine.” Her classmate’s reaction was, “O my God if I don’t come home with an A, nothing is worth it.” I just think that this emphasis is in the wrong place. Talk about the abuse, that could be a part of it, too. We’re sending a message, “You’re not good enough unless you’re the top.” So, then what happens is, I think, this whole idea of competition becomes so strong that we don’t care who’s knocked down along the way. Isn’t that what’s happening in these countries where people are being killed and tortured? Somebody wants to have the power there. That’s why all this is going on, and they don’t care who gets hurt in the process.