Thursday, June 4, 2009

Immigrant Children's Support Group

This is a suggestion for children from immigrating families to have highly encouraged access to a support group when newly arrived at their schools or community houses. This is where they can meet other children, not necessarily of the same background, but sharing the experiences of relocating to a new country, culture, climate and home.

Often when a child has immigrated to a new country with (or without) their family there were many reasons for the move. It may be for work opportunities or lifestyle choices for their parents (and, presumably in the long run, themselves) or because of hardships such a persecution, social upheaval, war or political unrest or oppression in the worst case situations. When a child moves from one place they have known, even if it was oppressive, to a new unknown place it can be frightening, even if it brings relief or excitement initially. They will experience feelings of loss, especially if they lose contact with friends and family. This is often compounded if those they leave behind are in danger or worse. Thats quite a burden for any child. Then there is the new unknown place they are adjusting to. If the environment is very different from their country of origin, it can take some adjusting to. The lay of the land, the temperatures, the smells and sounds can be almost alien if differing enough. Then there are the people. If they speak another language, and havent learnt the new countries common tongue, there is the isolation of the language barrier. Then theres the cultural differences. Even if there is no language barrier, every nation has its own customs, culture, formalities, morays, turns of phrases and peculiarities, as does their own family, which tends to become a little mini-version of their country of origin at the time they left it. Examples of this can be found all over the world in antiquated and ritualised pockets of "colonials" from many cultures. If the family is of a rarer sociopolitical global demographic or if their spiritual beliefs are not as common in the new country they may experience a feeling of being lost and overwhelmed. Compound this with the fact that when they do start school they are the "new kids". The other children will, with all the assuredness of the less travelled, test the child. Often the child is dazed from the many changes already occuring in their lives. Some are downright frightened. Their parents are also adjusting to the huge changes immigrating brings, but as adults they have usually gained the maturity, understanding and basic social skills to negotiate the new course of direction. Children are still developing those skills. Often the parents are so embroiled in the upheaval they might not notice or have the time, energy or wherewithall to properly attend to the emotional adjustments the child will be trying to assimulate. If the child is singled out from their peer group for being "different" or is dropping behind in their school marks because of language difficulties or is in anyway struggling with the strong emotions any experience of such a dramatic change can bring, they may withdraw, become aggressive, or resort to "reverse snobbery" (becoming proud of their differences, which is good, and critical of the new culture, which is unhelpful) or even judge themselves harshly for their apparent shortcomings. Of course anyone in such a situation would be doing well just to manage the basics. Although any broadsighted person can see this, children often cannot. They tend to blame themselves for things outside of their control. This is where a support group of peers in a similar situation, headed by a responsible, understanding teacher or counsellor would be most beneficial.

Often adult immigrants not only have to organise and execute the move of their family to the new country, but once they get there, they have establish a home, financial security, and a new life for themselves and their young. They are starting from scratch in a new country and culture without knowing many people or how the infrastructure and networks work, even if they arrive with any amount of material acquisitions. They often work very hard for long hours. For this reason they often don't have the energy, time, and resources to fully contend with their child's emotional adjustments. Often the child will shield the parent from any of their personal issues arising from the momentus changes they are going through.The parents often worry for their children and want to give them every opportunity they can, considering that in their own lives they were put in the position where they had to immigrate for survival reasons. Immigrant parents are often noted for having high expectations on their children in the studies area. They also often have cultural expectations in other areas of the childs life. Sometimes there are conflicts and misunderstandings (often it is just a percieved threat) between the customary thinking of the home and social worlds. Often if the new countries culture is very different from their original customs, the parents or entire family may adhere more rigidly to the "old way" as a way of counteracting some of the more intense shifts in lifestyles they are likely to experience. As the child grows older and assimilates into the new culture, the cultural expectations of their peers and quite often the society at large come to the foreground of understanding. The way things work in the new country become part of their assimilation of growing up as well as belonging to a new place and time to the generation that brought them there. This is a greater then a mere generation gap. Of course this is not always the case. Some families buffer the blows of outrageous fortune by banding strongly together. Some parents (and children) embrace their new world with zeal, to the point of renouncing the "bad old days" of their former experiences in their previous life. But most people, especially the young adults, will feel pulled in two directions. The temptation is to rebel against the authorities in their life. Especially if the feel they werent given a fighting chance. If they come undone under the pressure (a sense of humour seems to help in moments of duresse), it can be costly to themselves, their community, and society at large. It could be they drop out of school. The might turn to alcohol and drugs to ease the pain of a troubled life. They may become violent and/or turn to criminal activity partly to gain a feeling of empowerment. Especially if the new culture treats them with suspicion and when they ease into the customs of the society, condemnation at home. This costs the society in general in work time and skills, rehab programs, infrastructure like hospitals and prisons. This is why early intervention is absolutely essential. Prevention, as is commonly known, is better then cure.

If new children from immigrating families are put into a support group program early on where they can share their experiences with other children experiencing similiar adjustments, and a compassionate responsible teacher or counsellor they could benefit greatly in many ways. Firstly, they would immediately feel they are not alone. Secondly it gives them access to others in there community who are empathetic to their position. If the support group is long running it can give them a real sense of community.

It can be run like a youth group or school club, with a basic structure including democratic voting on some activities partaken. Activities could include help with language skills (both formal language for school work and casual language for socialising), culinary exchanges of foods from their home culture and food from their new culture, excursions to culturally significant places, personal development skills (human rights education, assertiveness training, trust games, anger management, listening skills, positive thinking, creative expression etc), infrastruture and public services explained, explanation/experience of local and their own cultures sports and other recreational activities, talks given by local community members such as police, doctors, artists, typical locals, others who have immigrated and are now well established. There could also be group discussion time (debriefing) about how they are coping, problems they are facing and possible solutions. There could be counsellors made available for anything that they might want to work through privately. It would be appropriate to have both a male and female trained adult that can be approached for sensitive issues. They should be clearly introduced to counsellors so that they are aware they have access to confidential resourses, and it isn't an abstract 'out there' thing which they have to try and initiate. If they are not sure how and feel they are causing a fuss they might give up. Sensitivity on the part of the group leaders is paramount.

It could work best if the group leaders and young people have a fair amount of flexibility on culturally appropiate activities, with voting included on more recreational tasks. More formal criteria could be kept to a minimum. It should be somewhat enjoyable experience with tolerance and acceptance at its heart.

There could be an extension to their parents, with information made available via the children on counselling services, public services, legal rights etc.

Other children can be included into the group such as children who have moved from another area of the country, or even simply changed schools (even if the child changed schools because of behavioural difficulties). It might work best if the group runs over an extended time so that a real sense of community arises.

It would be very easy to establish groups of this calibre in highly populated areas with high immigrant populations, such as large cities. The richness of the potential cultural diversity could be very beneficial to the group if managed sensitively. However, in more remote and less populated areas, immigrant children are more isolated with less resources at their disposal. It is essential these vulnerable children get access to a support group. If the school they attend does not have the immigrant population to create a group, the immigrant children of several schools could form a group which meets at a mutually accessable location.

These support groups, although simple and low cost, could be a wonderful solution to a problem, that left to run to a potentially disasterous end, will cost the state substantially in damage control. It is better to put your young new citizens on a mutually beneficial course where they feel supported by the establishment and community, then leave them to flounder alone under extreme difficulty, only to be forced to expend much more expenses in the likelihood of their failure.

It might be most effective if when establishing these groups and to keep in mind the purpose of endeavour. Decisions might be best made if kept in the light of the spirit of acceptance, care and tolerance. The leaders are aiming for an appreciation and understanding of both cultures and the easing of the growth and development of the young people generally and as part of a new group of the culture. Both the immigrants and cultures will hopefully accept, grow, and evolve into a living, loving part of each others world.

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