Language is major barrier for refugees

America traditionally welcomes refugees, but a roundtable discussion Wednesday night at Coffman Memorial Union focused on the adverse effects of new welfare laws on certain newcomers.
Fifty-six people packed into Coffman Memorial Union’s Dale Shepherd Room to hear the speakers address the plight of elderly, illiterate refugees. The discussion was co-sponsored by the Refugee Studies Center and The Center for Research on Developmental Education and Urban Literacy.
Because of their problems with the English language, many refugees have problems passing their citizenship exams. And because of recent changes in welfare laws, which make it harder for non-citizens to get welfare, the problems these refugees face are getting worse.
“Not many people are concerned about refugees in Minnesota,” said John Tranberg, executive director of the Vietnamese Minnesotans Association. “They can’t survive without community help.”
Organizers meant to focus discussion on the welfare reform debate and the people who the panelists said are most adversely affected: illiterate recent immigrants.
“It’s very timely because the welfare reform went into effect this month,” Masami Suga, program associate for the Refugee Studies Center said.
Attorney and speaker Glenda Potter stressed the importance of literacy in obtaining citizenship. Before the welfare reforms, citizenship wasn’t as much of a concern for the refugees.
“They are asked questions like, ‘Have you ever been a prostitute? Have you ever practiced polygamy? Are you a communist?’ People need to know the answers to these questions,” she said.”
Suga added that the literacy requirement is especially difficult for elderly refugees, many of whom hadn’t heard a word of English before moving to the United States.
“For anyone to study a second language is difficult,” Suga said. “As they get older, learning a second language is even harder.”
Suga said that ethnic background has some effect on learning ability as well.
“Many Hmong have not had a formal education,” Suga said. Many Vietnamese refugees, however, have had formal schooling, she said.