Bay Area workshops help refugees share challenges of parenting in U.S. 

click to enlarge Suzan Song
  • Courtesy photo
  • Psychiatrist Suzan Song, second from left, poses with children during a research trip to Burundi. Song uses her experience as a global child protection consultant to facilitate workshops for refugee parents.
The Immigrant/Refugee Parent Project, a collaborative effort by several immigrant groups, will host a workshop in San Jose later this month to allow parents from various immigrant communities to share their challenges raising children in the United States.

The parents, many of whom have fled wars and persecution in their home countries, will have the opportunity to discuss their experiences, ask questions, meet new people and sample each other’s cooking.

Launched last year, the program is facilitated by adult/child psychiatrist Suzan Song, who is no stranger to conflict zones and their effects on parents and children. Working both independently and with organizations such as UNICEF, Song has served as a child protection consultant in places such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal, Ethiopia, Haiti, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and, most recently, Syria.

Song said women representing several refugee groups saw the need for a forum to address their various challenges, and she credits them with organizing the workshop. As with the previous event, translators will be on hand so every parent, regardless of English proficiency level, can understand Song’s presentation and join in discussions. Bay Area parents originally from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Myanmar and India are expected to participate. While some of those nations enjoy stability and have limited armed conflict, former residents can still be classified as refugees if they left to escape social persecution, Song said.

Although the parents come from diverse cultures, Song noted their concerns are often remarkably similar. One common challenge is how children tend to more easily adjust to local cultures and learn English faster than their parents. This can lead to kids shaming their parents for not being more American, Song noted, adding that some parents say being unemployed makes it hard to command their children’s respect.

Song said while the parents are generally eager to find work, many refugees suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, which can make it difficult to get and keep a job. Conflicting social behaviors can be another source of friction. At the last workshop, a mother from Afghanistan complained that her teenage daughter wanted to talk to boys, experiment with cigarettes and forgo wearing a hijab.

“She was acting like it was the end of the world,” Song said.

Another parent, an Eritrean father, worried his children would be taken away if he didn’t let them dress up for Halloween, Song recalled. The fear of losing one’s children is common among refugee parents, Song said, and it partly stems from their understanding that corporal punishment is frowned upon in the U.S. This can lead to permissive parenting, she said, as some parents are afraid to discipline their kids.

The workshops aim to address such fears by educating parents about U.S. child protection laws and helping them explore alternative discipline techniques.

Other topics related to navigating life in America, such as dealing with local school systems, are also highlighted. But the events also offer a way for fellow refugee parents to reach across cultural and linguistic barriers and build a sense of community with each other.

“You’ll see Burmese people eating Iraqi food, Afghans sampling Eritrean food, that sort of thing,” Song said, “They realize with their questions that they all have very similar problems.”

Organizations partnering with Song on the project include the Family Alliance for Counseling Tools and Resolution, Refugee Transitions, the Pars Equality Center, the African Community Health Institute and Santa Clara County. Song said they hope to offer more workshops, but that will depend on the availability of county funds.

For information on future workshops, www.suzansong.com.

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