When refugees arrive in a new country – the country that will be their home – they need help. For almost 25 years a community group in the American Midwest has been working on behalf of new arrivals from Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Most of them settle first in South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan and Burundi. Eventually almost all of them come to the United States, with about 200 resettling every year in and around the city of Chicago.
Since 1991, the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago (ECAC) has sponsored and successfully resettled about 1,300 African refugees.
“Most are economic rather than political refugees. They come to the United States to share in the American dream,” says Erku Yimer, Executive Director and co-founder of the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago.
“Those who are stranded in refugee camps across Africa often times are victims of harassment, intimidation and abuse. Once they arrive in the United States, however, most of the refugees feel secure and safe,” says Yimer.
When they get to Chicago they are offered a cultural orientation session. They can take classes in English, finances, and computer and vocational training.
“When refugees come to the United States, they need to establish credit and create a checking and savings account,” says Yimer. “Financial literacy teaches them how to establish and maintain credit and familiarizes them with America’s banking system.”
Another problem facing the refugees is what Yimer calls the “great cultural divide.”
“By nature, Ethiopians and Eritreans are soft spoken, modest and shy. Communicating with foreigners therefore can become difficult. Looking a person straight in the eye and talking is considered rude (in Ethiopian or Eritrean culture),” he says.
“On the other hand, here in the U.S., if you respond to a question not looking straight at a person, you are suspected of hiding something or lying. It might seem trivial,” Yimer says, “but these are hurdles Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees have to overcome when they arrive in the United States.”
The intensive training program offered by the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago includes how to conduct a job search, how to prepare -- and dress -- for an interview and how to communicate, looking the interviewer straight in the eye.
ECDC also prides itself on conducting Ethiopian holiday celebrations across the American Midwest. These events have been highly acclaimed, says Yemir, as opportunities for Ethiopians to share their experiences and affirm their cultural identity.
Working with two other groups, the Ethiopian Community Development Council and the United African Organization, ECAC continues its effort to bring more Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees to the United States and help them make a successful transition.
It will celebrate its 25th anniversary 17 October and is planning to expand its outreach beyond the Chicago area.