Bridge Builders

For Maine’s cultural brokers, going to work means helping translate cultural differences for new Mainers and old.

When Amal Hassan met the girl from Somalia a year ago, she was being bullied by her middle school classmates at a Maine school. The girl, who wears a hijab, had an untreated hearing impairment and limited English. Hassan, herself an immigrant familiar with navigating a new country, helped the girl get a hearing aid and made sure her school was equipped with the necessary technology to connect her to her teachers electronically. Then Hassan got the girl signed up for an afterschool program to help with her English skills, to make both school and making friends easier.

Amal Hassan is a cultural broker, helping new (and old) Mainers navigate cultural differences. She works with young clients through ShifaME, a Spurwink program that helps the children of New Mainer families get settled in Lewiston, Westbrook, Biddeford and Portland. Photo by Molly Haley

Hassan might sound like a godsend, a do-everything helper and she is, but technically, her job is a cultural broker. She works for ShifaME, a Spurwink program that helps the children of new Mainer families get settled in Lewiston, Westbrook, Biddeford and Portland.

Cultural broker is a job title on the rise in Maine, not unique to Spurwink. The town of Brunswick hired a cultural broker in August, as new asylum seekers were settling in the Midcoast town after spending weeks at the Portland Expo. These cultural translators, who are typically refugees themselves, work to create cross-cultural understanding between refugees and their new communities. Their role is more than translation; it includes explanations of the differences that surface while addressing the more urgent gaps on the hierarchy of refugee needs: health care, housing, jobs and school.

If the girl with the hearing aids has other problems, Hassan will be there. Or perhaps it will be Marie Christine Simbizi, another cultural broker. Originally from Rwanda, Simbizi works mainly with Angolan, Congolese and Iraqi clients. She speaks French with many of these new Mainers and helps them process past traumas amid new experiences, from racism to stereotyping based on cultural differences. Among them, she says, are the “generalization that immigrant kids do not behave.”

Some of those generalizations can be explained through simple clarifications of cultural differences. “In my culture and in many African communities, out of respect we tend not to look a person in the eyes,” Hassan says. “In American culture you’re supposed to look at a person when they are speaking to you. If a child doesn’t look at a teacher, the teacher thinks the child is not listening.” The notion of physical space between people, the way kids play (roughhousing is less acceptable here) are also very different in other cultures, as are customs around greeting (to hug or handshake, or not). These are small differences with a big social impact, especially when layered onto a foreign language, traditional dress and skin color, all projected into the already anxiety-ridden situation of trying to blend in at school.

At Spurwink, the focus is not expressly on the needs of the immigrant community; the nonprofit has a role in the schools assisting children with learning disabilities and/or mental health issues. Spurwink’s work with refugee families grew organically from the fact that many of the children referred were experiencing severe stress related to refugee trauma: the violence and instability of war and persecution, their harrowing journey here and the culture shock and isolation of landing in a foreign country. Sometimes that shock sets in later. Sometimes a cultural broker might be finding a counselor for a child who arrived as a toddler, having survived a journey that his or her siblings did not. Even if a family is from a place, like say, Angola, with a growing population in Maine, that doesn’t mean they’ll be able to fit in. In many if not most cases, “they don’t know each other,” says Simbizi. There’s a gulf there between multiple communities, and a cultural broker can build bridges across them.

Cultural broker is a new job title in Maine, but it is growing, especially after a wave of asylum seekers arrived in Portland this year. Here cultural brokers Jean-Marie Selengbe and Hassan confer with supervisor Morgan Dorsey (center), at Spurwink’s offices in Lewiston, Maine. Photo by Molly Haley

Sarah Ferriss, the program director for ShifaME, brought the practice to Maine in 2007, modeling it on a program at the Boston Children’s Hospital piloted by Dr. Heidi Ellis, intended to lessen the isolation of refugee youth. “A lot of what draws people from other cultures to gang activities or terrorism is isolation,” says Ferriss. Isolation has been identified as perhaps the most traumatic stressor of all, she adds, and is more pronounced for girls who wear hijabs and are from more conservative cultures that limit the girls’ social sphere.

“In our program we talk about isolation stress a lot,” says Ferriss, and describes a focus group of Somali moms in Lewiston. “Even when they are part of a community and clearly care for each other, there is this profound sense of isolation…Particularly for people from agrarian communities where they helped each other and worked together and took care of each other’s children.” With familiar gender roles dismantled and both mothers and fathers having to work, the sense of disconnect and isolation is heightened she says. “These families find themselves apart here, navigating child care and feeling very alone,” she says.

Aside from one-on-one counseling, ShifaME leads workshops to teach life skills to groups of kids. Those workshops on mindfulness, stress reduction and emotional regulation also nurture a sense of school belonging. The cultural brokers encourage the kids to get involved with school activities, such as sports, art clubs or cooking classes. “We try to educate the family to get their children to be more active so they can adjust to the new culture and environment, so they can make friends,” says Hassan, noting the importance of offering access to such groups during the school day so girls whose families expect them to help around the house after school can participate.

Three years ago Ferriss received a federal grant to implement the program more widely over five years. Low-barrier access is the key to ShifaME’s success, she says. Many of these families and children would simply not access treatment outside the school system. “There’s a lot of fear and stigma around mental illness in these cultures, and also distrust of any kind of authority,” says Ferriss. But there’s also a lot of faith and trust in schools, to the point of viewing the school as an extension of parental authority. “In American there is this big expectation that parents be involved,” says Ferriss. “But in many other cultures, the child is completely turned over to the school.”

“It’s a very mutual kind of relationship. Cultural brokers are informing us about what we need to do differently as opposed to us just telling a family what to do.”

“We have a saying,” Hassan explains. “‘Your teacher is like your father or mom.’” When immigrant parents who don’t speak English fail to respond to the school’s call, it is actually a show of trust in the school’s authority and ability to handle a situation But these parents are unintentionally contributing to their children’s disadvantage.

“It’s a very mutual kind of relationship,” says Ferriss. “Cultural brokers are informing us about what we need to do differently as opposed to us just telling a family what to do.” Because challenges and their solutions vary so much from child to child, the culture broker and the clinician are often figuring it out as they go, with the families. “By modeling problem-solving in front of the families, we are also showing that it’s OK to ask questions, it’s OK not to understand,” explains Ferriss.

Once the children’s needs are addressed, their parents’ can be, too. The father of Hassan’s young client, it turned out, also suffered from a hearing impairment as a result of a violent incident at the refugee camp where they lived for 10 years. Now he also has a hearing aid, a game changer for learning English and tackling the larger logistical tasks of resettlement.

Hassan was born in an African country and has spent time in Somalia, which gives her insight into how hard it is for Somali to talk about their feelings. “It’s a cultural thing and it’s also religious,” she says. Acceptance of destiny, good and bad, is part of that. But she and other cultural brokers encourage clients to reach out to their communities, and to talk about their experiences. “Most families grow to understand the importance of communication. At the end of the day they want what all parents want: that their children be not only fed, housed and educated, but also happy and well-adjusted,” says Ferriss.

Dorsey, a supervisor and licensed clinical social worker with ShifaME, and cultural broker Hassan study a document categorizing coping strategies for clients at Spurwink in Lewiston. Photo by Molly Haley

Within the schools, cultural brokers can guide the community in ways to respond to the diverse needs of the new community members. Ferriss shares an example from the days of the program’s pilot in Lewiston: “These kids raised in refugee camps and used to food drops were rushing the food counter in the cafeteria and just grabbing as much as they could. It was totally chaotic.” Ferriss’ team came up with a practical solution inspired by communication and compassion; let them go first in line and encourage them to take an extra carton of milk to bring home and share with their families.

Immigrants from Africa may be experiencing racism or stereotyping for the first time in America because, as Ferriss points out, they are, for the first time, not the majority. (In Africa the issue is tribalism, akin to a caste system—which is easier to fake than skin color.) “I think it’s worldwide,” says Hassan. “It’s human nature. When you are visibly different, people look at you, they ask all sorts of questions. Behind this is curiosity.”

Cultural brokers don’t only work in an official capacity. Other communities in Maine are developing their own means of welcoming new families. Biddeford, for example, hosts events for new families to introduce them not just to the school system, but also to the fire and police departments “to show them ‘firefighters and police officers are your friends,’ and to explain ‘this is when you call the fire department, they are here to help,’” Ferriss says, calling such work “visionary.” Hassan agrees. “Many people in these communities remain loyal to their culture but the more they learn you will see them more open and understanding.”

This cultural exchange is a growing experience that works both ways. “Learning to see things from someone else’s perspective gives you a great sense of humility,” Ferris says. “When you’re truly empathetic you are in touch with your own humanity. You feel the impact of someone else’s suffering.”

That impact is what moves us to act and respond with kindness, she says, remembering a family she came across in the grocery store one day clearly struggling to understand their food stamps. She spent 15 minutes walking through the store with them, all it took to help them do something that had seemed to them impossible. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting people to settle down and notice. If you see someone struggling, just slow down, greet them and even if it’s awkward, offer to help.” Being a cultural broker then is both a job description and for some, a way of being.

Kerry Eielson and her husband own and ran La Muse Retreat, a writers residency in France, from 2001 until recently, when they relocated to Maine with their three children. She has worked in magazine publishing and written for The New York Times, among other publications.

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