January 26, 2012

Refugee education program focuses on routine safety topics

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Refugees from Burma living in Nashville attend a demonstration on securing poisonous substances as part of a new education series devoted to common safety topics. (photo by Lauren Owens)

Refugee education program focuses on routine safety topics

Sarah Haverstick recently went to a local apartment complex to demonstrate how to install and use a cabinet safety lock to keep children away from poisonous substances and medications.

For her audience, the seemingly routine demonstration could be a lifesaver, as safety locks and other poison control devices were non-existent in their native southeast Asian country of Burma, also known as Myanmar.

Haverstick, Safe Children Program manager at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt, with help from Catholic Charities of Tennessee Refugee Services, launched a new seven-class safe series for refugees living in Nashville. The program is funded by a Kohl’s Cares grant.

Each class has a speaker from different government, non-profit and private safety agencies.

The classes touch on common safety topics related to fire, pedestrian, car seat/passenger, helmet, poison, cooking and general home safety and calling 911. The families receive a safety item every class that corresponds to the topic.

“It is important to have these classes because refugees are extremely intelligent and extremely resourceful, but many of them are completely unfamiliar with items and systems that make up everyday life in the United States,” said Jennifer Escue, a youth and elder service coordinator for Catholic Charities’ Refugee Services.

“The way things are here aren’t the way they were in their home countries, or in refugee camps. The dangers are different, but no less real.

“From the perspective of a resettlement agency, it is our responsibility to give our clients the knowledge that will allow them to live safely in the United States,” Escue said.

Since 2000, more than 10,000 refugees have settled in Tennessee, with populations hailing from Burma, Buhtan, Somalia and Iraq, among other countries.

Many refugees have made Nashville home, settling into neighborhoods inhabited by other families from their countries to maintain a sense of culture while learning a new one.

About 30 Burmese, many with small children, from a local apartment complex gather for each safety class in a vacant apartment used for different programs.

They are thankful for their teachers, clapping when they learn something new. They are given a pre-test and post-test, which examine if their safety knowledge has changed by the end of class.

In the poison safety lesson, an interpreter translates the class for the families, sometimes searching for words that will make sense in Burmese, like “Gatorade.”

The sports drink and bottle sometimes can look similar to cleaning products, which are poisonous if ingested. They learn about the Poison Control Center help hotline and when to call.

Elizabeth Nhkum, who came to the United States in 2009, says Burma doesn’t have a poison helpline.

“Some people die, and some people try to go buy medicine,” said Nhkum, who lost a friend due to poisoning.

The classes, she said, help people new to the country learn about unfamiliar services and safety tips.

Haverstick wants to grow the program, expanding classes to refugees from Somalia, Central Africa and Buhtan, and add more topics such as first aid. The families’ eagerness to learn has been rewarding.

“We hope to expand the classes to additional refugee populations over the next couple of years,” said Haverstick. “The Burmese were a top priority since they are fairly new to the area and do not have the support networks that other refugee populations have built over time. But the safety information provided in these classes would be equally valuable to other individuals.”