Refugees Cultural integration Starts With Language

The West wonders “why and how could some of the refugees we welcome with open arms still manage to dislike us or even hate us?”. Why do they remain refugees instead of evolving into normal citizens of the country that has so generously bestowed upon them a new life?

It's okay to ask them to master the language. They have been through much worse!
It’s okay to ask them to master the language. They have been through much worse!

Though not a refugee, my situation was not any better when I came to Australia. I came as a student literally penniless. I had sold most of what I and my parents had owned to afford one trimester’s fees, which would imply it hadn’t been much that we’d owned. But I know what it means being a refugee! I know what it feels like leaving your home, parents and family, throwing yourself in at the deep end, venturing to a new place penniless clueless of what awaits you. Oh I know what it means being a refugee, but I had it worse. Unlike the refugees, I got no help from anyone. At least refugees, once they arrive in the country, they are very well looked after, they are given houses, furniture, funds, education and you name it. I got nothing. For 18 months, I had to pull myself up by my own bootstraps. I lived in a granny flat and cleaned toilets 20 hours per week while studying full time. Truly horrific it was at times. The idea of losing work all of a sudden, not being able to pay rent and consequently being out on the street homeless while far from home is true horror for a 22-year-old man.

One temptation people like me usually have is to scurry over to their fellow expats for cover. People like me including refugees do not like to be out of the comfort zone. Who does! It is human nature, we congregate, we flock, we don’t disperse because, especially, in tough times, we seek predictability and security. Here’s the problem though, the more and longer we flock, the quicker we develop kind of animosity or resentment towards the other flock especially if that flock happens to be dominant.

Refugees are not being culturally groomed for living in Australia (a Western country) among Aussies (Western people that have Western values), and my argument is that can never happen without intensive language training. The intensive language training I’m talking about is nothing like the AMEP’s language training which you would have to be utterly blind not to see what a waste of the tax payer’s money it is! I’m talking about intensive training in the sounds of the English language, in other words, training in pronunciation. Much of a nation’s culture is in the sounds of its language, call it pronunciation, call it accent, call it “schmaccent”, I don’t care. Language in its spoken form is the best “culturalizing” tool we have as a society. People’s voice is the face of a nation. Without a voice, refugees are always going to remain in the shadow and will never be able to relate to the mainstream culture.

It would not fair to expect refugees to speak like native speakers, but the Australian government owns them the opportunity, as they owe Australia and Aussies a very good shot at it too. It is the training that matters, not the end product. It’s not realistic to expect grown-ups to speak English like the ones born in the country but “culturalization” takes places during training. That is how they should be pledging allegiance to the country, not just by singing the national anthem but also by undergoing intensive training in a physical skill, a skill that would require them to change their speech mannerism, the way they produce sounds, the way they use their mouth muscles, voice and body language. That would be a strong statement made by the country to the refugees that we had saved your lives, granted you new ones, and thus we expect you to give it a very good shot, accept our values and get along with people of all backgrounds, not just with those who come from the same place. Poor language training leads refugees and migrants to flock and flocking leads to animosity not multiculturalism! A country is multicultural when cultures disperse and mingle not flock and self-isolate.

Back to my story, 15 years ago, I was faced with those two choices, to flock or not to flock. Camping with some university friends in Kiama, the majority of whom were Australians, I could not understand one word coming out of their mouths, a major blow to my self-esteem, to which most people would have reacted with flocking. I did not. I did not want to flock because flocking to me was for cowards and no sir I ain’t one. I got up and left back home that night but only after making a promise to myself that I would never go out with native speakers of English again before I could speak like them. I chose a rap song by Eminem and obsessively practiced the same song over and over for 3 months until I figured out every pronunciation detail and secret to natural English. The self-training that I had undergone reconciled me with myself and the Australian society as a whole. I needed to belong. I had to be at equal footing with everyone else as I knew I would not be completely free and self-reliant if I hadn’t mastered the spoken language.

During my training, I was surviving on bread and water as I could barely make ends meet, and unlike refugees, I received no help, no charity and no access to any form of support. I was an international student and thus denied all services a refugees have access to. Despite all that, I triumphed, as after graduating from university, and during my first proper job interview, I got asked “whereabouts in the US were you born”? I had no experience, no PR (permanent residency), and nothing going for me from the manager’s point of view, but a simple answer “Never been there” got me the job. The interviewer knew he was talking to a winner. To the winner go the spoils.

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