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The 7 biggest challenges facing refugees and immigrants in the US

By Christina Nuñez|

Two years ago, I had an incredible, eye opening experience. I was working with several refugee groups in Salt Lake City, Utah, and over the span of one year I found myself constantly impressed and amazed at their perseverance and strength.

You would think that the struggles faced by refugees would be over once they arrived in the land of the free, right? I certainly did. And so did many of the refugees I worked with. I learned, however, that this is far from the case. Refugees, and immigrants especially, are faced with many barriers once they arrive on our shores. Here are just a few:

1. Difficulty speaking and learning English

UN Photo/Albert González Farran

Let’s be honest- my country, the United States, is not known for being multilingual. So imagine arriving here, unable to speak English. Try getting a job, making friends, or even completing basic tasks like buying food or filling out forms.

To address this, many refugees and immigrants take ESL classes, but finding the time between jobs and caring for kids can be difficult. Especially difficult if you weren’t literate in your native tongue to begin with.

2. Raising children and helping them succeed in school

Flickr: Lumina Foundation

One of the biggest obstacles refugees and immigrant parents report is raising their children in a new, unfamiliar culture. Parents often find that their children are quickly “Americanized,” which may be at odds with their own culture. Additionally, kids tend to pick up English much faster than their parents. This throws off the parent-child dynamic, and you know that kids, especially teens, are going to use this to their advantage.

With regards to school, parents often feel disappointed to see their children struggling to keep up in class, and many parents report bullying and discrimination as a result of cultural differences. Kids are often placed by their age rather than by their ability, and for those who are unable to speak English, it’s virtually impossible to keep up. To add further insult to injury, parents may not have the education or language skills to assist their children, and they may not be able to communicate with faculty to address the problem.

3. Securing work

Flickr: Wonderlane

While most refugees and immigrants are happy to take whatever job is available when they first enter the country, finding a job, and slowly moving up the ladder, is incredibly difficult. Even if you ignore undocumented immigrants who face additional challenges securing work, trouble speaking English is a major problem in positions you might not expect like labor. Refugees and immigrants who are educated and who formerly had strong jobs back home, find it frustrating that they can’t obtain the same jobs here. Employers typically prefer work experience within the US, and certifications outside of the US usually don’t transfer. That’s why it’s not uncommon for your taxi driver to have formerly worked as an educator or engineer.

Additionally, refugees and immigrants are easy victims for discrimination and exploitation in the workplace. Some employers recognize the sense of urgency and desperation among these groups to keep their jobs, so they will have them take the less desirable and even dangerous roles. Undocumented immigrants, particularly, assume they have no rights, and workers who can’t speak English are easy targets.

4. Securing housing

Flickr: Rachel K. So Photography

I don’t have to tell you that safe, affordable housing is expensive. So imagine trying to obtain that with low-paying jobs. For that reason, large families often choose to live together, creating stressful, noisy environments that are hardly conducive to studying or resting.

Again, refugees and immigrants fall victim to exploitation, this time from their landlords. In Utah, for instance, I worked with a group of Karen refugees from Myanmar who were forced to live in apartments known by the landlord to have bedbugs. Once, one of those buggers was spotted, the families would be forced to pay an expensive fee to have them removed, and the landlord would attempt to charge them additional fees or threaten to kick them out. Unable to speak English and unfamiliar with our laws, many of the families complied- even though it was clearly a scam.

5. Accessing services

Flickr: Dominic Chavez/ World Bank

Undocumented immigrants have an especially difficult time accessing services, largely because they are afraid of being deported. Consequently, people will avoid seeing the doctor or reaching out for services like legal guidance when they’re badly needed.

Those who are here legally aren’t necessarily in the clear, though. Difficulty speaking English, trouble taking off work, and limited transportation (we’ll get to that) are all very real issues.

Accessing mental health issues is especially problematic. Many times, refugees and immigrants have been exposed to violence, rape, even torture- but they may not know how to seek help. Furthermore, mental health issues are taboo in many cultures, creating an additional barrier for those in need.

For those who are able to successfully obtain the services they need, the experience is usually negative. In Utah, I heard stories about law enforcement professionals misunderstanding a victim’s statement due to language barriers, and doctors misdiagnosing sick patients for the same reason.

6. Transportation

Flickr: Rob!

Like language barriers, trouble with transportation is an issue that affects nearly every aspect of life for refugees and immigrants.

Obtaining a driver’s license, whether documented or not, is extremely difficult for a variety of reasons. For those who don’t speak English, a translator is needed, and they aren’t easy to come by. Also, the driver must be literate in order to to pass the written exam.

With some luck, families will have one car to share among them, but getting kids to and from school, as well as getting adults to and from work can be challenging. Many times, the men will keep the car, leaving it up to the women to find their own rides from friends or coworkers. As you can imagine, having so many people rely on one car makes it incredibly difficult to fit in additional commitments like ESL classes and medical appointments.

But hey, what about public transportation? While many refugees and immigrants do rely on public transportation to get around, it can be incredibly frightening for some. In Utah, a man I worked with from the International Rescue Committee shared a story about one of his clients. The client was from a very rural town where there were no paved roads or traffic signs. My coworker recognized that because of her limited English, she might need assistance figuring out how to take the bus to reach the IRC for her appointments. He accompanied the woman to and from the IRC for her first appointment, but assumed she would be fine on her own from then on. The next week, he received a call from her, crying and terrified. Because she was not familiar with our roads, she had never learned how to cross the street safely nor how to read the traffic signs. Consequently, several cars honked at her while she illegally crossed the street. She then got on the correct bus, but became confused as to what stop she needed to get off at and was unable to ask. I can only imagine how scary that must have been for her.

7. Cultural barriers

Flickr: Nikita Gavrilovs

Again, just like transportation and trouble speaking English, cultural barriers transcend each and every aspect of life for refugees and immigrants.

Here’s an example. In Utah, a group of Latter Day Saints were organizing a week long hike for youth in the desert. Some of the organizers thought it might be a nice idea to include some of the refugee youth, as a way in integrate them into the community and help them make friends with some of the local kids. I remember hearing about this and thinking it was such a wonderful idea. But, less than a day into the hike, some of the refugee kids became very upset. The hike, it turned out, had reminded them of the time when they were forced to flee their homes. Now, despite the group’s kindest intentions, these kids were being retraumatized. This just goes to show how easy it is for these kinds of cultural misunderstandings to take place.


In spite of all of these challenges, the people I worked with were incredibly strong and grateful for the opportunity to be in the United States. Most of them had such basic desires: to have their children succeed in school and to be be able to put a roof over their heads. After everything they had already been through, they were doing all that they could to keep their families afloat in this new, scary place.

Curious what you can do? It’s simple! So many refugees and immigrants, particularly undocumented, feel like outsiders, or worse- they feel invisible. So if you come across someone who who can tell is new to the country, start a conversation! I’m guessing he or she will have some amazing stories to share.

To learn more, download this PDF published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

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