Nearly Frozen Refugee Thaws Out and Writes Book to Help Others Adjust

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"When my plane left Thailand in 1993, it was 70 degrees. When I arrived in Minnesota, it was 32 degrees below zero!" That was Yorn Yan's first encounter with his new life in America. Yan is a refugee from Cambodia. He is now the director of the United Cambodian Association of Minnesota in St. Paul. He knows first hand what it means to go from "new arrival" to community leader. Yan wants to help other refugees make this difficult transition. He has translated his years of experience as a refugee, a consultant, and nonprofit executive into a practical guide titled, "New Americans, New Promise: A Guide to the Refugee Journey in America."

New Americans, New Promise: A Guide to the Refugee Journey in America

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Some 50,000 to 90,000 refugees are resettled throughout the U.S. each year. A new book, "New Americans, New Promise: A Guide to the Refugee Journey in America," written by Yorn Yan and published by Fieldstone Alliance, Inc. should help ease resettlement for some of these people.

Refugees leave their countries to escape war, violence, persecution, and imprisonment. Often there is little choice. They either flee, or they will be persecuted, tortured, or killed. They do not waste time—they just pick up their children and run for their lives. By the time they enter the U.S., most refugees have proven that they are skilled, tough survivors of some of the worst conditions on Earth.

Regardless of how and why they arrive, refugees face many challenges once here. But over time, they become remarkable contributors to American culture, community life, business, and society. Those contributions do not come easily. Just as refugees are struggling to adapt to American life, American communities are working to adapt to their new residents. Too often, there is little guidance for either refugees or the communities that welcome them. Schools, nonprofit organizations, foundations, churches, and government agencies want to help, but are perplexed and ill-prepared.

This book promises hope for both refugees and those who help them. The author of "New Americans, New Promise: A Guide to the Refugee Journey in America," is himself a refugee from Cambodia. He has translated his years of experience as a refugee, a consultant, and the executive of a social service agency into a practical text to help native-born Americans, community leaders, consultants, service providers, employers, refugee leaders, school administrators, and others understand the refugee journey. Through stories, facts, and his creation of a novel five-stage refugee development model, Mr. Yan helps readers come to understand the promise refugees hold out for their new homes—and how local agencies can help them fulfill that promise.

An extraordinary journey

Mr. Yan writes of his arrival, "When my plane left Thailand in 1993, it was 70 degrees. When I arrived in Minnesota, it was 32 degrees below zero! My family and I did not prepare for this kind of frigid weather because we knew nothing about it." The transition from a remote countryside to a big city surrounded by new people, culture, new language, new markets, new school systems, and new ways of living is common among refugees.

Mr. Yan's story is one of several told throughout his book. His story begins on April 17, 1975, when Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge took power in Phnom Pehn, the capitol of Cambodia. Approximately 2 million Cambodians died of starvation, torture, or execution. In 1979, Mr. Yan and his mother and siblings sought refuge in a camp near the border of Thailand and Cambodia. In 1985, a fight between Vietnamese troops and anti-communist fighters split the family, as three brothers fled to a new camp deeper into Thailand. After several years of painful separation, the family experienced a six-month reunion when Mr. Yan's mother and sisters snuck into the camp to join the three brothers. However, even though this was an official UN camp, the new family members were not registered and had to hide—literally underground—for six months before the authorities captured them and moved them to a new camp. Eventually, the three brothers became American citizens and were able to sponsor the remaining brother, sisters, and mother in this country. Yan's father and a young brother had been lost years before.

In America, Mr. Yan enrolled in a unique training program that helped him earn a degree while learning about leadership in the nonprofit community. After some years consulting with various nonprofits and refugee-serving organizations, he is now the director of the United Cambodian Association of Minnesota, a social service agency.

Five stages of development

Mr. Yan outlines five stages of development for refugees once they arrive in the U.S.. He calls these stages arriving, adjusting, climbing, achieving, and leading. He describes specific challenges refugees face at each of these stages, what it feels like to be in each stage, and the kinds of support that will facilitate the refugees progression to his or her next challenge, with the ultimate goal of returning to society the benefits gained at each stage. This last hope, says Mr. Yan, is shared by most refugees and is one that if they cannot achieve directly themselves, they hope to accomplish through their children.

Social service agencies, religious congregations, schools, nonprofits, employers, and others who read this book will gain from an insider's knowledge of the refugee experience. They will learn the key importance of building trust, how to assess and overcome language and cultural barriers, cultural differences in approach to authority, and tactics for befriending the refugee community. The end result, the author hopes, is that leaders in these organizations will be able to help refugees move through the five stages more quickly, become independent more rapidly, and contribute more to society. The approach is in keeping with today's constrained federal, state, and local budgets, which require social service agencies and others who want to help do more with less. The approach is equally at home with the longstanding American tradition of welcoming newcomers, helping them, but expecting a level of independence that enables contributions to the greater good. Mr. Yan's own life and personal contributions are a model of this tradition.

About the book

"New Americans, New Promise: A Guide to the Refugee Journey in America" was just released (October 2006) by publisher Fieldstone Alliance, Inc. a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening other nonprofits and the communities they support. The soft-cover book is 192 pages and is available directly from the publisher at Fieldstone Alliance, 1-800-274-6024, for a retail price of $34.95. Book development was partially underwritten by a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Yorn Yan is a refugee from Cambodia. In 1979, he fled his homeland to the Thai-Cambodian border to avoid persecution and came to the United States in 1993. For the past twenty-four years, Mr. Yan has devoted his life to improving the lives of refugees—first in refugee camps in Thailand and now in America. For eleven years, Mr. Yan was a consultant with Wilder Center for Communities of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is currently executive director of United Cambodian Association of Minnesota, a social service agency.

As a refugee from Cambodia, Mr. Yan saw the need for practical advice for how to best help refugees through the acculturation and transition process of becoming a New American. In all, three years of research, focus groups, and testing have gone into the development of this model. The five stages described in this book are based on the author's personal experience and his discussions with other refugees from various countries of origin.

Other resources

"Quick Facts on Immigrant Contributions to the United States Economy," People for the American Way, People for the American Way

For another model of refugee development, see Chapter 3 of the online publication "New Neighbors, Hidden Scars" by the Center for Victims of Torture, Center for Victims of Torture

Endorsements for this book

"New Americans, New Promise highlights the strength of people who have often survived unimaginable trauma. It's an important resource for mainstream communities and refugees themselves."

Ellen Mercer, Senior Program Officer, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, Washington, DC

"This book stands as a valuable contribution to understanding the refugee settlement, transition, and development process. It contains solid, practical advice for refugee-serving organizations."

Amanuel Melles, Director, Organizational Capacity Building, United Way of Greater Toronto

"I hope this book will become a resource for all national institutions."

Qamar Ibrahim, Executive Director, Leadership, Empowerment and Development, Minneapolis, MN


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