Monday, April 6, 2009

Refugee Stuff --Running a furniture program --Remember your role in the refugees' lives.

So far we've discussed some of the very basic, common sense things that need to be considered if one is going ot establish a refugee center furniture program. To review these read all posts labeled "Running a furniture program" and do so reading from bottom to top (alas, that will be oldest to newest, as that is the way a blog is structured.)

Today we are going to add one more to the mix, if you manage or work for a refugee furniture program, remember what your role now is in the lives of the incoming refugees. Your role is to find furniture for incoming refugees. Once you and the refugees understand this, then if you find them furniture, they will be happy with you. If you do not do this, then the refugees will not be happy with you. If your managers above you have their priorities in order, and know what is going on within their own agency, then they too will be happy with you. (Alas, because 'tis the nature of such things, some refugee agency managers do not have a clue as to what goes on within their own agencies and their priorities often put public relations above public service that may not be the case, but this is another issue.)

Also, remember what we said about assess your own resources? And the part about resources are limited? And that they must be used efficiently? It's quite important and we'll come to more about it later.

First a quote from the Times Union newspaper, again from the director of the maxed out, stressed out, mismanaged refugee center.

"Refugee life is all about waiting," she said. "I spent a lot of time listening to their stories and helping them find their own voices. A lot of them have been victims of torture, but they still have great hope. Their optimism is pretty magical."

First, if there is one resource that is limited, it is time. You will never, ever have as much time as you would like once you enter the refugee assistance field.

Therefore your time is limited. It must be used efficiently. If your mission is to get them furniture, then you must structure your time with refugees in such a way so that you are still able to get them the furniture which you have committed and promised to get them.

This manager, on one hand, complains that her center is maxed out. On the other hand, she says she has spent "a lot of time" listening to refugees' stories. Now if I know refugees, often when they tell you something it is because they hope it will help them get their needs met. This is the way they are. They are survivors who have made it out of some hellish situation and now are in a better, albeit far from perfect, one. They want or need things, so they try to find ways to get them. Often this involves telling people what they want. However, if the people they tell, do not give them what they want, they often lose respect for that person. Often when refugees tell you stories, they are not looking for sympathy, they are not looking to make friends, they are, in fact, looking to have their needs met.

Now, have I talked to refugees for "a lot of time"? You bet I have. But only when I was not working or when it was appropriate. If you want to listen to refugees, put them to work on solving their communal problems and then listen to them as they do it. Therefore, I used to listen to refugees while working on the furniture van after recruiting them to help while driving around town. And, I still talk to these people because they helped me and I try to pay back the people who help me.

This woman was hired as a manager. She is, by definition, supposed to bring a set of skills, skills relating to management, to her position, and through using those management skills make things run smoothly. Assuming she has these skills, her time could best be used by applying those skills to solve the problems she was hired to solve.

Therefore , let's say that, for whatever reason, it is deemed beneficial to the refugees and the center that someone spend a great deal of time listening to their stories. There are at least two different means to meet this perceived need. First, the manager could spend five hours a week, one hour a week day, listening to refugee stories. That would be about a half hour for a refugee twice a day, every day of the week, making her giving a half hour of listening time to a different refugee each week ten times a week . This is, however, one eighth of her paid time, and is probably not the best use of this time. It is also time in which she cannot use her highly essential management skills to handle other things that, allegedly, only a manager can handle.

Let's say instead that the manager were to spend the same amount of time recruiting other people, including volunteers, to listen to refugees. There's a lot of good hearted people out there who wish to spend time doing good things, things like listen to refugees talk about their problems.

I'm going to have to invent some numbers here, but let's try to keep things conservative. How about we say that it takes an hour to recruit a volunteer? This is strictly an imaginary number. Recruiting volunteers is a crap shoot. You give a talk to the right group and an hour later you have twelve people who eagerly wish to help. Give a talk or post an ad elsewhere you get none. Find the right volunteer, soon their friends start trickling in to help too and little by little the numbers grow.

Anyway, let's say we find one volunteer per hour that we spend on the task of recruiting volunteers.

That's five per week.

Let's say each volunteer then spends a total of five hours listening to unhappy refugees, before they get burnt out or busy and quit. This is probably a conservative estimate.

That's a total of 25 hours of time spent listening to unhappy refugees.

Which is better? Five hours of time spent listening to unhappy refugees or 25 hours? Which makes the refugees feel better? Which results in a better accumulation of information on the needs, wants, hopes and desires of the unhappy refugees?

However, things aren't that simple. As stated. there will be burn out and retention problems. Volunteers need to be patted on the back and told they are doing a good job. And, although by recruiting listeners, there will be benefits to the refugees through them having increased contacts in the community and so on, we still have not figured out a way for the information that the listeners accumulate to be put to use by the agency to improve services.

So let's modify this a bit.

Let's stick with the original (strictly hypothetical) estimate that it takes one hour to recruit one listener. And we'll stick with the estimate that they get burned out and quit after five hours, if left unattended and neglected. (Which they often have been in this agency. I started out there as a volunteer.)

But let's say, and again we are going to invent numbers, that if the volunteers are tended and cared for by management, then they burn out and quit at a lower rate.

Therefore caring and tending to volunteers is an important part of the management's duties.

So, therefore, let's say that the manager instead of spending five hours a week listening to refugees talk about their problems, instead spends three hours a week recruiting volunteers and an additional two hours a week listening to, not refugees, but instead volunteers? This will increase retention, reduce the rate of burn out and quitting, allow her access to the information and concerns of the volunteers, thereby allowing her to adjust what she and her program does accordingly, and all in all result in a win-win situation for all concerned.

So let's plug in some more numbers.

We'll stick with estimate that recruiting a volunteer takes an hour.

Let's also assume that if cared for and tended a volunteer will last twice as long, making ten hours of volunteer time instead of five. This estimate, too, is also conservative.

Three volunteers working ten hours each results in thirty hours. We have now made five hours of listening time for refugees turn into thirty hours while allowing the management a new way to keep better tabs on what is going on within this agency.

Remember, resources are limited.

Time is limited. You only have twenty four hours a day.

The time of people with needed skills is an especially valuable resource.

In theory, the management should have management skills that others do not have.

In theory, therefore the manager should use their time wisely.

If the management does not then, THIS is the result.

When I saw this article in The Times Union, I flipped out. In fact, I began doing what may be socially inappropriate behaviors, like, for instance, writing this stuff in my blog.

Furthermore, refugees will on occasion whine in an attempt to manipulate you. (I hope to write more on "games refugees play" in a future post. Let's just say, I've got a lot of refugee friends and the refugees have been through things I do not know if I could survive or not. I respect them. On the other hand, I've found it's best to just let them know I respect them and draw lines as needed. Some refugees know darn well that the more of your time they take up the more likely you are to give them what they want, whether or not they really need it.)

I have on more than occasion told refugees, "Oh yeah, so your life has problems. Well what do you want me to do about it?"

This takes them by surprise, but when they figure out I'm serious, and tell me what they actually want, I then work with them to try and make a plan, tell them to implement the plan and to come back when they either achieve success or the plan fails. After they see this happen they respect it.

And, of course, sometimes when you listen to people with serious problems you find yourself in situations outside your ability to handle.

I have also on two occasions given refugees who wished it the telephone number of the nearby university psychological services center which provides psychotherapy on a sliding fee using interns in the various psychotherapy programs at the university. They function under the supervision of the professors who are experienced psychotherapists, either PhD or CSWs. (And, no, these were not even the most troubled refugees I've met. One had actually read that one way to deal effectively with the sort of losses he had suffered was through psychotherapy and wished to give it a try and see if it worked to help him. Quite an intelligent person. I respect his intelligence greatly.)

In conclusion, if you only have limited time in the day (which we all do) and you are facing a large number of refugees with serious needs (which you probably are) then you had best use efficient time managment, and that means don't waste time listening to refugees whine unless you know that it is the best use of your time.

But back to the article.

However, let's look at these statements further and see what else we can find that's wrong here.

Again, the same quote from the stressed out, incompetent, refugee center manager from the same Times Union story :

"Refugee life is all about waiting," she said. "I spent a lot of time listening to their stories and helping them find their own voices. A lot of them have been victims of torture, but they still have great hope. Their optimism is pretty magical."

I find it terribly ironic that she says that "refugee life is all about waiting." The fact is that the Burmese have held meetings to discuss what exactly can be done to reduce the time spent waiting in her office because they find it unacceptable and a waste of their time, especially since after they wait they often discover that the organization not only scheduled them a meeting, it then made them wait for that meeting beyond the scheduled time and then when the meeting did take place did not have a translator available to allow the meeting to take place in a productive manner. When a translator was then found it was sometimes discovered that the agency was not prepared to help the people and had no idea what the meeting was for anyway when they scheduled it. In some cases, the next step of the agency was to schedule a second meeting to deal with the first problem now that the agency understood what it was.

The Africans, too, have complained.

In fact, I heard one story about a woman who waited for hours to meet with the manager, the same manager who gave this silly quote, then the manager told her she could not meet with the woman, then the woman screamed and complained, so the manager agreed to meet with her, then they discussed the situation and the manager told her that she could not help her, at which point the refugee began screaming at the manager, yes, this same manager, about how much of her time had been wasted through this idiotic vacillation and general incompetence. At that point, the manager began to cry.

Which sounds very sad, but since her incompetence is, in fact, adding to the suffering of already suffering people, I somehow cannot work up much pity for her.

I have heard countless stories of this manager wasting her own time holding meetings that serve no purpose with people who do not need to be met with.

And then she complains that she has no time to meet with the people who do need to be met with in order to know what is going on in her own organization and to improve efficiency.

She does not understand her own role in her own organization.

She does not understand the value of her own time.

She does not understand the skill set she is supposed to bring to her job.

In other words, instead of helping refugees get tables and chairs, instead of helping them find jobs, and instead of helping find people who will listen to refugees, she wastes time "helping them find their own voices." If you talk to refugees they have a lot of needs, but their needs and desires pretty much follow Maslow's hierarchy of needs. First they wish to be safe and secure. They want food, shelter, respect and the jobs that will bring them these things. I have never had a refugee ask me to "help them find their own voice." (And, in fact, I am a published author and occasional media personality. I could do so if they asked me to but instead they are asking me for other, more immediate things.)

Despite the fact that she spends hours of time listening to them, many of the refugees I have talked to often do not like or respect this woman. They do not like her because they are dependent on her for many things and she does not provide them with those things in an efficient manner. This problem is happening in part because she has forgotten her role in her organization and instead of providing for needs to refugees is trying to provide them with emotional support. Before they are able to properly appreciate emotional support, they wish to have tables and chairs, or better yet jobs to buy their own.

Alas! Take a deep breath. Remind yourself they are still better off than in a refugee camp or war zone. And then, then, do the best you can to just fix the situation.

Deep breath! Alas! Relax!

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