A Whole New (Financial) World: Teaching Refugees How to Manage Money
Life in America can be bewildering to a newly arrived refugee, especially when it comes to our financial system. Here's how some organizations are teaching refugees to manage money.
Teaching normal students how to manage money is hard enough. But for some teachers, the challenge takes on a whole new meaning.
Rather than a class of inattentive teenagers, imagine a room full of people collected from around the world — few of whom understand English — all staring back at you wide-eyed, waiting for instruction on how to take their first steps into American financial life.
That’s exactly the situation that many teachers find themselves in all across the country as they prepare newly arrived refugees for the challenges of managing money in their new life. To see how they do it, I followed a group of teachers at the African Community Center (ACC) in Denver as they taught a basic financial skills class at a local refugee center.
Who Teaches Refugees How to Manage Money?
Not just anyone can set up a stand by the side of the nearest airport with a “free financial advice for refugees” sign.
Refugees are carefully managed through the government and non-profit groups that help orient them to their new lives. Such groups take on their day-to-day handling.
This includes everything from picking them up at the airport to providing ongoing — often daily — support for up to five years after they arrive.
The non-profits provide a range of financial-education programs taught by program staff, as well as partners from community financial literacy programs.
Crash Courses in Personal Finance
The ACC provides an optional financial literacy class for newly arrived refugees — a program that could be called “American Money 101.” They partner with two teachers: Noemi Almodovar Venkatraj and Yesenia Simental from Operation HOPE, a Denver-based non-profit aimed at boosting the community’s financial literacy.
The financial literacy class covers the absolute basics of how to manage money in American society. Teachers show students how to choose a bank, tell the difference between credit and debit cards (it really is confusing!), write a check, and set up a budget. In other words, all the things that we take for granted in our day-to-day lives.
Job coaching at ACC is provided through a daily “job club” taught by Anna Nolting, a passionate and patient teacher. Each week she guides refugees through a new topic such as how to write a resume or how to do an interview.
One of the biggest employment hurdles for newly arrived refugees is not being able to speak the same language as their employer. To help with this, Nolting conducts the job club entirely in English as a sort of crash-course in their new language. (That said, refugees also take English-as-a-second-language courses elsewhere at the same time.)
Dealing With the Hurdles of Teaching Refugees
To deal with the language barrier, ACC employs a whole host of interpreters, many of whom are refugees themselves.
Even with the interpreters, teaching refugees can be a challenge.
Rather than just blurting out all the information and calling it a day, teachers have to convey information in bite-sized chunks, then pause and wait for the interpreters to communicate the information to the refugees.
Venkatraj and Simental have just three short hours to teach the refugees the basics of how to manage money. But once you factor in the amount of time they need to wait for the interpreters, that time is cut in half.
Sometimes interpreters aren’t available. Other times, the printed information that refugees take home isn’t available in the whole range of languages that the refugees speak. To get around this, teachers use a lot of visuals. Venkatraj and Simental’s sample budget, for example, consists of a visual composed entirely of pictures that the refugees can use to figure out what each line item is.
Another challenge is teaching refugees about American societal and financial norms. “Bribery is big all over the world. You can’t bribe people here,” says Kelly Woodard, who teaches the first community orientation class that all new refugees have to go through.
And they don’t just discuss money in class. “Sometimes, in certain countries, they don’t use deodorant or they don’t brush their teeth as often or something. It’s very important to do that — not just for your job, but for the interview, especially,” Nolting says.