Instructing American students on how to manage money is hard enough. But for some educators, the challenge of teaching financial literacy can take on a whole new meaning. Rather than a class of inattentive teenagers, imagine a room full of people from around the world — few of whom understand English — all staring back at you, awaiting instructions in 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 the U.S.
The United States admitted over 24,000 refugees in 2017 and has resettled three million refugees since 1975, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
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There’s no shortage of recently resettled individuals who need to become financially literate as soon as possible. But luckily, American financial educators are up to the task. 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 to our newest Americans.
Who Teaches Refugees How to Manage Money?
Not just anyone can set up a stand outside an airport with a “free financial advice for refugees” sign.
Refugees are carefully managed through government and nonprofit groups, who orient them to their new lives.
Such groups take on guiding refugees in their day-to-day lives. 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 nonprofits provide a range of financial education programs taught by staff members, 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. The program could be called American Money 101.
The ACC partners with two teachers: Noemi Almodovar Venkatraj and Yesenia Simental from Operation HOPE, a Denver-based nonprofit 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, write a check, and set up a budget.
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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 résumé or tips for interviewing.
One of the biggest employment hurdles for newly arrived refugees is being unable to speak the same language as their employer.
To help with this, Nolting conducts the job club entirely in English as an immersive crash course in their new language. (That said, most refugees also take English-as-a-second-language courses elsewhere in addition to learning money management.)
Dealing With the Hurdles of Teaching Refugees
To deal with the language barrier, ACC employs a wide range of interpreters, many of whom are refugees themselves.
Even for 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-size chunks, then wait for the interpreters to communicate this information to the refugees.
Venkatraj and Simental have three short hours to teach the refugees the basics of how to manage money. But that time is halved once you factor in the amount of time they need to wait for the interpreters.
Sometimes interpreters aren’t available. Other times, the printed information a refugee takes home isn’t available in his or her native language.
To get around this, teachers use a lot of visuals. For example, Venkatraj and Simental’s sample budget consists of a visual composed entirely of pictures that 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 recently arrived refugees are required to attend.
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,” Nolting says. “It’s very important to do that — not just for your job, but for the interview, especially.”
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How You Can Help
Looking to lend your language skills or financial expertise toward helping refugees? Consider looking into the following organizations for volunteer opportunities:
- World Relief Corporation
- Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services
- S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
- United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
- International Rescue Committee
- Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society
- Episcopal Migration Ministries
- Church World Service
- Ethiopian Community Development Council
- Refugees International
You can also look into your community centers and faith organizations to see if there are local volunteer opportunities in your area.
Additional reporting by Connor Beckett McInerney.