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So If You Decided To Foster a Refugee Kid, What Would That Involve?

We've been asked that question a lot over the years that we've been doing this - what does it involve to be a refugee foster parent? Is it different from regular foster care? What do you have to do? What does it look like?

The truth is, every kid is different, and every situation is different, so there really isn't a one-size-fits-all answer to these questions. But there are some basic facts that apply to every refugee foster care situation (and some that don't.) So here's what I can tell you about what you can expect and what's expected from you, regardless of your foster kid's age, gender, country of origin, and particular challenges.

What the state wants from you:

The purpose of a refugee foster parent is pretty simple on paper (although in real life it's infinitely more complex). But what you'll be expected to do as a foster parent is relatively straightforward, and usually looks something like this:

You'll be expected to

  • provide that child with a safe and stable home environment

  • provide enough nutritious food and seasonally appropriate clothing

  • provide your foster child with emotional support and compassion while they work to overcome the effects of trauma in their life

  • provide them with guidance, advice, and assistance while they learn appropriate behaviors and coping skills

  • help them overcome educational challenges in order to do their best at school

  • learn about your child's culture, and find ways to incorporate some of it into your own home life

  • provide transportation to and from doctor's visits, therapy sessions, dentist appointments, tutoring, extra-curricular activities, some social engagements, and any other places that your refugee foster kid needs to be

  • help them develop healthy, stable long-term relationships, both within your family and with others

  • advocate for them in situations where they can't advocate for themselves

  • help them plan and prepare for their future

In essence, it's exactly what you'd expect from a fostering situation, and pretty much the same stuff you'd provide for your own kids, hopefully minus the trauma management.

But what does that actually look like in practice?

Shelter, Food and Clothing:

The first two are pretty self-explanatory. And they really shouldn't have to be spelled out, because obviously all kids should be given enough good food to grow healthy and strong, clothes that fit and keep them safe and comfortable. And obviously all kids should have a safe and stable home. Yes, I know... many kids don't get these things. And that totally sucks. But they're supposed to. So you'll be expected to provide this stuff (as you should).

Emotional Support:

When it comes to emotional support and compassion for trauma, it can be a little harder to sum up in a neat package. Most refugee foster kids are encouraged to participate in therapy. Some are old enough to make the decision themselves about whether or not they want to, some agencies require it, and some agencies allow the parents and case manager to determine what's best for the child. But getting your foster kid to attend therapy sessions is only a very small part of providing emotional support.

Refugee kids are...wait for it...refugees. That means they're here because their own home lands were so unsafe due to war, extreme famine, natural disasters, religious and ethnic persecution, and a host of other horrifying things. So before they arrived here, they lived through some awful stuff, and that awful stuff has a huge impact on them. On their mental and physical health, their coping skills, their ability to function in day-to-day life, pretty much everything. So providing emotional support for a traumatized child can look like a lot of different scenarios, including:

  • Being available to listen when they want to talk about their past experiences

  • Helping them while they work through bouts of depression, PTSD, panic attacks, suicidal impulses (and even sometimes attempts), and all sort of other less-than-lovely manifestations of trauma

  • Dealing with homesickness. You can't fix it, but you can be willing to try occasionally cooking a meal from their country (or finding some other way to access the food they grew up with) and hunting down products (like shampoo and candy and over the counter medical supplies) that they used in their homelands. Anything familiar that helps them feel less alone and lonely.

  • Being patient and kind, even when they're being unpleasant, unreasonable, manipulative, unkind, or any number of other crappy behaviors that are so common to people in emotional pain. (There's a lot of truth in that old adage: Hurt people hurt people.)

Guidance, Advice and Assistance:

Your kid grew up in another culture, in another country, where everything is different from what is considered "normal" here in the US. In addition, they did it while a lot of stressful and scary stuff was going on. So they might not know things that we would consider common knowledge. You're going to have to help your kid learn to live comfortably in this culture so they can be successful in life. What does that mean? It depends on the kid. It could be anything from basic hygiene to social skills, understanding societal "norms", using appropriate words when discussing certain subjects, treating specific groups of people with respect, to name a few.

Educational Supports:

When your kid arrives here they're going to be enrolled in school, where they're going to be expected to participate in class, do assignments, turn in completed projects, take tests, and pass classes. Sounds great. Except that they'll be doing all of this in a language they might not understand. And they may not have much (or any) prior education. They might not know how to read or write. (Or maybe they do know - but not in English). Either way, your kid may have some significant educational obstacles to overcome, and you're going to have to figure out what help they need, and make sure they get it.

Embracing Your Child's Culture:

Refugees aren't immigrants. They didn't move because they wanted something new, or a better opportunity for their kids, or a chance to study abroad. They came because they were fleeing for their lives. They were trying not to die of starvation, or be murdered for looking a certain way or believing in a certain God. And so for refugees, the loss of their home is extremely traumatic and they experience intense homesickness. (And who can blame them?) Everything here smells different. The foods they love aren't readily available. Everyone around them speaks a different language and expects them to behave in ways they don't fully understand. And their hearts long for what's familiar.

So if you become a foster parent to a refugee kid, one of the things you're going to need to do is find small ways to embrace your kid's culture in your home. It will help ease the burden of their homesickness, and make them feel more welcomed. But how do you do it? There are loads of different ways you can incorporate their culture into your life.

  • Find recipes from their homeland and cook them as meals for your family (if they like to cook you can do this together)

  • Listen to music from their country

  • Read up on interesting facts about their cultural practices, and discuss them. Take an interest in their homeland - you'll be amazed at what you can learn

  • Learn a little of their language. It doesn't have to be much, even just a few basic words or phrases can make a difference

  • Celebrate a festival or holiday from their homeland. Some festivals are religious, others are cultural traditions. But finding a way to celebrate a festival from your child's homeland, even if it's in a small way, will be appreciated

Provide transportation to and from everything:

When they're at the right age, your foster kid might get a driver's license. And there might come a time when you'll agree to loan them your car, or help them to figure out the purchase of their own car. But before that happens, you're going to be a glorified taxi in much the same way any parent is for their kids.

Doctor's appointments, soccer practice, routine dental check-ups, parties, therapy sessions, after-school tutoring, movie dates, you name it - you're probably going o have to take your kid there. And depending on how active your own kids are in extra-curricular activities, this could mean a lot of running around.

In some cities, where there's public transport available, and you get the okay from your kid's caseworker (and the kid themselves is okay with it), you can make use of buses, trains, subways or whatever else is available. Here in Lansing, we have the CATA bus system and our foster daughter regularly uses the bus to get around when she wants to visit friends or go shopping and no one is available to give her a ride. (The foster agency was even kind enough to give her a bus pass so all of her transportation is free.)

Help with developing relationships:

For kids who've experienced trauma, lost everyone and everything they've ever known, and been placed in a stranger's home to live, they can struggle to bond and forge relationships. Trust and vulnerability (which are both required for a healthy relationship of any kind) can be hard to muster when you've been persecuted, abandoned, or violently separated from your loved ones.

So it's going to take time, but one of your jobs is to help your kid learn to trust people again and develop bonds with others. You do that by being consistent and reliable, being real and sincere, and being emotionally available when they need you.

Advocating for your child

This can mean a number of different things, depending on the situation, but essentially this means you're going to step up and make sure your kid doesn't slip through the cracks. That they get what they need when they need it. Because they don't know what's available to them. They have no idea what their rights are, or what they're entitled to. And they can't speak up for themselves because they have no idea who to talk to get anything done, what to say, or in some cases, enough English to communicate their needs. So that's where you come in.

Making sure they get the right medical care when they're hospitalized, or that they get signed up for the right classes at school. Making sure they understand what their rights are in situations where they feel vulnerable (like at a doctor's office, or in any kind of contact with law enforcement). But most importantly, being an advocate just means being there. Your kid needs to know that you're there and you're not leaving, and you're going to do everything you can to make sure that they're safe and their needs are met.

Preparing for the future

A lot of parenting is about getting your kids ready to be adults. Teaching them and training them for the big wide world. And refugee foster parenting is no different. With the exception of the fact that you have a lot less time to cover the basics, and in some cases, you're starting from further back than ground zero!)

Your kid needs to enroll in college, and you'll probably have to help with that. Stuff like setting up a bank account and learning about budgeting; planning and preparing meals, scheduling appointments, applying for a job; learning to drive and buying a car. Even things that might not occur to you, like learning to safely and properly use appliances in your home (loading a dishwasher, cleaning a microwave, and using a washer and dryer - because they might seem commonplace to you, but some of these kids have never seen these items in use before).

One day, in the not too distant future, this kid is going to be all grown up and living on their own. So the more you can do to prepare them for that eventuality, the more likely they are to succeed in life.

It's no small task, but you can totally do it.

I'm not going to lie - it's a big job. It's time-consuming and emotionally exhausting and sometimes very stressful. But it can also be fun and rewarding, and in many ways you learn a lot about life and about yourself and about the world. So if you're thinking about it, I hope this helped give you a clearer picture of what's expected of you, and what that actually looks like in practice. No joke, it's a lot, I know. But it's also really important. Super, duper important. So thank you!

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