In February, 25 refugee youth gathered in Washington, DC to identify and discuss the biggest barriers they face adjusting to life in America. The final barrier identified was overall cultural adjustment.  These barriers, causes, impacts, and solutions all came from the refugee youth themselves. Please take a moment to better understand the challenges young refugees face and what you can do to help.


Cultural adjustment is complicated for refugees. Adjusting to a new culture can be a difficult challenge for refugees to accept. If they do accept this new culture and begin to re-establish and find an identity it becomes challenging to keep everyone in both cultures happy. Yet, a lack of cultural adjustment limits communication, acceptance, and inclusion.


One of the main causes that makes cultural adjustment so difficult for refugees is that everything is different and new in the U.S. Refugees often come to the U.S. with idealistic expectations and reality can be disappointing. It is challenging to adapt to a new home, climate, and customs, and can make a person feel like they don’t belong anywhere. Additionally, most young refugees’ families do not want them to completely forget their native culture in order to fit into American society. It is challenging to find balance with new and old culture and this dichotomy makes it difficult to adjust to their new life. If they stay in their own community too much and don’t get involved in their new town and school, it makes adjusting to the new culture almost impossible. Another factor that makes cultural adjustment a barrier for refugees, is that some Americans do not want to let refugees into their culture and world. Media stories influence and enforce stereotypes of refugees.


Struggling with cultural adjustment can make refugees feel isolated, pressured, depressed, and intimidated. The intimidation and fear of this new culture can make them not want to participate in school, activities, and the community. If they do not adapt well, they are often discriminated against and bullied for being different. The peer pressure to fit in and adjust can make them change their values or beliefs and participate in risky behaviors. For some, it means deculturation and completely trading their native culture for American culture because they can’t find a balance. In turn, if they are accepted into this new culture, they might be considered a traitor in their native culture, which leads to family conflict and tension. Cultural adjustment can lead to a loss of identity. Refugee youth can become insecure and unstable and unsure of who they are. This leads to difficulty in decision making. It is difficult to know which way of living is the right one.


Schools can promote bilculturalism and offer peer-to-peer cultural exchanges, like an American friend program.

Organizations that work in refugee camps can improve orientation prior to arrival so there is not as much culture shock upon arrival. Refugee resettlement agencies can give a more in-depth cultural orientation sessions or have one that is specifically geared towards refugee youth. They can try to help with inter-generational challenges that arise from adjusting and assimilating to a new culture. They can encourage refugees to get involved in the community as well as local cultural and ethnic community-based organizations so they can adjust to their new culture while practicing their native traditions.

The media can send positive messages about refugees and resettlement. American citizens can learn about different cultures and work on accepting these differences. Communities and towns can host inter-faith celebrations and have cultural festivals to encourage acceptance and integration.

Click here to access the full report on integration barriers.