Expanded History

The COR Center has, in one way or another, played a critical role in refugee resettlement since 1975. Over the years, the Center's name has changed—from NICTAC in the 1970s, to ORC, LORC, and RSC in the 1980s and 1990s, and to the COR Center today—reflecting changes in its roles and functions. Throughout these changes, however, the Center's basic purpose has remained the same: To help refugees adjust as smoothly as possible to their new country and communities.

Following the 1975 fall of the U.S.-supported governments in South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled their countries for asylum in neighboring countries in Southeast Asia. Many of these refugees had supported the U.S. war effort in Indochina, and the United States responded to the crisis with an unprecedented refugee resettlement program. Within months, more than 130,000 refugees, most of them Vietnamese, were brought to the United States.

Resettlement communities faced an overwhelming number of newcomers from a part of the world that was completely unfamiliar to most Americans: Before 1975, only a small number of Vietnamese were living in the United States. The school systems were woefully unprepared to handle the sudden influx of non-English-speaking children; in 1975, few schools even had ESL programs.

Recognizing the great challenges facing the U.S. education system, CAL established the federally funded National Indochinese Clearinghouse and Technical Assistance Center (NICTAC) in June 1975, just 3 months after the collapse of the Saigon government. With expertise in the use of linguistics to address social and educational problems, and with a longstanding commitment to bilingual and ESL education, CAL was uniquely suited to respond to the pressing need for information on how to best help refugee children adjust to their new schools and communities.

NICTAC's initial goals focused on the language and educational needs of children in elementary schools. By September of 1975, NICTAC had developed survival English-Vietnamese phrasebooks for Vietnamese as well as Americans, cultural and linguistic information for teachers, Refugee Alert Bulletins, a national hotline, and a bibliography of TESOL texts.

Refugees and Adult ESL

Communities not only needed to educate refugee children but they also needed to provide educational services to adult refugees. The refugees' urgent need for English transformed the field of teaching English as a second language (ESL), virtually creating a new subspecialty, Adult ESL.

Before 1975, the field of teaching ESL to adults had focused on the English language needs of foreign university students in the United States, whereas newly arriving refugees needed a different kind of English. They needed English to be able to function in their new communities—to seek emergency help, find a job, and report a broken heater to their landlord. In response to the need for a less academic approach to language teaching, CAL pioneered the development of what became known as competency-based ESL. This practical approach to ESL instruction paid less attention to grammar and more attention to functional language-related tasks. Today, this approach forms the basis of adult ESL instruction in the United States.

A New Population with New Needs

When the first wave of refugees arrived in 1975, CAL and other refugee service providers expected that the need for their services would soon recede as the newcomers settled into their new communities. But changes in the late 1970s further challenged resettlement communities—and created a need for new services. In the late 1970s, a second wave of refugees fled deteriorating conditions in Indochina, and as a group these refugees were different from the first in at least two ways.

First, they were more diverse ethnically. While the first wave had been mostly made up of Vietnamese, the second wave included many Laotians and Cambodians. If service providers had understood little about the Vietnamese, they understood even less about Laotians and Cambodians.

The second-wave refugees were also different in their social and educational backgrounds. Like most other first-wave refugees, the 1975 arrivals had been for the most part well-educated city dwellers: Most could read and write, at least their own language, and were familiar with life in a modern city. In contrast, later arrivals were more likely to come from rural areas where their exposure to urban life and modern technology was limited. Many had received no formal education and had no literacy skills in any language.

In the wake of the 1975 wave, NICTAC had produced guides on teaching English to Vietnamese speakers. Now it turned its attention to Lao, Hmong, and Khmer speakers and to the special educational needs of nonliterate students. NICTAC staff traveled to hundreds of sites around the United States, providing training to adult and K-12 educators on the backgrounds and educational needs of their refugee students.

Cultural Orientation for Refugees: A New Field

In contrast to the first-wave refugees, second-wave arrivals brought with them little or no knowledge of Western life. Soon alarming stories of cross-cultural mishaps circulated in the resettlement community and in the press. Refugees were jailed for hunting without licenses—a restriction unheard of in the home country. Parents were accused of child abuse when they left young children to supervise younger siblings—a common practice in many Asian countries. One refugee lost a hand to a garbage disposal he did not know how to use.

These incidents pointed to a serious gap in resettlement services—the provision of basic information to newcomers about life in the U.S. Cross-cultural training existed as a field, but until this time it had focused on preparing foreign students for life in the United States or Americans for professional life overseas. Refugees had very different needs and background experiences, and very few materials or methods had been developed for them.

In 1980, as part of a national effort to improve orientation services for refugee, CAL estabished the federally funded Orientation Resource Center (later known as the Language and Orientation Resource Center or LORC). Just as CAL had played a key role in pioneering the field of refugee education, it now played a central role in developing a new form of cultural orientation. Center staff developed native-language orientation materials for refugees, as well as packets of materials for volunteers and social service providers. Your New Life in the United States was published in five different Asian languages, and Helping Refugees Adjust to Their New Life in the United States was produced for service providers. ORC continued to provide technical assistance through its national hotline and on-site workshops. In a typical quarter, staff received 9,493 hotline calls and conducted 53 technical assistance visits.

CAL initiated the use of multimedia approaches in cultural orientation by providing refugees with not only a book, but also an audiocassette and an emergency card to help them find their own help. For the first time, a guidebook on how to establish orientation programs, Planning and Implementing Cross-Cultural Orientation Programs, was also produced. Other ORC publications included

  • Social Adaptation for Refugees: A Guide for Service Providers,
  • A Resource Guide for Refugee Women's Program Development,
  • Guide to Orientation Materials for Indochinese Refugees and Their Sponsors: A Selected Annotated Bibliography, and
  • Young Adults in America, a native language series for young adults.

ORC also developed guides for employers and native language guides for refugees seeking employment and for refugees sponsoring family members as refugees.

After the Refugee Act of 1980 extended services to all refugees, regardless of national origin, CAL also began to develop materials to address the cultural adjustment issues of other groups. A series of fact sheets were developed for these groups, beginning with Ethiopians, Mien, Soviet Jews, Kurds, Afghans, and Armenians. Staff also began developing materials and providing technical assistance related to services for Cuban and Haitian entrants.

An Experiment in Refugee Resettlement: The Overseas Refugee Training Program

Before 1980, all U.S. government-funded ESL and orientation efforts had taken place in the United States. In 1980, the challenge of resettling large numbers of refugees with little previous formal education or experience with modern urban life led the U. S. government to launch a training program for refugees that would prepare them for the United States before they arrived in their new communities. Implemented by nongovernment organizations, the Overseas Refugee Training Program (ORTP) provided English language, cultural orientation, and pre-employment training in refugee camps in Hong Kong, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand for refugees destined for the United States.

To support the program and help coordinate its many activities, CAL was funded to establish the Southeast Asia Regional Service Center (SEARSC) in Bangkok, Thailand (later moved to Manila, Philippines). SEARSC had several purposes:

  • Coordinate and support the initial development of ESL, cultural orientation, and pre-employment training programs
  • Facilitate the flow of information among the Southeast Asian refugee camps
  • Promote linkages among the overseas programs and between the overseas programs and domestic refugee service providers, including resettlement staff, teachers, and state and regional officials
  • Develop, print, and distribute instructional and assessment materials for the camp programs
  • Provide technical assistance to overseas program staff, including in-service teacher trainings
  • Monitor and document program progress through regular ESL, CO and Pre-employment proficiency testing of students

At CAL in Washington, D.C., a liaison office was set up to assist SEARSC in its goal of linking overseas and U.S. programs. The two CAL offices together soon came to be known as the Refugee Service Center (RSC).

Supporting the Largest Refugee Training Program in the World

With sites in several camps, thousands of staff members, and tens of thousands of students, the ORTP was the largest refugee training program in the world. The program's purpose was to provide refugees with the language, cultural orientation (CO), and early employment skills they would need to function successfully during their first few months in the United States. But because there was very little commercially available instructional material that focused on the survival needs of refugee learners, the program needed to create its own materials. Working closely with refugee camp staff and U.S. consultants, RSC staff in Washington and Manila developed ESL, CO, and pre-employment training curricula and instructional and testing materials. One product from this period, a competency-based English proficiency test, Basic English Skills Test (BEST), later became a widely used assessment tool in U.S. refugee programs . An expanded version of another product, a series of 12 videotapes called Working in America, also became widely used in U.S. programs.

It was RSC's responsibility to print and distribute material used by the overseas program. In 1983, RSC staff in Washington shipped at least 200 lbs. of teaching material each week to Southeast Asia. By 1985, RSC in Manila maintained a slide bank of over 3,000 slides and a library of 3,650 volumes and 150 videos.

To successfully prepare refugees for life in the United States, the overseas program needed up-to-date information on U.S. resettlement trends and experiences. RSC staff in Washington collected and analyzed information on resettlement issues for teachers and supervisors in the camps, and staff in Manila disseminated the information to the camp programs. An early mechanism for information, produced by RSC staff in Washington, was the quarterly newsletter Information Update. In 1985, RSC staff in Washington and Manila launched PassageA Journal of Refugee Education. Designed as a forum for the discussion of issues in the burgeoning field of refugee education, Passage featured articles by educators in the overseas program and in the United States on trends and practices in ESL, CO, and pre-employment training.

In Washington, RSC staff kept U.S. refugee service providers abreast of program developments, conducting workshops and representing the program at meetings across the country. RSC worked closely with model U.S. refugee programs to develop competency-based curricula that built on overseas program efforts.

Another major RSC effort involved the development of the ESL, CO, and Pre-employment Resource Manuals. These manuals comprised the program's official curricula, content standards, teacher reference materials, lesson plans, and classroom activities. The manuals not only served to familiarize U.S. refugee educators with the overseas program, but in many cases they served as the basis for U.S. curriculum development efforts as well.

The success of the overseas program in Southeast Asia led to the creation of smaller scale efforts for refugees in Sudan and in Eastern Europe. RSC staff in Manila and Washington helped launch and develop these new programs, assisting with curriculum development, teacher training, and testing efforts. For East European refugees, the RSC developed cultural orientation manuals and language phrasebooks in Czech, Polish, and Romanian, and produced an ESL/pre-employment/cultural orientation videotape series with accompanying workbooks. Several years later, in response to the influx of Armenian refugees in 1988, the RSC translated and adapted the Guide to Resettlement in the United States, already available in other Eastern European languages.

Groups with Special Needs

The overseas program began as a program for adult refugees—those who would be most responsible for their families' economic futures. By 1983, in response to a growing concern about the numbers of refugee youth entering U.S. schools with little or no preparation, the overseas program launched PASS (Preparation for American Secondary Schools), an ambitious effort to recreate in Southeast Asian refugee camps the American high school experience, complete with classes, bells, lunch breaks, counseling services, and extracurricular activities. The success of PASS led to PREP, a pre-departure program for students in Grades 1-6.

Soon the program launched efforts to meet the special needs of other subgroups. A curriculum was developed for pregnant women and mothers with young children that looked at work and study options for homebound women. Another group that required special attention, according to US resettlement providers, was the young adult population. Working closely with U.S. consultants, the program developed a curriculum based on topics of particular interest to this group—among them, work/study options, American dating behavior, and legal issues.

In all of these program development efforts, RSC played a key role, first by soliciting information and input from U.S. educators and service providers, then by working with refugee program staff on program design, curriculum development, and staff training.

In several instances, RSC in Washington undertook large-scale studies to gain a better sense of the challenges and needs of specific populations. For example, in the first stages of the young adult program design, RSC conducted a survey of domestic providers to find out the problems young adults faced in the United States, the successes they had, and the advice service providers would give to curriculum writers.

RSC also conducted studies to gain an understanding of the impact of training on the resettlement experience of different refugee groups. A 1988 survey on the resettlement experiences, problems, and successes of East European refugees found that pre-departure CO training appeared to help refugees find and keep jobs and that refugees who had pre-departure training were more likely to take advantage of U.S. educational opportunities. All survey respondents regarded CO training as a positive element in refugee preparation, and recommended that it be lengthened and enhanced.

In addition, RSC conducted tracking studies of PASS and PREP students, at the Department of State's request. Both studies showed these programs had a positive impact on students' adjustment in the United States. Graduates were significantly better prepared for U.S. schools than were students who had not studied in the programs, the studies found.

To provide U.S. audiences with a firsthand look at the PREP program, RSC, with the help of an independent film maker, produced a documentary video on PREP, Sing a Song Together. The film was awarded a CINE Golden Eagle certificate, and was also a finalist at the NY Film Festival.

In the late 1980s, with the numbers of refugee students dwindling, camp programs consolidated. This development, coupled with the reality of budget cuts, led to the closure of Manila's RSC office. The Washington office remained open and active, however, continuing to provide a two-way exchange of information between overseas and domestic service providers

With the closing of the Manila office, the camp programs lost a valuable vehicle for information on resettlement and educational issues when Passage: A Journal of Refugee Education ceased publication. In its place, RSC began publishing a quarterly newsletter, In America: Perspectives on Refugee Resettlement, with each issue focusing on a resettlement topic of timely interest.

Vietnamese Amerasians

Following the 1989 passage of The Amerasian Homecoming Act, large numbers of Vietnamese Amerasian young adults began to enter the United States, with 10,000 arriving in the first year alone. With no family members in the United States to help them, Amerasians were resettled in 80 resettlement cluster sites, areas considered to have the right mix of social services and employment opportunities for this population. RSC provided the camps with information about cluster site communities and provided cluster sites with information about the backgrounds and needs of Amerasians. RSC staff also conducted two surveys of refugee service providers to better inform the overseas training program about the resettlement experiences and needs of young adult Amerasians.

At the same time, RSC continued to develop materials for other refugee groups. Farsi, Russian, and Vietnamese versions of the Guide to Resettlement in the United States were produced as well as Russian-English and Farsi-English phrasebooks.

Shifting Focus–A New Era in U.S. Resettlement

By the time the overseas training program ended in 1995, it had educated nearly 500,000 refugee men, women, and children over a span of 15 years. As overseas refugee training for Southeast Asian refugees came to a close, RSC staff worked together with overseas program staff to document program successes and challenges. RSC produced and published a book of articles on the program written by refugee camp staff, From the Classroom to the Community: A Fifteen-Year Experiment in Refugee Education, and developed an archive of program materials.

In the 1990s, the focus of RSC's work shifted from Southeast Asia to other areas of the world. As crises in the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Bosnia and elsewhere created new refugee flows, the scale of the program in Southeast Asia would never be replicated: Instead of a 6-month language and cross cultural training, refugees now received a brief, intensive cultural orientation. In this changing climate, RSC sought new and creative ways of doing what it had done in the past—developing materials for newly resettled refugees and service providers in the United States, supporting cultural orientation programs overseas, and promoting linkages between U.S. service providers and overseas orientation programs.

Developing Materials

RSC staff continued to respond to numerous written and telephone requests from service providers for information and materials on a wide variety of topics—from refugees' languages and cultures to methods of teaching ESL and literacy. Increasingly, service providers wanted to know about new refugee populations, such as Bosnians, Haitians, Iraqis, and Somalis. In response, RSC developed culture profiles on these new refugee populations. In addition, RSC produced native language orientation guides and bilingual phrasebooks for these groups. The Guide to Resettlement in the United States was translated into Amharic, Arabic, Haitian Creole, Kurdish, Serbo-Croatian, Somali, and Tigrinyan, and bilingual phrasebooks for Amharic, Haitian-Creole, Somali, and Tigrinyan were developed. Thousands of these phrasebooks and orientation manuals were sent to resettlement agencies throughout the United States.

In a response to service providers' requests for information on refugees traumatized by war, RSC staff also published a list of resources on war trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, Issues of War Trauma and Working with Refugees: A Compilation of Resources, Summer 1995. A resource packet on female genital mutilation was also produced in response to questions from service providers on that topic.

Supporting New Cultural Orientation Programs Overseas

Overseas, the focus of RSC's work shifted to serving new cultural orientation programs in Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. RSC helped programs in Croatia, Kenya, and Saudi Arabia develop curricula, provided overseas staff with information about refugees' resettlement experiences in the United States, and sent instructional texts and other teaching materials to training sites. In 1994, RSC staff hosted a conference of East African refugee service providers. The conference, which took place in Washington, D.C., addressed issues in African refugee resettlement and provided information about the pre-departure orientation program training for U.S.-bound refugees in Nairobi, Kenya.

RSC also developed a new resettlement guide, Welcome to the United States, and an accompanying video, with content and visuals reflecting new resettlement realities. Translations of the guidebook and video were soon available in numerous languages and in use in CO programs around the world.

To keep overseas programs abreast of U.S. realities, RSC staff conducted surveys on African and Bosnian refugee resettlement. A Survey of the Resettlement Experiences of Refugees from Africa, based on an informal survey of 16 Somali and Sudanese refugees and 16 resettlement workers at 11 agencies around the United States, examined the major issues and concerns with respect to Somali and Sudanese refugees. RSC staff also conducted an in-depth survey of Bosnian refugees to collect information about Bosnian resettlement and elicit service providers' recommendations about the content of pre-arrival orientation for Bosnian refugees. The resulting report, Bosnian Refugee Resettlement in the U.S., contained findings and recommendations from a survey of 42 refugee service providers in 22 U.S. communities.

Promoting linkages

Strengthening linkages between overseas training and domestic resettlement programs continued to be an important goal for RSC throughout the 1990s. In 1998, for example, RSC staff planned and facilitated a 3-day conference that for the first time brought together overseas and domestic refugee program managers to share information, successes, and concerns. The success of the event, as evident in conference evaluations and proceedings, clearly showed the value of this new communication bridge between overseas and domestic providers.

The COR Center Today

At the beginning of the new millennium, the RSC changed its name to the Cultural Orientation Resource (COR) Center to reflect both its focus on cultural orientation and its role as a resource.

COR Center staff now support seven overseas orientation programs. Support to these programs takes both familiar and new forms. Staff still provide materials, based on overseas requests, but in addition, overseas trainers now attend an annual CO Trainers Workshop, at the COR Center, sponsored by CAL and U.S. resettlement agencies. In addition to their "classroom" time sharing the latest ideas and practices in cultural orientation training, trainers also visit two local resettlement agencies to witness resettlement firsthand, an experience that also serves to strengthen linkages between overseas and domestic program staff. In 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2008, COR coordinated a visit by U.S. resettlement staff to overseas training programs to enhance understanding of pre-departure processing and orientation.

New technology has enabled COR to promote linkages in new ways. An important example is the COR Center Refugee Discussion electronic discussion group, which provides participants real-time opportunities to ask questions, share information, and establish key contacts with refugee orientation stakeholders across the United States and around the world. The COR Center also delivers and archives webinars online, posts videos on its website and YouTube, and maintains a Facebook page to alert visitors to new resources and activities.

The COR Center continues to develop orientation materials for refugees as well as for service providers, such as the Welcome to the United States guidebook and video, multimedia resources such as video interviews with resettled refugees, cultural profiles and backgrounders, orientation curricula and lesson plans, and so forth.

Over the past 30 years, the work of COR and its precursors—RSC, ORC, LORC, and NICTAC—has been characterized by both change and continuity. Today, though with a new name and focus, the COR Center carries out many of the same activities its precursors performed in the past, applying the lessons learned over the years to a new resettlement environment. As before, the Center remains dedicated to its core mission: easing the transition of refugees into their new communities.