The purpose of overseas CO is to help refugees develop realistic expectations about life in the United States. Overseas CO enables refugees to begin processing, in a safe and familiar environment, what can be an overwhelming amount of new information. Through overseas CO, refugees gain an early understanding of what they will experience in the United States, and develop confidence that they can succeed.
The Cultural Orientation Resource Center, in concert with the State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, overseas Resettlement Support Center Cultural Orientation (CO) programs, national resettlement agencies, local resettlement agencies, and other stakeholders, conducted a multi-year exercise to determine the content of overseas CO best suited to help prepare refugees for the early stages of U.S. resettlement. As a result of this process, the Overseas Cultural Orientation Objectives and Indicators document was developed. This document does not list all of the information addressed in overseas CO; it delineates the essential points to address in overseas CO, but overseas CO programs also cover additional material, as well as tailoring content and style of delivery to the participants in each session.
Based on State Department guidelines, overseas CO addresses 11 essential topics related to processing, travel, and resettlement:
Pre-Departure Processing and Travel
Familiarizes refugees with each step of the transit process, from pre-departure to arrival in the resettlement community; addresses in-flight safety, customs and immigration procedures, and security issues
Role of the Resettlement Agency
Helps refugees understand the roles of a case manager and other resettlement agency staff so that they can develop realistic expectations about the help they will receive from the resettlement agency
Familiarizes refugees with housing types and costs, ways to find low-cost housing, and housing leases and laws
Provides the basic facts of U.S. health care, contrasting it with health care in the countries of origin; the importance of health insurance is discussed
Deals with culture shock, community mental health resources, and changing family roles
Rights and Responsibilities
Covers U.S. laws that are most important for refugees; of special interest are family reunification and adjustment of status regulations, common legal problems encountered by refugees (such as driving without a license), cultural practices that may conflict with U.S. customs, and laws relating to domestic violence
Covers topics such as the importance of early self-sufficiency, the job search, job interviews, types of U.S. jobs, salary deductions, employment benefits, and legal documents needed for employment
Familiarizes refugees with educational opportunities for adults and children in the United States, and emphasizes the need for adults to work while studying
Emphasizes the importance of learning English and addresses the ways in which learning English can smooth resettlement
Introduces the concept and practice of a monthly budget; includes information of the U.S. banking system and ways to save money
Includes an overview of local social services and public assistance, as well as privately-funded or voluntarily-provided services that may be available to refugees. Information on public safety services, religious institutions, public parks and recreation centers, libraries, and other such institutions is also addressed
Familiarizes refugees with the different types of transportation they may find in their communities; highlights laws and information concerning owning and driving a car
The extent to which a particular topic is covered depends on the number of hours trainers have for training and the needs of the group being trained. Learner needs are the result of factors such as the refugees' literacy levels, their familiarity with modern urban living, and the support network they are likely to have in the United States.
Overseas CO is funded by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM). PRM generally contracts with agencies to conduct overseas CO in various locations. Contracted agencies currently include three intergovernmental or international agencies (the International Catholic Migration Commission, the International Organization for Migration, and the International Rescue Committee) and two U.S.-based agencies, HIAS and Church World Service. In select locations, CO is provided by the U.S. embassy or government presence.
Overseas CO is provided in over 40 countries. These are usually countries of first asylum—that is, countries that refugees flee to for protection and assistance—although in special cases refugees are processed in their home countries.
All refugees over the age of 15 who have been approved for resettlement to the United States are eligible to receive CO. But because of childcare obligations, logistical considerations, or class size, sometimes only one family member can attend CO. Some of the overseas programs also periodically conduct special classes for refugee children and youth, as well as other sub-groups.
Depending on the local context, refugees may attend CO at any point between the time they are approved for resettlement and their departure for the United States.