You’d think language barriers would be the one of the biggest challenges for a refugee resettlement case manager. They work closely with people from all over the world, people who speak many different languages and English often isn’t one of them. But as far as Marla Sell is concerned, kindness is a universal language that has allowed her to communicate with those in need for 14 years.
“It’s not that hard,” Marla said. “Everybody thinks that’s the hardest part. You just have to hug them and show them things with your hands. Sometimes there are misunderstandings, but you get past it,” she adds.
Marla is one of numerous case workers with Liberty’s Lutheran Children and Family Service, helping refugees start their new lives in Pennsylvania. The LCFS Refugee Resettlement Program is a local affiliate of the national Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which assists refugees and asylees through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of State. These services are made available to hundreds of refugees each year in the five-county Southeast Pennsylvania area, Lancaster County and in the Lehigh Valley. Marla works in our Allentown office and assists individuals and families resettling in the Lehigh Valley. No day is the same, she said.
“Most of them are tired when they arrive, because they have been traveling for days. Some are scared, especially if they don’t know where they are or don’t have family here,” Marla explained. “As soon as we find out a family is coming, I shift into high gear and find them a place to live, get everything set up for an apartment, meet them at the airport, make sure they have clothing and coats, provide car seats for kids, make sure they have food to eat,” she added.
But it doesn’t stop there. In fact, that’s just where the help begins. LCFS gathers available resources, helps refugees find employment, and provides general cultural orientation. Such things include assistance with the social security office, getting their children enrolled in school, ESL testing, as well as facilitating and transportation to doctor’s appointments.
“Every family is different. There are some families that need a lot of assistance and other who hit the ground running, depending on their ability to speak English and their educational backgrounds,” Marla said. “These are highly motivated individuals who happily live on a lot less than many of us do. They don’t want the government to take care of them. Some of them held status and good jobs in their home countries, particularly in Iraq and then a war happened.”
Since she started assisting refugees at the age 23, Marla has helped hundreds of people start new lives in Pennsylvania from countries such as Bosnia, Liberia, Sudan, Vietnam, Burma, Iraq, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Bhutan. It began when she graduated from West Chester University with a degree in speech therapy and got a job as a secretary in the foster care department at another agency in the Lehigh Valley. Marla soon started tutoring refugees in evening ESL classes and eventually she transitioned to refugee resettlement case worker. Although Marla says each case is special in its own way, some of her first experiences working with refugees were particularly impactful on her – serving as an English tutor to a mother and daughter from war-torn Bosnia, and later tutoring two girls from Kosovo who were her same age.
“We became friends,” she said. “We went to New York City together one time and we went to different places like the mall. This helped them to learn about the United States and practice their English, but also we were peers, so it was a fun experience.”
Helping people in need is a passion for Marla, but she is just one person and LCFS resettles hundreds of refugees in Pennsylvania each year. She encourages the community to support the program, either through volunteering or donating supplies, furniture or funds, to help ease their transition to their new lives here.
“Volunteer and churches are so important,” said Marla. “I have seen some refugees who did not have such support and they were much more isolated, didn’t learn English as quickly, and didn’t venture too much outside of their ethnic community. Most refugees are working and on their way to self-sufficiency in three months after being in the U.S., but sometimes they need that extra month of rent, because they aren’t working yet or they’re working but haven’t got paid yet,” she explained.
Refugees aren’t the only people helped by the resettlement experience. Marla says assisting this resilient, determined, courageous group of people has changed her life for the better and of those who lend their generous support.