Culture & Language

Integrating Refugees into the Head Start Community

The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) Services conducted a session at the 2007 National Head Start Institute on Hispanic and Other Emerging Populations. The focus of the presentation was to discuss how Head Start and ORR can partner to serve the refugee population. This presentation can be used by program staff to further their understanding on how Head Start programs can become an effective partner in refugee resettlement

Head Start Program Partners in Refugee Resettlement 

In April of 2007, ORR conducted a session at the National Head Start Institute on Hispanic and Other Emerging Populations. The focus of this session was on how Head Start and ORR can partner to serve the refugee population. The goals of this Institute was to:

  • Ensure the provision of quality, comprehensive services to all eligible Head Start children and families.
  • Increase knowledge of the culture and language of Hispanics and other emerging populations to strengthen recruitment strategies and cultivate culturally and linguistically responsive community partnerships.
  • Enhance knowledge of research-based, culturally appropriate strategies for achieving positive outcomes for children in language and literacy development, including second language acquisition, and the effective transition into kindergarten of children who are English language.

The goals of this session was to:

  • Provide background information on the ORR
  • Identify who is eligible for the domestic resettlement program
  • Learn how ORR clients arrive in your community
  • Learn how to conduct effective outreach to these ethnic enclaves and build new partnerships
  • Learn about the best resources available to serve these populations
  • Become a partner in refugee resettlement

ORR has additional information on its web site.

Our Mission

The mission of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is to help refugees, Cuban/Haitian entrants, asylees, and other beneficiaries of our program to establish a new life that is founded on the dignity of economic self-support and encompasses full participation in opportunities which Americans enjoy. ORR is located within the Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families.

What Is A Refugee?

A refugee is someone outside his or her country of nationality who is unable or unwilling to return because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution, on account of race, religion, nationality, and membership in a particular social group or political opinion.

At the start of the year 2005, the number of people worldwide of concern to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was 19.2 million. They included 9.2 million refugees (48%), 839,200 asylum seekers (4%), 1.5 million returned refugees (8%), 5.6 million internally displaced persons (29%) and 2 million others of concern (11%). Refer to the list below for main countries that offered resettlement for refugees:

2004 Worldwide

United States 52,868
Australia 15,967
Canada 10,521
Sweden 1,801
Norway 842
New Zealand 825
Finland 735
Denmark 508
Netherlands 323
United Kingdom 150
Ireland 63
Chile 26
Mexico 11

Other Eligible Clients for ORR Services

  • Cuban Haitian entrants
  • Asylees
  • Certain Amerasian Immigrants from Vietnam
  • Victims of Severe Forms of Human Trafficking
  • Lawful Permanent Residents who held one of these statuses in the past

Refugees are eligible for extended services such as English as Second Language (ESL) and employment for up to 5 years. Initial benefits for cash and medical are for only eight months.

On an historical note, for many years, the policy of the United States was to bring in refugees affected by the Cold War with the Soviet Union. SEA, Cubans, Afghans, Ethiopians, East Europeans were the dominant populations admitted – usually in very high numbers.

With the end of the cold war in the early 90's, the refugee policy on admissions changed. We now bring in refugees from more than 60 countries with many languages spoken. Even when we speak of refugees coming from a particular country, they are very often ethnic or religious minorities. For example, ORR has brought in refugees from Burma
(Myanmar). Refugees from Burma may be Karen, Chin, Kachin, or another minority group.

How Eligible Clients Come To Us

  • Primary case refugees arrive through reception & placement grants between Department of State and voluntary agencies and referred to ORR programs.
  • Derivative refugees can arrive at any time and are referred by their family members.
  • Cuban/Haitian (C/H) entrants are identified at port of entry by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and referred to resettlement agencies.
  • Victims of human trafficking are referred by federal law enforcement and victim advocate groups and tips to the ORR hotline.
  • Secondary migration from an original resettlement site.
  • Asylees are granted status here in U. S. by an Asylum office or Immigration Judges and are referred by the Asylee Hotline.

All of these populations are free to move around the country and often. They are required to notify DHS of a change of address.

Initial Resettlement Site Policy

Reception and Placement (R&P) grants awarded to Volags through the State Department for refugees and DHS for certain C/H entrants referred as:

  • Reunite Families
  • "Free Case" placement sites with language/cultural capability, good resettlement prospect cases allocated among Volags/affiliates

Asylees, Victims of Trafficking and certain C/H entrants do not receive R&P services

National Voluntary Resettlement Agencies - "Volags"

An example of these agencies is listed below:

  1. Church World Service (CWS)
  2. World Relief Corporation (WR)
  3. Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC)
  4. Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM)
  5. International Rescue Committee (IRC)
  6. U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI)
  7. U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)
  8. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS)
  9. Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS)
  10. State of Iowa

Initial Resettlement Services Provided by Volags Affiliates

Community-based organizations affiliated with a national Voluntary Agency, often serve the greater community needs as well as, provide initial food, shelter and clothing, and orientation to community and life in the United States. Other services include:

  • Employment Services
  • Health Screening
  • School enrollment for minors
  • Transportation
  • Enrollment in TANF, SSI, State-administered refugee social services or the Volag Matching Grant program

Some 370 local affiliates serve as initial resettlement sites, many more agencies serve refugees.

Refugee Mainstream Benefits

Refugees are eligible for the same benefits as American citizens as listed below, with limits;

  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
  • Medicaid
  • Supplemental Social Security (SSI) -time limited unless they become naturalized
  • Food Stamps

It is recommended to use translated flyers about the Head Start program at local public assistance offices.

ORR Services to New Arrivals

When refugees do not meet the eligibility requirements for these programs, ORR provides:

  • Refugee Cash Assistance (RCA)
  • Refugee Medical Assistance (RMA)
  • Note: RCA/RMA benefits are for up to eight months from arrival/eligibility through the State Refugee office.
  • Services/benefits through the Voluntary Agency Matching Grant program

Local Voluntary Agency Resettlement Providers

Voluntary Agency local affiliates are the initial resettlement service provider for new arrivals. Local programs are encouraged to:

  • Visit ORR's website
  • Visit web sites of the national voluntary agencies to learn more about:
    • Local affiliates in your community
    • Cultural Orientation and other resources available for their service network
    • Visit your local resettlement service providers to learn who is coming to your community
    • Learn about refugees already resettled in your community
    • Learn about other populations served by the resettlement agencies
  • Partner with the following agencies for:
    • Cultural resources
    • Access to multilingual staff
    • Intervention

State-Administered Programs

Each State has a State Refugee Coordinator and often a State Refugee Health Coordinator. The State Refugee Coordinator's office oversees services and refugee benefits to eligible clients, assesses service needs and coordinates services within the State. Eligible clients are usually referred to State programs by Volags.

A State Refugee Health Coordinator is responsible for health care and coordination for refugee clients.

Role of State Refugee Coordinators

  • Administers refugee cash and medical services
  • Convenes quarterly service provider meetings
  • Assesses needs in the communities and awards social service funds for refugees who arrived within a five year eligibility period

In addition to these services, local Head Start programs should:

  • Learn who the State Refugee Coordinator and Refugee Health Coordinator are
  • Ask to be invited to local service provider meetings and participate in the discussion
  • Partner with refugee social service providers

Unaccompanied Refugee Minors

  • Program started January 1979
  • Over 12,000 children served through local affiliates in 41 states since inception of program
  • 1,400 children reunited with family
  • 11,000 children reached the age of emancipation
  • Fiscal Year 2005
  • $15 Million spent for URM Program
  • Approximately 600 children remained in program
  • Currently, URM Program is administered by 17 States

Contact your State Refugee Coordinator and get their assistance in outreach efforts to refugee children.

ORR funds the support and care of refugee unaccompanied refugee minors in the U.S.

Children who are identified in countries of first asylum as requiring foster care upon arrival in this country are sponsored through two national voluntary agencies--the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS). They are then placed in licensed child welfare programs operated by their local affiliates, Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services, respectively. Minors are placed in foster care, group care, independent living, or residential treatment based on their individual needs.

ORR reimburses costs incurred on behalf of each child until the month after his eighteenth birthday or such higher age as is permitted under the State's plan under title IV-B of the Social Security Act.

Mutual Assistance Associations and Ethnic Community-Based Organizations

The Ethnic Community Based Organizations or Mutual Assistance Associations (MAA) include national and local agencies that address cultural orientation, community building, and mutually supportive functions such as information exchange, civic participation, and resource enhancement that facilitate economic self sufficiency of refugees. These organizations often are funded by State social services or ORR directly.

Local Head Start programs are encouraged to:

  • Visit the ORR web page to learn about MAA's and specifically MAA's in your community.
  • Visit your local MAA's and learn about their clients, their culture and their services
  • Check your phonebook for additional ethnic organizations
  • Conduct outreach with flyers, presentations, visits, and get help translating your flyers
  • Partner with these agencies, they are a resource for cultural orientation materials and access to multilingual staff

Technical Assistance Providers

ORR has awarded grants to a number of agencies to provide technical assistance to our service provider network. Most agencies have their own web page with valuable information in their area of expertise. You are invited to visit their web pages or to contact them directly. For more
information, visit the TA provider web page at:

Visit the ORR web site and select the Technical Assistance Providers link and follow the links to specific specialists.

The Center for Applied Linguistics provides the Cultural Orientation Resource Center , which works closely with the U. S. Government and resettlement agencies. The Cultural Orientation Resource Center develops and distributes resources about refugee training and resettlement. It also includes a listserv whereby you can communicate with other service providers and get help and ideas.

Refugee Arrivals 1999-2006

Fiscal Year Total Refugee Arrivals
1999 85,000
2000 72,489
2001 79,338
2002 27,113
2003 28,234
2004 52,868
2005 53,813
2006 41,279

Note: Arrival numbers do not include asylees, C/H entrants or Victims of Human Trafficking served through ORR programs. Numbers double when ORR includes asylees, C/H entrants, Victims of Human Trafficking.

FY06 Presidential Determination for Refugees by Region

Africa: 20,000 – Burundians, Somalis, Liberians

East Asia: 15,000 – Burmese, Hmong, Vietnamese, Tibetans, Bhutanese

Europe/Central Asia: 15,000 – Meskhetian Turks, Lautenberg cases and religious minorities from the former Soviet Union

Latin America: 5,000 – Cubans, Colombians

Near East/South Asia: 5,000 – Iraqis, Afghani, Iranian religious minorities

Unallocated Reserve: 10,000 – for emergency situations
Totals: 70,000

Favored Resettlement Sites


  • Southern California
  • Texas


  • Massachusetts
  • Long Beach, California

Former USSR

  • New York City
  • Southern California
  • Northern California
  • Texas

East Europeans

  • Midwest
  • New York
  • California
  • Texas

Middle East

  • Michigan
  • California
  • New York
  • Texas


  • No real pattern

Cubans and Haitians

  • South Florida
  • New York
  • New Jersey
  • Nevada
  • Tennessee
  • Kentucky
  • Arizona

In summary, when integrating refugees into the Head Start community, celebrate culturally diversity. Local programs are encouraged to engage families in the following types of activities:

  • Teach cultural diversity with respect and appreciation
  • Teach Geography, history
  • Promote self-identity
  • Learn greetings in new languages
  • Learn other cultures' games, stories
  • Celebrate with food, dance, music, native dress
  • Build lifelong friendships

For more information, visit the Office of Refugee Resettlement.