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American Friend Helps Settle People Of Other Cultures

By GAIL BRACCIDIFERRO | Special to The Courant

June 25, 2008

As soon as Jody Putnam pulled her car to the curb in Hartford on a recent Friday, women, men and children began emerging from a set of austere brick apartment buildings rimmed by a hard-packed dirt yard.

Asians who have called the city home for only a few months greeted Putnam with the most basic of English phrases: "Hello," "How are you?" Then the universal language of smiles, nods, hugs and gentle touches took over.

"This is typical," Putnam said as more people gathered around her, waiting for the most English-proficient among them to ask her questions. One needed help setting up a bank account. Another had no telephone or cable television service. Another inquired about newly prescribed medicines for her child. Another wanted an explanation of a letter she received about state benefits.

"I can come here with no agenda and leave with a list of things to do," Putnam said as she began making her way through the several apartments she would visit here on a sparkling late spring day.

Putnam heads the refugee assistance program that operates out of Jubilee House, visiting the various refugee communities in the city. Jubilee House, a nonprofit center operated by the Sisters of St. Joseph, hosts a variety of social service and educational programs for residents from many ethnic backgrounds out of its center in the south end of the city, but Putnam spends much of her time on the road.

In the nearly dozen years she has worked with Hartford's refugees, she has gotten to know people from throughout the globe: Liberia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Somalia, Russia, Myanmar, Iraq and Cuba.

Although they have escaped violence-ridden homelands and many have witnessed killings or been subjected to torture, rape, war or persecution, Putnam said they are hard-working, have a positive outlook and support one another in a way that most Americans are unfamiliar with.

Putnam recalled how often she shuttled members of one group back and forth to a local grocery store until one of the men bought a car.

"They'd get three or four keys for a single car," she said. The keys were passed among the community members and the car was shared by all the neighbors, she said.

When the government accepts refugees into the country, assistance designed to get the newcomers settled is provided for a limited time. This might include finding them a place to live, ensuring they get a Social Security card or enrolling the children in school.

But when people with nearly no ability to speak English are immersed in a foreign culture and entangled in the struggles of daily life, they often need assistance that extends beyond the basic help provided upon arrival, Putnam said.

Where do they take a sick child and how do they understand the doctor's instructions? How do they navigate the public transportation system? What does the letter about food stamp benefits mean?

"I try to provide them with a sense of security," Putnam said. "I have seen shoulders just go down with relief when I've told people there's no need to worry."

Putnam said working with refugees has been so rewarding for her that for several years she volunteered her time. The Jubilee House program received a boost in May 2007 when it received a three-year, $230,000 grant through the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.

Nhi Tran, the center lawyer who is working with refugees and immigrants, said a lot of her work focuses on ensuring that students get proper support in school. She also has helped with a variety of landlord-tenant issues and with ensuring that the refugees receive appropriate medical and mental health services.

One group Putnam and her associates at Jubilee House are currently working with resettled in Hartford from refugee camps in Thailand. They are members of the Karen ethnic group who originally were from Burma, now called Myanmar.

Putnam made her way into a third-floor apartment where two young men, two young women and an infant were soon joined by several of their neighbors. After shedding her shoes at the door and summoning a neighbor who spoke a smattering of English, Putnam learned that the residents were having trouble getting both telephone and cable television service.

Across the hall in another apartment, a woman showed her an official-looking letter that she did not understand. Again working through the neighbor, Putnam explained it appeared some financial benefits had decreased because the woman's husband was now working. As the woman cradled an infant, Putnam also noted, however, the family should be eligible to receive food and milk for their children through the Women, Infants and Children program.

As Putnam walked toward her car with a new "to do" list, she was greeted by a man who called from an apartment window, wanting to talk about his son's school experience. A man from Sudan greeted her and told her his job was going well.

"I just love this work," Putnam said. "We listen to them. We're there for them. We become an American friend to people and help bridge the gap between cultures."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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