Thursday, November 5, 2015

New Red Cross Training Prepares Refugees for Survival in Colorado

By Patricia Billinger
What is snow? As Coloradans, we know….but what about African refugees who have never seen snow before? Do they have any inkling of the variety of challenges snow and cold weather can pose, from transportation snarls to power outages? And would they know how to keep themselves and their loved ones safe?

Refugees and migrants are often the most vulnerable populations during disasters. In addition to facing cultural and language barriers, refugees have a greater risk in the face of disasters because they may lack resources and many live in housing that is more likely to suffer catastrophic damage during a disaster. That’s why the Red Cross of Colorado has launched a new effort to train refugees and immigrants in emergency preparedness. The training helps participants understand what threats and disasters they might face here in Colorado and helps them prepare for and prevent those emergencies.

Red Cross intern Ashley Kowal helps a student make her
home fire escape plan. Photo by Styliani (Stellina) Giannitsi
“The Red Cross mission is to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies. The best way to prevent suffering is to help people be better prepared so that they can avoid emergencies in the first place and know how to stay safe when a disaster or emergency strikes,” said Tim Bothe, Manager of International Services for the Red Cross of Colorado.

The Red Cross successfully launched the first set of classes on Nov. 3 and 4 in partnership with the Emily Griffith Technical College and the Colorado Refugee Services Program. Tim and a team of volunteers taught the course in Spanish, Arabic and English to nearly 40 students from Emily Griffith’s English Language Acquisition (ELA) program. The students represented a wide range of countries of origin, from Colombia, Mexico and Peru to Ethiopia, Ukraine and Iraq.

"Understanding how things work in the U.S., how our culture is different and what to do in an emergency is hugely important,” said Kevin Mohatt, Community Outreach Coordinator for the school’s Adult Education Language Center.

We take for granted that people know what number to call in an emergency, what a smoke alarm sounds like, or what actions to take during common emergencies – but people who haven’t lived in the U.S. for long may come from a different culture or experience. For example, after being instructed to “get out, stay out and call 911” in the event of a home fire, one woman in a class on Wednesday timidly raised her hand. “How much cost 911?” she asked, not knowing that fire departments here don’t charge you to respond to your home fire.

Lucy Barron shows off her home fire escape plan.
Photo by Styliani (Stellina) Giannitsi
Similarly, some refugees may have immigrated from villages where homes are constructed differently and may or may not have appliances like in the United States. They may have different cooking customs that would be safe in that setting but not safe in a modern apartment building. They may not experience tornadoes or blizzards where they’re from, and consequently don’t know to seek shelter in a basement during a tornado or that it’s not safe to use your oven to heat your home during a cold snap.

“In Iraq, we don’t have any tornadoes. We don’t have winter storms. So it’s very useful to know all of these things,” said Zahraa Alkhattat.

In addition to covering key safety tips for a variety of natural disasters, the Red Cross training takes a deeper look at the most common disaster – one that frequently affects immigrant communities: home fires. Class participants learn about common sources of home fires and safety tips to prevent fires; what a smoke alarm is and how to check it; and the importance of making an escape plan with two routes out of every room.

When Instructor Christine Manson de Rabe asked her classroom how many smoke alarms each person had in their homes, some students reported that they had a safe number and placement of alarms, but others had few or no alarms at all.

“I have one alarm: My aunt,” quipped one student in Spanish. Everyone laughed, but they knew it was serious business because they had just learned that you typically have fewer than 2 minutes to escape a home fire – making early warning from a smoke alarm essential for survival. They also learned the importance of seeking shelter when tornado warnings sound.

“You hear the alarm and you think you have lots of time – you think that you have time to turn on the news, but I learned that you have to look for safe place to go immediately,” said Lucy Barron.

Students show off the Red Cross emergency kits they received at the end
of the training. Photo by Styliani (Stellina) Giannitsi
To help participants take steps to be better prepared, the course included a sign-up sheet for students to sign up for free home visits from Red Cross volunteers who will install smoke alarms and help residents make their family escape plan. At the end of the course, students also each received a Red Cross emergency preparedness kit.

Barron and other classmates said they found the training very helpful, and that it made them think of things they had not considered – in particular, the importance of having an emergency plan. “It’s a good idea to have a plan B, so if something happens you know how you are going to communicate and where you can find each other, and you have an emergency kit for whatever situation might occur,” said Maria Diaz. “The more information you have, the better able you are to take action.”

Want to get your family prepared? Start here: 

Do you need smoke alarms? Or do you want to help the Red Cross install smoke alarms for families who need them? Sign up at

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