For the last four months, I have been teaching a Cleveland Police Department (CPD) In-Service Training Class on Refugee Awareness. After a little over two years of lobbying the Public Safety Department to include this important and overlooked diversity training, every officer of the Cleveland PD will receive an hour and a half of need-to-know information on a vulnerable community in Cleveland. My co-facilitator Moti Gurung, a local Bhutanese refugee and I, spend about 12 hours a month educating the Cleveland PD on refugees to increase awareness and avoid cultural misunderstandings. It starts with a simple refugee 101 (who they are, where they come from, how they get here) then switches to more pressing concerns within the local refugee communities.
We talk about hard topics like "why refugees mistrust law-enforcement" and how that leads to the known fact that most are not working with the CPD and creating a public safety concern. With the assistance the "Refugee Outreach for Law Enforcement" study released by the Police Executive Research Forum in May, we discuss how this isn't a unique problem to the City of Cleveland. Rather this class is a part of a national trend in law enforcement education and diverse cities are taking steps to avoid many preventable issues that continue to happen across the nation.
Talking about why refugees from around the world share a mistrust and fear of law enforcement with classes of 30 officers at a time may seem like an awfully awkward conversation - and it is- but it is also a much-needed conversation in Cleveland.
Admittedly, each class starts off a little tense. We are standing in front of a room full of officers who look like they would rather be anywhere but sitting through more training on diversity. But over the months, Moti and I are gradually getting better at connecting with the officers and they warm up to us a lot faster now. Every class start off by making it clear that we are not there to talk about things out of our control like politics, whether or not we should even have a refugee resettlement and who gets to come to Cleveland. Instead, I explain that it's pretty impossible to do their jobs if they can't (figuratively or literally) understand the other person that they need to work with. And, to help bridge that gap is the real reason we are there.
The class flies by and often times we run out of time fielding questions and sharing stories. Some of my favorite moments have been after class and outside the classroom. I quietly watch as officers approach Moti (some just to shake his hand) begin to chat and then they quickly realize how much they have in common.
For some, he's the first refugee that they have ever met and meeting him helps put the class into perspective. It's hard not to like a man who waited for almost eighteen years to come to America and start his life over. Moti is full of ambition and excited to be in Cleveland.
He tells stories about how terrible law enforcement was back in Bhutan and in the camps in Nepal. He explains how these memories affect the way his community feels about law enforcement. When you grow up seeing the police abuse and take advantage of their power in the worst ways, it is hard to forget. He explains that the reason the parents in his community are afraid to report their teenagers' crimes is that back home people that were taken by the police never come back.
Moti stresses that the leaders in the refugee communities are working to convince newcomers that the police are not like the ones back home. That they are trying to encourage people to report crimes and to speak the truth when questioned because here they are protected and have rights.
There is still a lot of work to be done to bridge the gap between law enforcement and most of the refugee community living in Cleveland. This class is a step in the right direction but we need to continue to talk about the fact that this population is being victimized because they are vulnerable and underserved in our community.
I am so proud to have met so many officers who continue to ask "how can I help". Cleveland could have waited until a class-action lawsuit or a tragedic event to realize that there needed to be a discussion on how to better work with the refugee population, but they didn't. Instead, every officer will be trained on refugee cultural awareness and how to use interpretation with limited English speaking residents.
If you would like to learn more or come to a training session, please reach out to BlossomCLE to find out how. --