Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Your Target Audience: A Worst-Case Scenario


The good news is, the never-ending Somali civil war makes certain Somalis eligible for refugee status in the U.S.

The bad news is those refugees must be prepared for 21st-century life, and there’s only enough funding to spend three days on this preparation.

In “All About America in 3 Days,” Edmund Sanders describes a class designed to orient Somali refugees living in Kenya toward their soon-to-be-new home, the United States.

"What do you know about America?" [instructor Abdullahinur] Kassim asked at the beginning of a recent orientation class. Students yelled out their answers: It's a superpower. People are always in a hurry. Neighbors don't talk to each other. Dogs are treated like people. Gay people get married. All children go to school.

With only 15 hours of class, Kassim wasted no time, covering U.S. history in less than 90 seconds. George Washington was the first president. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. Martin Luther King Jr. marched for civil rights. Time for the next subject.

Much of the curriculum is based on feedback from recent immigrants. For example, when new immigrants complained about being bewildered by the modern conveniences of a typical American home, IOM built a fully functioning kitchen and bathroom at the back of one classroom. Long flights to the U.S. were so traumatic that a video was added about airplanes, from lavatories to airsickness bags.

Whose hearts and minds could be harder to win than those of religious fundamentalists who understand and want to destroy America? People who don’t understand the U.S.—who the last couple of centuries have completely passed by—and who are more aware of the gay-marriage debate (U.S. culture) than they are of refrigeration (U.S. technology):

Staring at pictures of snow-covered roofs and hearing stories about waking up to find a frontyard covered in white, the Somalis (who'd rarely felt temperatures below 60 degrees) peppered the instructor with questions.

"How do I save my family from this … snow?" asked Hassan Mohammed Abrone, 41, a father of two who was already trying to embrace the American lifestyle by wearing a Statue of Liberty baseball cap and a pair of secondhand Nike Airs.

After hearing a description of coats, scarves, gloves and long underwear, another student, Lelya Yussuf, 23, asked: "How can we walk while wearing all that? Isn't it too heavy?" In an effort to explain snow to people who have never seen it, the instructor asked students to imagine how it would feel to live inside a refrigerator. But the analogy fell flat for some, because they'd never heard of such an appliance.

Consider Sanders’ article the latest entry into the “if only they understood us, they’d like us” debate. U.S. public diplomats may need to “make” people understand a great deal more than they suspect.

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