For Refugees, Rules to Live By

Patricia Farrell Aidem, Daily News (Los Angeles), March 8, 2008

You can’t smoke in most places. Bribes are a no-no. Car seats and kids’ bicycle helmets are the law.

And beating your wife will land you in jail—not to mention get you deported.

These are among the new rules and customs the world’s refugees face in California, but they aren’t so tough to handle considering they come with a package of liberties unknown in their native lands.

Several times a year, immigrants—primarily from the Middle East and Africa—who have won refuge in the United States undergo orientations just days after stepping off planes at Los Angeles International Airport.

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On a recent morning, about 55 immigrants from Iran gathered for coffee and doughnuts in the courtyard of a small Episcopal church that serves as the center’s headquarters.

Center director Anna Baghdassarian, a native of Iran, addressed the refugees, just days off a plane, in their native Farsi.

Her talk is the same to immigrants from all countries. None is singled out for warnings about life in America compared with life at home.

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“We have to tell them the policeman is not a bad guy. Unlike in your country, they’re not out to get you,” she said. “If you’re pulled over, don’t try to bribe your way out of it like you do in most countries.

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The brief orientation lecture, typically three days after refugees arrive, also explains day-to-day life in the United States. These new residents learn their adopted nation’s dress, how to get health care, how to pay bills and get credit, and when to call 911.

“Make sure to drink water. We live in a desert,” Decker said. “Use perfumes sparingly. Here’s how traffic signals work. If you get an ATM card, don’t tell anyone your password. It is the law girls attend school.”

There’s talk of earthquakes and brush fires, smoke detectors and bus schedules. They learn about car seats and bike helmets and the importance of being at work on time.

“Americans have a saying, ‘Time is money,”’ Decker said. “You have to be on time. You can’t be late for work. You can’t take off for a few hours; you have to work your eight hours.”

The one that really throws the newcomers is the concept of innocent until proven guilty, she said.

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