Mary-Margaret Sweeney

Mary-Margaret Sweeney

Social Justice Solutions | Staff Writer
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Chronicling an MSW Internship: Big Problems in Little Moments

Each day at my internship, I learn something new. It sounds cliché, doesn’t it? “It’s different everyday!” And how many people who say that about their jobs really mean that? After all, how different can the same position really be, every single day? While I have many days that seem to run together, countless hours staring at the walls of the pediatric dental office waiting for clients, the case note database with its purple border and obnoxious font. Yet most work days provide me with some interaction that reminds me that I’ll be learning how to be a social worker until I retire.

Typically when I tell people that I work with refugees, they want to know where they are coming from. Last year, they came from about 54 different countries. We resettle and serve whomever the State Department sends our way. As you might imagine, this is difficult to plan for. Each group has unique languages, needs, and abilities. Because of this, not many days go by when I don’t learn of a new barrier facing refugees. When I walked in this morning, my supervisor was on a call, explaining to a school principal how many Africans find it difficult to tell time, as the sun sets and rises at the same time on the Equator. They relied on their shadows to get where they needed to go at the right time. And, of course, time has a completely different meaning cross-culturally, too. I then walked into my office and opened my email, where a co-worker had sent a reminder to check with parents on receiving acceptance letters to magnet schools. Each year, kids that have been accepted to a better school miss the opportunity to go because when their parents receive the admissions letter, they don’t know what it says.

Of course, our job is to help teach them these American regularities. But it takes time. And there are only so many things we can anticipate, only so much we can cram into our cultural orientation for new arrivals. Unfortunately, things fall through the cracks. I often stare out the window on my commute home, dreaming up systems we could create and institute to guard against these pitfalls. They would be complex by necessity, and difficult to implement with limited resources and staff. And as I start to mentally address that issue, and berate myself, thinking, “If I were just creative enough, I could figure this out!” I stop. And then I think, Am I even fighting the right battle?

All social workers have to process the suffering we experience vicariously through our clients. What has been so acute about my experience working with refugees is that the problem feels so big. The reason this client is not doing well in school is not simple—she was ripped from her home country, forced to flee, or be killed. Sometimes when I am working through the minutiae, the lens pulls back and I see that this tiny moment was caused by a dictator, a civil war, a famine. And suddenly it feels as if there is nothing I can really do to help. I am a social worker who believes in prevention. If we can teach kids accurate sex education, for example, we won’t have to face an epidemic of teenage pregnancy. So I try to think about prevention of the issues I see plaguing refugees. And of course the answer is even more cliché than the platitude that began this piece: world peace. What refugees ultimately need is to not be refugees, but citizens safe in their homelands, with the opportunity to develop their lives as they see fit. To grow where they were planted.

So where does that leave me, as a practitioner? Do I leave refugee resettlement work for peace-building? Of course not. I can, and should, be working toward both. But I have to accept each day that I cannot eradicate the need for refugee resettlement. I am no match for all of the evil in the world. But I am a match for the everyday problems that face my clients. I can make today better for them. And I have to convince myself that today has to be enough.

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