Refuge Module 1

Module 1: Cultural Competencies

(Approximate time required: 30 minutes)

Cultural humility is a critical skill to have as you work with people from around the world. Cultural humility is a humble and respectful attitude toward individuals of other cultures that pushes one to challenge their own cultural biases, realize they cannot possibly know everything about other cultures, and approach cultural learning as a lifelong goal and process. 

Understanding local cultural norms will help you avoid stress induced by culture shock and increase the positive impact you can make in the lives of the locals you interact with. 

The majority of the refugees that you will interact with on a REFUGE trip are from Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Sudan, Nigeria, Pakistan, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Burundi. Each of these countries has unique cultures and concerns, and will be explained further in this module (Culture, 2017). 


Most refugees in the world currently come from Syria. Syrian refugees have left their home country due to civil war. The unrest in Syria, part of a wider wave of the 2011 Arab Spring protests, grew out of discontent with the Assad government and escalated to an armed conflict after protests calling for his removal were violently suppressed. Millions of Syrians have fled seeking safety for their families, due to the Syrian War having a high civilian death toll. The majority of Syrians are Muslims.

Syrian Culture: 

● People speaking in loud voices and taking part in animated conversation does not usually signify anger, just more emotion. 

● Physical contact between opposite genders in public is unacceptable. 

● Individuals of the same gender may walk hand in hand or arm in arm which signifies close friendship. 

● Punctuality is not of high importance and it is expected that you will be late. Being a half hour late for an appointment is not only acceptable but almost the norm. 

● Flicking the wrist with an outstretched hand usually means “What do you want?” 

● Raised eyebrows combined with a slight back flick of the head usually means “NO.” 

● Don’t point the toe, heel or any part of the foot at anyone. Don’t show the sole of your foot or use the foot to move anything as it is viewed as the lowliest body part (Culture, 2017). 


Iraqi refugees left their home country to flee war or persecution. These refugees from Iraq were forced to leave their homes after the militant group ISIS invaded the region. ISIS began to infiltrate Iraq in 2014, creating a large-scale humanitarian crisis in the region. Most Iraqis are Muslim. 

Iraqi Culture:

● It is taboo for religiously observant individuals to have physical contact with the opposite gender.

● People take an indirect approach in communication, and usually take the long route to get their point across.

● A little eye contact is acceptable; however, too much eye contact can be considered rude or even indicative of hostility.

● It can be considered a kind of harassment or flirting for a man to look in the eyes of a woman they do not know.

● Punctuality is not on the top of their priority list, so planes, trains, and buses are never on time (that is normal). However, people are mostly generous with their time. ● Pointing with a single finger is usually considered rude. People usually use the whole hand to point to someone. Pointing to something with the whole hand is used for emphasis, and both hands for further emphasis, often when angry. Putting the right hand on the chest means “thanks, but no, thanks.” Raising the right hand to shoulder height is a form of greeting when you pass by someone on the street or when greeting several people at the same time. Sitting cross-legged with your shoe/foot in the direction of someone’s face is considered rude (Culture, 2017).


The term “Palestinian refugees” originally referred to both Arabs and Jews whose normal place of residence had been in Mandatory Palestine but were displaced and lost their livelihoods as a result of the 1948 Palestine war. This group has grown to become the second largest refugee and displaced population in the world. 

Palestinian Culture: 

● Greetings: men shake hands and women kiss one another on the cheeks. 

● Dress: displays good manners; men and women both cover their heads but women MUST always cover their shoulders and upper arms. 

● They value generosity and hospitality; homes are always welcoming to unannounced guests with food, sweets, and coffee, and it is very common for them to have visits with family and friends. 

● It is better to turn down a dinner invitation to avoid imposing, but the host will continue to insist on the guests’ company (Culture, 2017). 


In recent history, Sudan has been the stage for prolonged conflicts and civil wars, as well as environmental changes such as desertification (the process in which fertile land becomes desert). These forces have resulted not only in violence and famine but also forced migration of large numbers of the Sudanese population, both inside and outside the country’s borders. South Sudan is predominantly Christian, while north Sudan is predominantly Muslim. Arabic is the official language. 

Sudanese Culture: 

● Greetings are very important to the people of Sudan and a formality for them; it is recommended to learn greetings such as “salaam alaikum” as that will help smooth the way; offer and accept a handshake (it’s rude not to); men should wait for Sudanese women to offer the handshake. 

● Stand to greet others, especially when they are older than you. 

● Don’t socialize with the opposite gender in private unless you are married (this can lead to certain punishments). 


● Food: don’t handle food with your left hand, and it is rude to decline food from the host (Culture, 2017). 


Nigeria, an African country on the Gulf of Guinea, has many natural landmarks and wildlife reserves. Nigeria is referred to as the “Giant of Africa,” owing to its large population and economy. With 186 million inhabitants, Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and the seventh most populous country in the world. The official language is English. Nigeria is divided roughly in half between Christians, who live mostly in the southern part of the country, and Muslims, who live mostly in the north.

Nigerian refugees are fleeing the violence from Boko Haram. The name “Boko Haram” means “Western (or non-Islamic) education is a sin.” The group is active in the north of Nigeria, and wants to impose Islamic law as the only law in Nigeria. The Boko Haram insurgency has displaced nearly 2.4 million people in the Lake Chad Basin. 

Although the Nigerian military has regained control in parts of the country’s north-east, civilians in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger continue to be affected by grave violations of human rights, widespread sexual and gender-based violence, forced recruitment and suicide bombings. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) estimates that as many as 1,000 refugees a week are crossing the border into Niger’s Diffa region. Four out of five are women and girls (Culture, 2017). 


Most Pakistanis are devout Muslims. Because the country shares its borders with both Iran and Afghanistan, Pakistan has been embroiled in the Iran and Afghanistan wars with the United States. Many refugees have fled to and from Pakistan due to the ongoing conflict. Pakistan is not involved in an official war so it is possible that refugees from Pakistan are overlooked. The threat of gangs, mafia, and economic poverty are not seen as “legitimate” causes for becoming refugees when compared to an internationally recognized war.

Pakistani Culture: 

● Family is everything, as well as personal reputation, as it reflects on the family. Any outside relationships also reflect the ENTIRE family. 

● Typically, the mother is the homemaker while the father is the provider and authority. ● The average age to get married is 20 years old. 

● Women and men usually keep to themselves and generally feel uncomfortable if put outside of their gender. 

● People are easily offended, so tips to avoid this include telling the person you are talking with what they want to hear. 

● Prior to addressing someone, ask how they would prefer to be addressed. Acquaintances use a person’s title and surname; first names used among close friends. 

● Eye contact is important for the most part; however, it’s a sign of respect when youth do not keep eye contact while talking to grandparents and other respected elders. 


Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)

Over 75% of the population of the DRC are Christian. Many of those you will meet from the DRC have been driven out by the dictatorship government. On paper, the government is a democracy but in action, it is more like a dictatorship. Many have fled seeking a new home with a fair government and where they can feel safe. Their rights in the DRC have been stripped and it is no longer safe for people to voice their opinions. The official language in the DRC is French, but most of them speak up to four languages, English included. French is mostly used in formal conversations, whereas the other languages are used in everyday life.

DRC Culture: 

● When speaking with someone, it is important to inquire about their life before moving on to other topics. This is especially important while greeting those from the DRC. ● When you are with those who are older than you, showing special respect is expected. ● Constant eye contact is intimidating to those you speak with. When speaking, don’t keep constant eye contact, but give them enough to know that you are listening. ● Touching while speaking with someone is a sign of friendship. 

● Shaking hands with someone is typically how one greets; however, the one who is in a higher position of power(seniority, etc.) initiates the hand shake. 

● Taking pictures is taboo and many are not used to it. Be respectful of those who don’t want to be in pictures. 


Burundi has been in a state of conflict for over a decade now with a civil war. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, and with the war raging, civilians have been finding refuge in surrounding countries including Malawi. Most of the citizens of Burundi are Christian.

Burundi Culture: 

● For people living in Burundi, meat can be extremely hard to come by. That being said, a lot of their compliments and conversations center around meat. For example: to start a conversation, a person might wish that the other will be able to obtain a large herd. 

● Shaking hands is a very important way to introduce yourself. They sometimes will continue a conversation while their hands are still clasped for minutes at a time. ● Never use your left hand to handle food. 

● They are very relaxed people. Things usually start late for them because they are not in a hurry. Do not be frustrated when they act this way. 

More Resources for Etiquette

It is not possible for this module to include every nationality you will encounter on your trip with REFUGE. However, the following link may prove useful as you explore more cultures and countries on your own.


This section includes a variety of cultural details you may encounter on your upcoming trip. 

Tea and Coffee 

Many cultures you encounter will offer invitations for tea or coffee. It is considered rude to say ‘no’ to this show of hospitality, but you can kindly explain that your religion does not allow you to drink tea or coffee, similar to the way Muslims do not consume alcohol. It is appropriate to say you’d be happy to accept herbal tea, water, or juice instead. 

Signs of affection 

In many countries, courtship is done very differently than in the United States. It is important to remember your conduct should not encourage affection from locals, and being extra friendly with members of the opposite sex is seen as courtship. Giving too much attention to one person can be misinterpreted as courtship and can lead to offers of marriage from locals. Flirting is not okay on these trips. Remain with your assigned group of three at all times. If a local or refugee begins to follow you or the group, please notify your Trip Leader immediately. 

Dress standards 

All REFUGE volunteers are expected to follow local cultural customs regarding modesty, as a sign of respect for our host country. Most of these cultures require covered shoulders, knee-length shorts, and no bare midriffs or exposed cleavage. Some countries do not allow clothing with political slogans, images of the US flag, or holes. It is important that REFUGE volunteers do their best to honor the local dress standards as a way of fostering good local relations for future REFUGE travelers. The packing list for your destination country will list any special articles of clothing that are required, such as headscarves for women joining REFUGE trips in Jordan.

Life for Refugees 

Life for refugees and other asylum seekers is different in each country. 


In Greece, refugees must be residents for at least seven years before they can apply to become naturalized citizens (Greek Council for Refugees). Supposedly, as soon as an asylum application has been formally submitted and they have obtained an asylum seeker’s card, refugees may begin working in Greece (Greek Council for Refugees). In reality, this right is not always realized. 

Ideally, minors who qualify as refugees “must have access to education,” and adults have the same access to educational training and development as do nationals (Papademetriou, 2016). In addition, refugees are supposed to have the same access to social welfare and healthcare as Greek nationals (Papademetriou, 2016). Again, the reality of these services being made available to refugees is often not the case. 


In Jordan, lack of legal framework concerning refugees means Jordanian policies are unclear. Refugees are meant to reside for no longer than six months before being resettled by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (Saliba, 2016). In reality many refugees have lived in Jordan for years, and even decades for many Palestinian refugees. 

Laws state refugees are to be treated equally to non-citizens in regard to work permits. After obtaining a permit, which is free of charge, they are allowed to begin work immediately in non-Jordanian professions (ReliefWeb, 2019). According to the UNHCR, Jordan has “granted Syrian refugees in host communities access to health, education, and other services,” (Saliba, 2016). 


As a matter of Malawi’s policy, persons in need of international protection are required to reside in designated refugee camps. The Dzaleka Refugee Camp is by far the largest camp, with over 38,000 refugees currently living in the camp, which is managed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Public Security. Most of these refugees come seeking refuge from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi and Rwanda. 

Applying for asylum has been problematic for refugees because of a lack in government funds. Sometimes this process can take up to a year. Refugees in Malawi are not guaranteed education, however there are some schools in the refugee camp. They also have a health center that is available to refugees and to the surrounding villages, but The high influx of refugees coming in every year has put a strain on camp resources and threatened their rations. 

Refugees are only allowed to work inside the camps. If they engage in any work related activities outside of the camps, they risk arrest. Those who have sought and obtained citizenship are allowed to work, but the natural citizens of Malawi see them as ‘illegitimate contenders’ with businesses, and have been targets of xenophobic attacks (Mvula, 2010).