Banking on the Future
Helping Refugees Navigate the U.S. Financial System
How do you choose the right bank account? How do you budget your money and save for the future? How do you establish good credit? These questions can be mind-boggling for many Americans, let alone recently arrived refugees who often find the whole concept of credit cards, savings accounts, and in some cases money itself, entirely foreign.
“Many refugees are afraid of banks because they come from countries where people don’t trust banks,” said Katharine Crost, a volunteer at the Albany Field Office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI).
A New York City-based attorney by day, Crost teaches a series of financial literacy workshops refugees in Albany in her free time. The culturally appropriate curriculum was developed by USCRI and funded by Citi Foundation. The goal of the program is to help newly arrived refugees make informed financial choices that enable them to budget, establish good credit, invest in their future, and become financially self-sufficient as they rebuild their lives.
Refugees and immigrants are not much different from most Americans in their aspirations for the future. They come to the United States with the hopes of a better life than the one they were forced to leave behind in their home country. And they are willing to work hard to make their dreams—of, say, having a place to call home, owning a car, and getting a college education—a reality. But because refugees often come from countries with very different financial systems, many need assistance in developing sound money management practices in the United States.
“Refugees in the United States can’t be independent if they’re unable to navigate our financial system,” explained Crost. “Learning the ins and outs of money and banking is part of the process of becoming self-sufficient."
Crost has played a leading role in developing an array of activities designed to reinforce the teaching materials for USCRI Albany’s financial literacy workshops. The program, started in the Capital Region in October 2009, typically consists of three to four workshops a year. Each workshop is 12 hours long and divided into three sessions, which are usually held on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Students learn the basics, including how to use a bank and maintain a checking and savings account, how credit cards work, how to avoid or minimize fees, and how to write checks and balance a checkbook.
“It’s an interactive program,” explained Crost. “We sit around a big table and talk about each issue.” For the most part, the Iraqi, Burmese, and Bhutanese refugees Crost has worked with are not shy to ask questions. Many of them have had to start rebuilding their lives from scratch despite having college degrees from their respective countries. But they all seem very eager to learn.
Crost particularly enjoys getting to know the refugees she has worked with and is moved by their stories. “I’m in awe at how courageous they are to leave their countries under unimaginable circumstances and start over,” she said. “They may struggle, but I’m really impressed at how strong they are.”
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