MOORHEAD — Imagine you were picked up, taken into China and just dropped off. You don’t have much money. You don’t speak the language. You don’t know the culture, and you don’t know the rules and laws. How well do you think that you would function there?
This is the question Officer Vince Kempf of the Fargo Police Department posed to the crowd at the ninth annual Elder Abuse Awareness Summit on Wednesday, June 12, at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead.
The audience shakes their heads. Not well, they imagine.
“Well, it’s the same thing when people come to the United States,” Kempf said.
According to Lutheran Social Services, North Dakota resettled an average of 400 refugees every year from 2007 to 2017. The refugees came from a variety of countries, including Somalia, Bhutan, Sudan, Iraq and Liberia, to name a few.
For elders, the challenges that face refugee populations in the Fargo-Moorhead area are only exacerbated. That’s why the organizers of this year’s summit decided to specifically address elder abuse in refugee communities.
“It was a new idea we haven't really touched on the refugee population at this particular summit,” said Samantha Schmidt, an abuse-in-later-life advocate at the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center of Fargo-Moorhead. “It makes a lot of sense for what’s going on at a national level with the conversations on immigration.”
Schmidt cited a shocking statistic from AARP — 10,000 Americans turn 65, retirement age, every day.
“With our baby boomer population aging into the system, there's a huge group of people who are going to be much more susceptible to elder abuse and financial exploitation. So this is an issue that really needs to be on the forefront of our community as far as coming up with ways of protecting our elders and making sure that their assets are protected,” she said.
Part of the reason why elders are so susceptible to neglect or abuse — including physical, sexual, emotional, psychological or financial abuse — is that they tend to be more isolated than other groups of people. The same goes for refugees faced with language and cultural barriers that result in detachment from the larger community.
Along with issues of communication, Kempf said other issues refugees face that can increase the risk of elder abuse are an incomplete knowledge of laws and resources, fear of authority, pride, lack of transportation, poverty and a role reversal of family dynamics.
“The older people in the family have trouble with communications, and the kids pick up the language fairly quickly and then the power shifts in the family,” he said.
This means that individuals who may previously have been in a patriarchal or matriarchal role suddenly find themselves at the mercy of younger relatives to help them navigate not only the social realm, but also the legal and financial.
Fortunately, there are people and resources dedicated to serving local refugee populations and their elders.
One such person is Wambo Kimba, a humanitarian worker from Liberia employed by the New American Consortium. According to Kimba, the New American Consortium provides resources to empower refugees emotionally and physically, and offers special services for elders.
"We encourage physical activities in the elder community by having social workers go to our clients’ homes and take them for a walk, maybe in the park, at least once a week to keep them physically active," she said.
Additionally, the New American Consortium provides transportation services to refugee elders to go to medical and legal appointments.
"We take them to their appointments, take them back home, and then try to follow up on their social services with caseworkers," she said.