Muturi uses experience to help immigrants
By SCOTT AUST
A few months after Simon Muturi moved to Missouri from his native Kenya to attend college, he experienced the biggest culture shock of his life.
"I watched it come down in amazement, went out to touch and feel it," he said. "I had never seen snow in my life. People had talked about there being snow on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, but I had never experienced snow falling down."
Muturi, who has lived in Garden City since last April, uses his experiences as a new immigrant to help other immigrants and refugees adapt and assimilate to a new culture as part of his job as regional refugee coordinator for the Kansas Department of Children and Families.
Born and raised in Kenya with six sisters and three brothers, Muturi wanted to travel and see the world after high school. He started college at Central Missouri State in Warrensburg, Mo., in 1990, before transferring to Avila University in Kansas City, where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in political science and a master's degree in education. In 1995, he became a U.S. citizen.
He began working for the state about six years ago, working with refugees in the Kansas City area, and now provides assistance to refugee populations in Ford, Finney and Seward counties.
In Kenya, his father is a farmer and businessman and his mother is a housewife. He attended primary school in a rural small town and high school in Nairobi, a city of about 3 million.
"I had the best of both worlds. I experienced rural and city, and I would say that's why it was much easier to take this job and move into a smaller town like this because I've lived in a smaller town before," he said.
While his father is a farmer, agriculture in general is different in the two countries.
"The farmers here are big time. Big farms, large scale farming. Over there, it's just subsistence farming, at least in the area I grew up. My dad had farms in other parts of the country where he grew maize, beans and coffee. But people really don't have large tracts of land," he said.
Muturi, 43, has now lived in the U.S. longer, 23 years, than he lived in Africa. Back then, he learned about America through newspapers and magazines, but reading about the country can't prepare someone for all the little cultural differences.
In addition to the weather and different foods, there were some differences between the English he grew up speaking in Kenya and American English.
Because Kenya was once a British colony, kids grow up learning English, though about 80 percent also learn Swahili. Muturi said he grew up speaking "the Queen's English," so American slang took some getting used to.
For instance, the first time Muturi took his car to a repair shop, they asked him to "pop the hood" and he had no idea what they were talking about. For him, the hood of the car is the bonnet, a windshield is a windscreen and the trunk is the boot.
Muturi sees his clients struggle with the same kinds of things he went through more than 20 years ago while assimilating and getting used to the culture.
"The biggest difference being that I came here as a student, I was more aware of the culture and had read some things. These people are coming from refugee camps. They are fleeing wars and a lot of mayhem. It's not fair for me to compare myself to them, but I can compare as far as culture shock and adjusting," he said.
Two major groups of refugees in Garden City are from Somalia and Burma, but Muturi also has clients from other countries such as Ethiopia and Sudan.
"I would imagine for them, it is even harder to fit in and to break through the society because they are really being supplanted into a culture completely alien to them," he said.
On top of adapting to a new culture, many refugees come here traumatized from fleeing war and death. Many fled with the clothes on their backs, grabbing their children or maybe a relative's child one step ahead of violence, Muturi said.
For many, getting mail is completely foreign, Muturi said.
They need to be educated to not throw away or ignore notices, to fill out and return forms. Learning the bus schedule, accessing doctors and prenatal health care, and sending children to school every day are also areas refugees need help understanding.
"The little things like that we take for granted are things that I do every day to help people understand another way of life," Muturi said. "It's really about being an enabler, helping them to assimilate into the community."
But he also helps clients understand that it is a two-way street. People here will bend as much as possible to try to accommodate you, but you also have to be willing to bend, Muturi said.
Muturi, who was appointed to the Garden City Cultural Relations Board last month, looks forward to serving on the board and hopes to bring a perspective to it about understanding the unique circumstances refugees deal with here.
Most of Muturi's clients like living in Garden City. Because of its smaller size, it's less intimidating than Kansas City or New York.
It's easy to get around, offers employment — largely in the meat packing industry — and it's a good place to start a new life.
"They like the American way of life, the personal freedoms we have. There's a good feeling about this town. They are spreading out, becoming a part of the American fabric," Muturi said.