Helping refugees find home in Tucson

Hamad Halis gathering fruit ( Photo by Kofi Akoto/ Arizona Sonora News Service)
Hamad Halis gathers fruit. ( Photo by Kofi Akoto/ Arizona Sonora News Service)

Each year 7,000 refugees come to Arizona.

When they arrive, they are met by someone who has walked the path before.

This is the story of three individuals who are making the acclimation process for refugees in Arizona easier.

A Safe Haven for Refugees

Chong Bee Vang is from Laos. In 1980 at the age of 4,  Vang came with his family as refugees to escape the bloodshed of the Vietnam War.

“I know what it’s like to have to leave your home  and everything that you know. To come to a foreign place and have less than you once had,” said Vang.

Vang is the executive program director for the Tucson-based Refugee Focus. He has more than 15 years of experience working with refugees and has been at Refugee Focus since August.

The opportunity for working for a refugee revealed itself from friends. “Part of the reason my friends were asking me to come is that we need more voices for the refugees in Tucson,” said Vang.

He  oversees nine programs to help newly arrived refugees transition to life in Arizona.

“Whether it’s getting housing set up, providing case management, helping them get jobs so that they can be self-sufficient, I play a critical role in everything,” said Vang.

Refugee Focus Sign( Photo by Kofi Akoto/ Arizona Sonora News Service)
Refugee Focus Sign( Photo by Kofi Akoto/ Arizona Sonora News Service)

The organization’s cultural orientation program covers more than 64 different topics relating to American culture and society, from U.S law to learning about the community of Tucson.

Kimberly Brown is the secondary cultural program developer. She connects volunteers and refugees to ease the transition.

Refugees at front desk ( Photo by Kofi Akoto/ Arizona Sonora News Service)
Refugees receiving information
( Photo by Kofi Akoto/ Arizona Sonora News Service)

“They take it to the basics, even some of the most simple things that we would think of as second nature is information that we will have to explain to them. From maintaining their apartment, etiquette, counting money, personal hygiene, American customs are all things that volunteers help teach,” said Brown.

Breaking away from aspects of their home culture can be a difficult process.

“Having to abandon it comes as a shock to some people,” said Brown.

It isn’t something that happens overnight,” said Vang.

Vang’s past experience growing up as a refugee in Minnesota allows him to connect with refugees. “I let them know that I was once in the same position, that I empathize with them and that they aren’t alone,” he said.

Reaching self sufficiency

Ferdinand Lossavi Lossou is the program director for Catholic Community Services and has been in charge of its migration and refugee program since 2004. This year, he expects to receive 325 refugees.

Lossou came to the United States from the Congo. “Even immigrants face similar challenges to  refugees so I can identify with some of the things that most of our clients are going through,” said Lossou.

Lossou says that Catholic Community Services’ main goal is to help refugees achieve self- sufficiency.  

Another one of his responsibilities is to advocate for potential employers about refugees and the skills that they can bring to the workforce.

“ We let them know about refugees eagerness to work and that they are willing to do  any kind of job, “ said Lossou.  

 Many who hire refugees are involved in industries geared toward landscaping, agriculture, hotels, retail and hospitality.

“Our refugees are doing the minimum wage jobs that really nobody wants that are $9 tops. Jobs that don’t require a lot of personal interaction until they are able to speak English,” he said.

Added Lossou: “Most of the people that are coming to the country don’t have professional backgrounds. When the refugees come, they know that they will likely have to start at the bottom in entry level positions.”

Lossou encourages his clients to improve their chances of higher paying jobs by perfecting their English.

“ The only ways to move up in this world is through education,” said Lossou.

Helping Refugees Build Skills

Hamad Halis, 56, used to grow tomatoes, eggplants,  pomegranate and dates in his garden in Iraq.

Now Halis is a refugee who climbs into trees plucking tangerines and grapefruit from the back of  a volunteer’s backyard.

For Halis, picking and eating fruit makes him feel a little closer to his home in Iraq.

Halis is involved with Iskashitaa, an organization that teaches refugees skills that can be used in the workplace. 

Halis picking fruits( Photo by Kofi Akoto/Arizona Sonora News Service)
Halis picking fruits( Photo by Kofi Akoto/Arizona Sonora News Service)

Iskashitaa serves refugees from more than 30 countries. Many come from Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Congo and Darfur. Statewide, volunteers harvest more than 70 different kinds of fruits and vegetables that are go to waste in Tucson. In February, the organization collected 15,129 pounds of fruit.

Iskashitaa  is under the fiscal umbrella of St. Francis in the Foothills, a United Methodist Congregation church. Iskashitaa receives funding from volunteer donations and the United Way.

Founder and Executive Director Barbara Eiswerth named Iskashitaa after a Somali Bantu word that means “working cooperatively together.”

“I felt that it captured the worked we did here and it fit perfectly,” said Eiswerth.

Eiswerth is an academic from the University of Arizona. She came up with idea for the organization after recruiting Somali Bantu refugee students in 2003 to participate in a mapping project.

According to Eiswerth, tangerines, grapefruit, calamansi limes and lemon are left neglected on homeowners’ property in Tucson.

“All of these fruits like pomegranates and figs are falling on the ground. It seemed like the distribution of food in the world is so unequal and unjust. I felt like the fruits that nobody is  eating could be used,” said Eiswerth.

Eiswerth believes her food harvesting program gives refugees who want to be more involved in the community a chance to meet new people.

In 2011, Halis fled fled his home in Baghdad to come to the United States. He has been living in Tucson with with his son Mohammad for the past two-and-a-half years. According to the Arizona Department of Economic Security,  more than 73,000 refugees have been resettled in Arizona from more than 90 different countries since 1980.

Halis was lucky enough to get a job working part time at a security company in Tucson. Halis ran a local business selling air conditioners and hot water heaters in Baghdad. Halis is happy with his job but is looking forward to using his skills as a salesman again.

They only barrier standing in his ways is the fact that he is still unable to speak English fluently.

Eiswerth standing in between two refugees( Photo by Dr.Barbara Eiswerth/Iskashitaa)
Eiswerth stands in between two refugees. (Photo by Dr. Barbara Eiswerth/Iskashitaa)

Earlier this year, Eiswerth took Halis under her wing to help him improve his English.  

For refugees like Halis, Iskashitaa’s harvesting program is an opportunity to practice speaking  English with other refugees and receive guidance from Iskashitta employees. 

Even though Eiswerth spends the majority of her time helping refugees improve English skills, she believes that she learns even more from them.

“ I discover a lot about the cultural dishes that they use from the fruits that they pick at harvesting events. Dishes like Kleicha and Qatayef,” said Eiswerth.

According to Eiswerth, 95 percent of fruits and vegetables that are harvested from Iskashitaa are given to refugees  families in need.

Kofi Akoto is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him

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