Refugee family finds support in Tucson

Gilbert Mungaga, wife Ida Mungaga, and their son. Photo by Shelby Edwards/Arizona Sonora News Service
Gilbert Mungaga, wife Ida Mungaga, and their son. Photo by Shelby Edwards/Arizona Sonora News

Gilbert Mungaga and his wife fled Congo, Africa, feeling threatened for their lives. Four years later, Mugana’s family has found a home in Tucson.

“We left many of our family and many of our friends behind. Congo has this problem, they have fighting everyday. Congo doesn’t have any peace. If you have peace for three months, for six months there will be fighting. Everyday the fighting kills people, and we did not feel safe.”

Today, with the support of local volunteers, Mungaga is working on perfecting his English and getting a new job.

“I used to have a job working in a factory here, but I lost it. They (volunteers) are helping me through many, many things: to apply (to get a) job, to learn English, and to take care of everybody.”

From 1985 to 2014, the population of refugees resettling in Arizona has grown from 1,191 to 2,964. Arizona is ranked 6th in the nation for refugee arrivals, with refugees mostly fleeing from Africa and the Middle East.

Officials expect an influx of Syrian refugees in the coming years as well. Home to three affiliate refugee agencies – Catholic Community Services, the International Rescue Committee, and Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest – Tucson has a long history for providing for refugee families. Organizations like Tucson Refugee Ministry help create connections and volunteer opportunities to better serve the higher number of resettlements.

“By the time they get here, they are survivors,” says Cherie Gray, executive director of Tucson Refugee Ministry. “And then they think they’re going to live happily everafter in America. They start looking for the streets of gold and they can’t find them. So that’s where we come in.”

Tucson Refugee Ministry aims to inspire local church groups to assist in meeting the needs of local refugee families. It encourage churches to get involved in welcome family partnerships, which offer the opportunity to connect with one newly arrived refugee family, scheduling visits and assisting with apartment furnishings and grocery purchases.

“We basically try to connect one group – a church group, bible study group, or Sunday school class – to embrace one recently arrived refugee family for three months. Sometimes the group meets them at the airport, sometimes they meet them in their home after (refugee families) just arrived,” says Gray.

These types of partnerships are significant to refugee families when considering the process they must endure to achieve resettlement. It can take from six months to four years to complete. Even after the steps are finalized, only 1 percent of refugees are approved for resettlement. Of that, less than 1 percent that do get approved, the U.S. alone resettles about half of those refugees, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Along with the Welcome Family partnerships, TRM offers a few other partnerships and volunteer opportunities that vary in degree of commitment, including a partnership that includes a baby shower and delivery room support for new refugee mothers.

TRM also launched a program called Rapid Response. This program allows the three major affiliate agencies to contact TRM, letting them know exactly what a newly arrived refugee family needs. These needs could include groceries, furniture, clothing and baby items. People who volunteer receive an email or text explaining the need of the refugee family.

In addition to organizations like TRM, the people of Tucson find other ways to help serve the refugee community.

Amy Burton, and her husband Jackson, volunteer their time to help refugee families. Burton and her husband mostly work with children. Visiting a couple different apartment complexes throughout the week, the couple will spend time with refugee children on “playdates”.

After spending a period of her life in Africa, Burton found it hard transitioning back into normal life, longing for those connections she had made abroad. Upon moving to Tucson in 2012, Burton realized the refugee community that existed in the city and jumped on the opportunity to serve.

“I found out that there were tons of refugees here from Africa, and that was really exciting for me.”

Originally starting out by helping with refugee summer camps for children, the Burtons realized they didn’t want to give up the connections they had made with the children as quickly as they came.

Amy and Jackson Burton  Arizona Sonora News Service
Amy and Jackson Burton / Arizona Sonora News Service

“We’re just all about relationships. It was like, we don’t want to meet these kids, be with them for a week, and then never see them again. So that’s when we started playdates and doing weekly stuff.”

Making connections and building relationships with families, the Burtons engage in various activities with refugee children, from playing soccer or skipping rope, to spending time talking with them and helping with homework.

“For me, I just love kids in general, and so many of them need so much attention and love because they’re just not getting it. So seeing those smiles is a big thing.”

Mungaga exemplifies the type of connection the Burton’s are trying to build with the refugee community.

“I come here, in America, and I don’t have any family. But Amy and Jackson is my family right now. So I come in America and say ‘I’m scared because they don’t have anybody I know’ but now I not fear, because I have Amy and Jackson.”

Shelby Edwards is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photos.

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