Arizona receives triple the number of refugees it did almost 20 years ago, creating both volume and diversity challenges for resettlement agencies.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement has been fair in allotting funds to Arizona over the years, said Charles Shipman, Arizona’s state refugee coordinator. The key task has been adapting services to an increasingly diversified body.
In 1985, the 1,191 refugees who resettled into Arizona came from 12 different countries. In 2013, the 3,600 refugees represented 42 nations. The country count in these statistics, from the Arizona Refugee Resettlement Program, excludes refugees classified as “other,” which can be accorded to someone who is stateless, or people categorized under the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program.
Tucson’s reputation as a welcoming city for refugees goes back at least a decade. In the mid-80’s, the bulk of the state’s refugees came from countries such as Romania, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Ethiopia. Today, the majority is composed of Iraqis, Afghans, Somalis, and Cubans. The shift is reflective of instability seeping into different parts of the world, Shipman said.
“We’re in the work of responding to crises,” Shipman said. And lately, there seem to be a lot more of them.
Due to the Vietnam War and the USSR’s dissolution, most of Arizona’s refugees in the 80’s and 90’s came from those parts of the world. In some ways, resettlement was more manageable then because the bulk of the refugees were coming from fewer regions, and agencies in Arizona became familiarized with them, Shipman said. As trends in refugee resettlement took a more global pivot, local organizations had to adapt to the specific needs of more communities.
For example, a Vietnamese refugee may prefer to stick to more traditional medical practices rather than adopt Western medicine, or an Iraqi who is well-educated may have a stronger aversion to accepting an entry-level position as opposed to refugees who have held menial jobs their whole lives. A Somali may have a harder time adjusting in a community without a nearby mosque, and other refugees will face additional challenges learning English than those who come from countries where the language is more prevalent.
Shipman said national agencies try to assess which cities refugees will best fit in before sending them there.
Ferdinand Lossavi Lossou, who heads Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona Inc.’s resettlement program, said he thinks the data hold true, noting the refugee communities he works with have grown increasingly diverse over the years.
“However, all refugees have common needs,” he said.
Catholic Community Services assists refugees with housing, case management, and learning English. In a field of work where budgets are always tight, he said funding is an even bigger challenge for his organization than adapting to the various needs of the people they serve.
The number of refugees Catholic Community Services helps has doubled from 150 in 2003 to 300 in the present day. He said although federal funding to his organization has increased over the last decade, more money is still needed.
Abdi Abdi, executive director of non-profit Horizons for Refugee Families, said his organization prides itself on being a place where “refugees help refugees.” The majority of its governing board are either current or former refugees.
Abdi was 8 years old when the Somali Civil War displaced his family into a Kenyan refugee camp. He learned English there, and was resettled into the U.S. 12 years later. He became a caseworker within 10 days of arriving, and in 2004, helped co-found the Somali Bantu Association in Tucson. Taking into account the evolving demographics of Tucson’s refugee community, the organization changed its name to Horizons for Refugee Families a several years ago.
Today, Horizons serves more than 2,000 people annually, assisting with everything from immigration paperwork to job searches, Abdi said. He added that he still feels grateful to the humanitarian workers who helped him in the refugee camp all those years ago.
“I know where I have been,” Abdi said. “I have been given a hand, and now it’s my responsibility to return the favor.”
December will mark Ezadeen Naji’s 6th anniversary in Tucson. He arrived from Iraq in 2008, and has since graduated from Palo Verde high school. He said adjusting to such a drastically different lifestyle was the most challenging aspect of his resettlement.
His father, a former university professor in Baghdad, now works at Target.
“It’s very difficult. I mean, nobody wants to be forced out of their country,” Naji said. “But Alhamdulilah (Praise be to God), I feel lucky to be here. The people in Tucson are very kind.”
The mosque he attends mirrors current resettlement trends. Kamel Didan, vice chairman of the Islamic Center of Tucson, said hundreds of Iraqi and Somali refugees have become congregants over the last 10 years. He said a large number of these people are widows and children.
Didan said although their physical safety is far improved from that of their home countries, many still struggle to find jobs, pay the bills, and recover some semblance of normalcy. He said his hopes rest with the refugee children acquiring an education.
Kristjan Laumets, principal of John B. Wright Elementary, estimated 25 percent of his students are refugees.
“The other day I sat at table with kids from 4 different continents,” Laumets said.
He said not only are the children securing a brighter future than their parents had, but that they also serve as symbols of perseverance for their classmates.
Today, Naji studies electrical engineering at the University of Arizona. He hopes to return to Iraq someday, and use his skill set to improve the area he was born in.
“I always think about that,” he said. “You can never forget home.”
Reach reporter Amer Taleb at email@example.com.