“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well. No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”
— Refugee poet Warsan Shire
Each year the United Nations celebrates World Refugee Day on June 20 to commemorate the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees. This year, World Refugee Day also marks a key moment for the public to show support for families forced to flee their homes for fear of their lives, due to war, religious or political persecution, drought and famine, or conscription.
Fleeing across borders in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, refugees take cover in squalid camps with thousands of others, seeking international United Nations refugee status recognition, which can take up to 20 years. Only then does the rigorous process of identification and vetting begin. It may take more years to achieve eligibility for legal, documented migration to a third country. Even then, the United Nations Refugee Agency controls their ultimate destiny, based on national quotas. When assigned to the U.S., the nine national resettlement agencies designate the destination community for resettlement.
Three agencies currently resettle refugees in Tucson: the International Rescue Committee, Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest and Catholic Community Services. “Tucson has a very long history of being a very supportive community for refugees,” Charles Shipman, the state refugee coordinator for the Arizona Department of Economic Security, told the Arizona Daily Star last year.
Jewish Family & Children’s Services also resettled refugees in Tucson for 18 years, working initially with Jews from the former Soviet Union but later with non-Jews from countries in Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia. Faced with a reduction in the number of refugees allowed in the country after the 9/11 terror attacks and a corresponding reduction in federal funds for resettlement, JFCS closed its program in 2007.
“Tucson has been a welcoming place and many refugees have been successful here,” confirms Jill Rich, who previously chaired the JFCS refugee resettlement committee. Although JFCS no longer resettles refugees in Tucson that does not put a stop to the Jewish community’s involvement and interest in reaching out to welcome these new Tucson residents.
Disturbed by the federal refugee ban in March 2017, Jewish community member Brenda Landau approached a group of friends to sponsor an incoming refugee family. “We had 17 people on board within three days,” she recalls. “We believe in equal rights for everyone, so we decided to help someone and requested a Muslim family to bridge the gap.” Within two weeks, the group had gone through sponsorship training by the resettlement agency, furnished an apartment, put sheets on the beds and hung a welcome sign for the incoming couple with four children.
“If I had to say what the high point of my year was last year, it was bringing them into our family,” she says, pointing to children’s hand-drawn artwork. “They instantly felt like family,” she adds on behalf of the sponsor group.
Synagogues and congregations frequently sponsored refugee families through JFCS in the past, and continue to do so. “We’ve learned so much about the people not having a place in the world,” says one sponsor, Anne Lowe.
She now feels relaxed in her attitudes about strangers from different backgrounds. “It’s something I had to overcome, and I didn’t even realize I had anything to stop me from that interaction. It is people-to-people, community helping community. It is not about religion or politicizing things. They want to give back to the community,” she adds.
Local community sponsors were instrumental in advocating for employment for their new families. “We hired a refugee who has skills that were underutilized where he was working and there was no English being spoken there,” says Dale Green, supervisor at a local Jewish agency. “He works hard to get done what needs to be done,” he says, adding that his employee is quick to jump in to help with anything. “He doesn’t want to be left out of being part of the team.” When communications become difficult, Google Translator comes to the rescue.
“Everyone deserves a second chance, an opportunity to live the life they want to live. There are so many refugees in Tucson. We support them and want to make sure they live healthy productive lives,” Green says. He realizes such employees can feel lonely without others who share their language, culture and beliefs. He is happy that this employee’s wife may obtain a childcare position at the same facility.
When hired, she will join another refugee woman who began working 14 months ago, shortly after her family arrived. “Our hearts and arms are very open to receiving good workers,” says Lori Maurer, the center’s administrative director. Among the 90 staff members in her department there are many languages spoken. “We have so many immigrants here like her, who came with very little English. Now she has no difficulty communicating. Everyone loves her,” adds Maurer. “I don’t even get homesick here, everyone has helped me a lot, and I thank you so much,” the staffer says in perfect English.
Outside the facility, a contractor provides security services, overseen by Green. One guard is a refugee who gained his U.S. citizenship in October. “Everyone loves him,” says Green. Those frequenting the facility will recognize him as the friendly crossing guard, always ready with a warm smile and a kind word for parents and children. Refugee staff from a kosher catering company last Sunday held a Syrian and Iraqi cooking class at a local community center, while a local kosher deli recently hired another refugee worker.
Last month local factory owner Bruce Beyer expanded his workforce to complete a large customer order. Fortunately, a local refugee resettlement agency over the past 18 months trained a cadre of women to sew. Along with their sewing skills, these women brought three new cultures and languages to the factory floor and immediately began churning out quality, completed products. Encouraged, Beyer is excited about the growth opportunity
“Everyone deserves a free life, doing what they can to improve themselves and their community,” says Beyer. “Many people move around the U.S. too, for jobs or a better lifestyle and we think nothing of it. There is no reason anyone in the world should not have the same opportunity.”
In Tucson, the Refugee & Immigration Provider Network will celebrate World Refugee Day on Saturday, June 16 at Catalina Magnet High School, 3645 E. Pima St. At 10 a.m., there will be opening remarks and a youth citizenship ceremony, where refugee children receive citizenship papers. Around noon a Family Fun Fest will start, with cultural performances, activities, games, giveaways, handicrafts and Syrian sweets sales. The public is invited.
For more ways to become involved in Tucson’s refugee community, join Arizona Welcomes Refugees on Facebook.
Debe Campbell works part-time as a refugee employment specialist at Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest. Refugees’ names and other identifiers have been omitted out of an abundance of caution.