TUCSON, Arizona — In the midst of the migration crisis that is dominating the news in Europe, a look at the people touched by a refugee resettlement agency in Tucson helps shed light as to why refugees take the risk to flee their homeland. Overcoming obstacles is possible for refugees all over the world.
This is not the only time in history when refugee crises have taken center stage in headline news. In the late 1970s and early 80’s, the U.S. granted asylum to thousands of Cambodians fleeing the Khmer Rouge regime and the genocide that took the lives of up to two million Cambodians.
In more recent times, more than 106,000 refugees from Iraq have found home in the U.S. since 2008 and 104,000 resettled from Myanmar from about the same time. Cambodians, Iraqis and Burmese also have horror stories to tell about their journey to peace and freedom.
Throughout the decades, individuals, charities, churches, nonprofit organizations and the like around the U.S. have generously taken in “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” as inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.
Refugee Focus, based in Tucson, Arizona, is one of those welcoming havens. Since 1982, they have guided more than 10,000 refugees to achieve the American Dream.
Refugee Focus, a division of Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest, is a nonprofit organization that provides wrap-around support for refugees to resettle in the Tucson community.
The staff and volunteers of RF arrange housing for families, conduct English classes, enroll children into local schools, link access to medical care and provide job placements.
After these essential needs are met, refugee families pursue longer-term goals of self-sufficiency – like pursuing higher education, acquiring vocational skills and becoming financially literate and computer literate. Women-headed households are especially encouraged to become entrepreneurs later down the line.
Nicolle Trudeau, program director at Refugee Focus, explained that many of the refugees they serve had faced a journey of more than 10 years before walking through the doors at RF. In other words, that’s more than 3,650 days between being displaced from their home of origin and reaching their new home in Tucson.
A number of reasons cause such a delay. Oftentimes, refugees have to prove that they cannot ever return to their homeland. That could be a matter of time which turns into years.
For example, the Congolese refugees supported by Refugee Focus had faced indefinite times in outlying UNHCR refugee camps in the remote part of Rwanda, waiting on how politics would develop in their war-torn homeland.
Additionally, many delays for refugees are caused by not having crucial identification documents on hand, lost while fleeing to safety during wartime. Proving oneself without papers is a lengthy process before the U.N.’s refugee agency, UNHCR.
It is challenging to verify birth certificates and citizenships from a government that has fallen apart because of war. Only after documents are procured could the UNHCR then apply for the refugee’s asylum status in host countries like the U.S.
That is, of course, if the host country is willing to take in refugees. The U.S. government places refugee quotas per country. It is not so easy to immigrate to the U.S. nowadays as it was during the 1980s when the U.S. allowed more than 207,000 Vietnamese refugees and 120,000 Cubans to resettle.
The refugee allowance has been more selective and less in numbers since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
For the average refugee from an area of conflict, it could total up to an entire decade lost before they find a new home in the U.S. For young adults who escaped their home country as a child, it means a whole childhood lost.
For the 19.5 million people in the world who have found themselves homeless and stateless last year, displacement could mean a decade of daily anguish about whether or not there would be a future at all.
The choice presented to refugees is choosing between years of indefinite waiting with no guarantees or taking the risk, now, to cross the border by boat, by foot, in a truck, as a stowaway — whatever it takes.
For the refugees, Trudeau and her staff support in Tucson, the choice may seem evident. Or perhaps, it was not a choice at all but a series of events that led them to Arizona. Each story is different. Each involved luck.
Trudeau shared one story of a refugee who had fled the Democratic Republic of Congo along with her five female children. According to the mother, to have stayed in the DRC would have meant the increased likelihood that one or all of them would suffer sexual violence.
The mother spoke of gratitude for the refugee camp they escaped to outside the DRC border. They offered some safety to her family, but as the years passed by, she worried about the hopelessness of their future.
To the mother of five, resettlement out of the camps meant the opportunity to live and not just stay alive. After settling in Tucson with the help of Refugee Focus, the mother told Trudeau of the overwhelming joy she felt being able to purchase milk for her children with her own income for the first time in 12 years.
Trudeau feels that she has met some of the most inspirational and caring individuals in her life by working alongside former refugees in Tucson. She said, “People are not defined by their tragedies, but by how they respond to it. Refugees bring a perspective that overcoming obstacles is possible. They are living examples of survival.”
If you ask Hanibal, a refugee from Eritrea, about what overcoming means, he would answer in the following way. He would compare the hopelessness he felt growing up as an orphan in Ethiopia with what he is doing today. Today, he talks about the friends he is making and the hope for a life that he has found.
At age 34, Hanibal started GED classes at Refugee Focus. He arrived at Tucson with no English just earlier this year, so he struggles to understand the material. However, this does not stop his ambitions.
He gets up every morning to ride his bike or take a bus to the Refugee Focus office in downtown Tucson, where he waters the garden before embarking on his studies.
Trudeau believes that resettlement for Hanibal and many others at Refugee Focus means that they do indeed have an opportunity to have a future. “This is the American dream, alive and in action,” said Trudeau.
Given the recent exodus of refugees out of Syria, President Obama has mandated that the U.S. government raise the number of Syrian refugees admitted into the U.S. to at least 10,000 as soon as October — up from fewer than 2,000 thus far this year.
It will then be up to charities, resettlement agencies and community-based organizations like Refugee Focus to accept and transition them into their new lives in the United States.
The lasting image to come out of all the despair is hope for a better tomorrow for all.
– Maria Caluag
Sources: Refugee Focus, NPR, BBC, NYT, Al Jazeera, UNHCR, Reuters, White House
Photo: Refugee Focus