On Thursday I made my first visit to TIARC, the Tucson International Alliance for Refugee Communities. I met with Erina Delic, the executive director and a refugee herself from the former Yugoslavia, to discuss what the organization does. This discussion morphed into a conversation about many of the issues refugees must deal with in their new homes, the very issues TIARC helps refugees with.
The organization was created in 1995 by refugees from Vietnam, Laos, Angola, the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, with assistance from the Pima County Adult Education Program in order to help refugees adjust to their new lives in the U.S. According to Delic, the primary areas of concerns for most refugees are education for their children, gainful employment, crime prevention and law enforcement, housing, health care, cultural adjustment, and also preservation of their own cultures within the context of their new homes.
According to TIARC’s website, the organization provides the following services: interpretation and translation, driver training, English as second language classes, computer classes, notary public, citizenship classes for refugees 60 years of age or older, case management for elderly clients, and help with job acquisition.
Refugees have a unique status which differentiates them from immigrants and migrants. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Article 1 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, A refugee is a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…”
In more human terms, Delic explained what differentiates refugees from immigrants and migrants, who often make a conscious choice to immigrate to another country. She said, “You become a refugee in a moment – you leave to save your life.” Refugees must leave everything, including material possessions and sometimes even family, behind. Yet as Delic further pointed out to me, “It’s not just material stuff they lose, they also lose their identities.” According to Delic, this is one of the most difficult aspects of resettling in another country for refugees.
Currently, very few countries resettle refugees. According to the section entitled “Resettlement” on UNHCR’s website, the U.S. is the world’s top resettlement country, with Canada, Australia and the Nordic countries providing resettlement spaces as well. Resettling offers physical and legal protection to refugees, and according to UNHCR is supposed to provide “civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights similar to those enjoyed by nationals,” as well as a path forward for citizenship. According to the Refugee Council USA’s website, since 1980 the U.S. has on average admitted 98,000 refugees annually.
According to Delic, the resettling of refugees in Tucson began in the 1970s, with a wave of refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia resulting from the Vietnam War. Then, in the early 1990s refugees from the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia arrived. In 2000, Tucson saw the arrival of Sudanese refugees, particularly some of the “Lost Boys of Sudan“, followed by refugees from Liberia, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Angola. In 2007 refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran began filtering in, and 2-3 years ago refugees from Burma, Myanmar, and Bhutan arrived. According to the International Rescue Committee’s website, since 1997 Tucson has resettled more than 2,000 refugees.
Delic, understanding my interest in the Middle East, suggested that I get acquainted with the Iraqi refugees. She said many of the Iraqi refugees in Tucson are widowed women who lost their husbands as a result of the U.S. invasion in 2003. The primary challenges for these women revolve around the stark differences between their traditional and cultural roles in Iraq, where many of these women did not work, and navigating the reality of living within the country that is responsible for their status as refugees, and also for the deaths of their husbands.
Additionally, Delic informed me of the presence in Tucson of a group of Palestinian refugees from Iraq, many of them refugees 2 and 3 times over, who were persecuted and pushed out of Baghdad, primarily into Al Waleed refugee camp near the Iraq/Syria border, after the U.S. invasion in 2003. According to an article in the Christian Science Monitor, these refugees were part of a 2009 U.S. State Department initiative to resettle approximately 1,350 Palestinian refugees from Iraq in the U.S. I’m looking forward to meeting some of these refugees, and hearing and documenting their stories.
I will return to TIARC on Tuesday, September 21 2010 to begin meeting some of these refugees, developing relationships with them, and hopefully begin the process of recording their stories. Delic is interested in filming my interviews with them, and having them placed on TIARC’s website. Additionally, I will take some photographs on Tuesday, and will hopefully get some audio from an interview with Delic, which I will post as soon as it’s edited and ready to go. Stay tuned for more!