Monthly Archives: September 2010

My Introduction to Tucson’s Refugee Community

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!


I Saw Myself and My Children In Her Eyes

On a trip to Bisbee this past weekend, I crossed paths with a young nurse who told me a very moving story about an undocumented Mexican migrant she once treated in the emergency room at a rural hospital in southeastern Arizona. The nurse who told me this story wishes to remain anonymous, primarily because of the current controversies and complications associated with navigation of the legal and ethical aspects of treating undocumented migrants.

According to the nurse, Maria, a Mexican national, ended up in the emergency room of a rural hospital in southeastern Arizona after falling and breaking one of her ankles. She broke her ankle on a journey that countless people have made – a journey that involves the crossing of borders, fences and dangerous terrain with great risk, all in search of something more promising than what was left behind.

According to the nurse, Maria had a daughter that she had not seen in 12 years. Maria apparently saved up thousands of dollars 12 years ago, and handed her daughter over to “coyotes” or “guides” who help undocumented migrants cross the border. She did so trusting that her daughter would somehow make it to Las Vegas, where her sister immigrated years earlier. According to Maria, her daughter did make it safely into her Aunt’s arms. In the 12 years since then, Maria  had saved thousands more to get herself across the border, in the hopes that she could be reunited with her daughter and her sister in Las Vegas to begin a new and better life. The only thing standing in her way at that point was the staff at this rural hospital.

According to the nurse, health care workers in Arizona are not required to determine a person’s legal status. However, they do make an effort to arrange follow-up care for Mexican nationals in Mexico if they need it. This usually requires them to call the Mexican Consulate to make arrangements for transportation back to Mexico, particularly for the migrants who have been released from border control custody.

Because Maria needed follow-up care, the nurse informed her she would need to call the Mexican Consulate to pick her up and take her back to Mexico. Maria pleaded with the nurse not to make that phone call. She asked the nurse give her some water and something to eat, and then asked her to “look the other way” until someone came to pick her up from Las Vegas, which she indicated would take about 4-5 hours. On that particular day, under Maria’s particular circumstances, the nurse decided to look the other way. Have a listen to the video below, as she describes in her own words how and why she made the decision that she did.

On the Border…

I recently traveled to Bisbee for the Labor Day holiday weekend to visit with family and good friends. I must say, being in Bisbee makes my heart sing, and being so close to good friends and family makes me feel very thankful to be in Arizona again. Bisbee is my home, but it is also a magical place full of character, secret stairways and hidden gardens. One could spend an entire day wandering the streets of Old Bisbee and exploring its many narrow and winding streets and staircases, and its cafes, restaurants art galleries and bars. No doubt you would also encounter some of Bisbee’s rather eccentric characters, as I do nearly every time I visit. I can’t say that I’ve ever found another place like Bisbee, nor do I imagine I ever will. I feel extremely blessed to be from such an amazingly vibrant, unique and wonderful little town.

However, Bisbee sits about 4-6 miles north of the Mexican border. As such, this area sees an inordinate number of undocumented migrants and illegal drugs flow through across the border. I have seen the border area here change dramatically over the last 10 years. It is now highly militarized with a huge steel wall running along it. Yet the wall has done very little to stop migrants from crossing into the U.S. Those that do make it face a harrowing journey, one that often results in serious injuries that land them in some of southeastern Arizona’s rural hospital emergency rooms.

I came to Bisbee with the intention of interviewing a Palestinian woman who has lived here for many years. However, along the way I ran into a nurse who told me the most incredibly moving story about a female undocumented migrant who ended up in the emergency room at a rural hospital in southeastern Arizona. This nurse, who prefers to remain anonymous, told me this woman’s  story. As the story unfolded, I was moved to tears and felt very strongly that it needed to be recorded. I asked her if I could interview her for this project, and if she would be willing to tell me the story again the next day, and she agreed. I had no idea if the initial raw emotion of the story would translate by having her re-tell the story, though I hoped it would. Fortunately it did.

I don’t want to give away too much at this point. However, the story this nurse shared with me reminded me that the immigration debate is very colorful; it is not black and white, but rather many varying shades of every color in between. Everyone has a story to tell, and whose stories get told depends largely upon existing power structures and how we have been trained to view “the other.” Right now in Arizona, and in the U.S. in general, I feel a great sense of fear and resentment – people seem to feel very threatened by “illegal aliens” and imagine there are some of us that simply do not belong here. This fear and anxiety I believe has been greatly bolstered by the passage of Arizona SB1070. I am not offering an easy answer to the immigration problem. What I hope to offer through sharing this interview in an audio and text format is greater depth to the difficulties, nuances and complexities that undocumented migrants face in their own lives as they journey here. Furthermore, I hope to explore the question of what it means to live in exile illegally.

All in all, this most recent experience taught me that there are many great stories out there just waiting to be told if we are open to recognizing them and hearing them. I ended up with a story that I had no intention of getting, but one that opened up to me, and one I could not ignore. I am in the process of editing down the audio and combining it with a text story, which should be ready to go by tomorrow. Please stay tuned for more!

My Interview With Dina Jadallah

Here is the audio of my interview with Dina, at long last.

Meet Dina…

I conducted my first interview yesterday with Dina Jadallah. She is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Arizona, as well as my first year Arabic teacher, and my colleague in my Near Eastern Studies class. Dina is Egyptian and Palestinian. When I discovered Dina’s Palestinian heritage, I felt a great sense of excitement – Palestine is my area of interest, and I thus visualized many great opportunities opening up to me at this University. In short, I felt no doubt that I am in the right place, at the right University at just the right time in my life and with just the right people.

Before we began the interview, Dina introduced me to Mohammed, another Palestinian student at UA whose family is from Hebron, or Al Khalil in Arabic. Dina seemed pleased that I knew the Arabic name for Hebron, and asked if I had been to Palestine, to which I enthusiastically responded “yes!” After that, she slipped me a piece of paper with numerous emails of Palestinian students and professors here. Again, I felt a great sense of gratitude and confidence in my choice to take this particular academic journey. I have not contacted anyone on that list yet, but I will get to that in the next few days, and very much appreciate that she took the time to do that for me.

Dina told me many things about her life and the genealogy of her family since the 1948 war in Palestine, which Palestinians often refer to as Al Nakba (the catastrophe), and which changed the course of her family’s history, and ultimately her own life. In relation to the fact that Dina is living in the Palestinian diaspora, I wanted to know particularly about how Dina identifies herself, and whether or not she feels at home here.

During the course of the interview she spoke very candidly and openly with me. I am new to interviewing, so I felt a bit awkward and unsure about how to guide the conversation. However, I had mentioned to her a few times before the interview that I hoped to hear about some specific and memorable events pertaining to her immigration to the US. When I initially asked if I could interview her, she said she felt her first experiences here were unusual because she did not really miss home. Just before I started recording, I told her I’d like her to elaborate on that point. She spoke about feeling very at home in the US, and focused in on describing the one and only encounter she’s ever had with racism in this country.

I am very interested in how immigrants, and especially immigrants who fled as refugees from conflict zones, navigate their new or split identities, and whether or not immigrating changes and reformulates new conceptions of home. I am starting to see a more clear picture of what I want this project to be and where I want it to go. Whatever the results shall be, I am very excited to be taking this journey, and so thankful that the work I’m doing is creative and interesting to me.

On the technical side of this experience, I learned how to record audio in garage band and then convert it into an Mp3 track. This was a great opportunity for me to learn more about my Mac, and how to do this better in the future. For example, I realized after listening to the audio that I should have disabled the metronome in garage band, as you can hear it slightly in the background (I did not know I could disable it at the time I recorded). I also think I could have edited the interview a bit more. Initially I did not have a very difficult time choosing what segments I wanted to leave in, and what I would cut. Yet after further review, I can hear there is room for improvement and guidance. Fortunately, that lies at the heart of why I am here writing this, and taking JOUR 507! I’m looking forward to the next round…