February 15, 2006 - Five years ago, Bior Keech gaped at the University of Arizona campus through a car window, overwhelmed by his task of adapting quickly to American life and enrolling at the university.
Keech had grown up in a refugee camp in Kenya after setting off on a five-month walk at age 5 with thousands of other Sudanese boys, eventually known as the Lost Boys of Sudan, who were escaping genocide. Suddenly, he was a 17-year-old in Tucson, on his way to a new home from the city's airport.
"Believe me, in a couple of months you're going to be here," he remembered Foothills resident Jill Rich saying to the older Sudanese refugees in the car as he eyed the university.
Keech is now a business economics major there. He credits his success to Rich, a founder of the refugee program at Jewish Family and Children's Services whom he fondly calls "Mom," but he and the Lost Boys of Sudan also benefited from the attentiveness of employers, schools, churches and volunteers in Tucson.
Their experience shows that it takes a village, so to speak, to settle a refugee.
According to the Arizona Department of Economic Security records, 531 refugees resettled in Tucson last fiscal year and more than 6,500 have settled in the city since 1975. There are 14 million refugees worldwide.
Under the U.S. Government's Refugee Resettlement Program, refugees are people forced out of their country of origin due to persecution because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
After crossing into a neighboring country, refugees generally stay in refugee camps for months or years. Some eventually go back to their country. Some stay in the country where they are waiting, but if those countries have difficulty absorbing the refugees into their economy, they go to a third country.
Each year, the president, in consultation with Congress, sets the number of refugees who may be resettled in the United States, according to the Web site of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a national agency that aids refugee resettlement. Those who are approved by U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service staff for admission are allocated among the nine U.S. resettlement agencies in the United States, which resettle them in cities where they have local offices.
Refugees who arrive in Tucson are met at the airport by representatives from one of four organizations that work closely with them during their first months in America: Jewish Family and Children's Service, Catholic Social Service, International Rescue Committee or Lutheran Social Ministry of the Southwest.
All refugees move into apartments with rent covered by federal funds and sometimes some private funds for at least a month.
The apartment furnishings sometimes come as donations from residents of the Northwest and Foothills, said Janell
Mousseau, director of the Lutheran refugee resettlement program.
"It helps save money on rent when
people outfit the apartment in donations," Mousseau said.
The new arrivals receive useful information about their new dwelling place, which for some refugees, including the Lost Boys of Sudan, starts with basics.
"It was difficult for them," Rich said. "They came with really great values but very little in the way of technical knowledge. They couldn't use a can opener and they left the fridge door open."
Rich added that now they're better than she is about housekeeping details.
After new arrivals have a chance to rest, they receive help procuring food stamps and bus passes, signing up for social security and, for children, enrolling in school.
With basics out of the way, refugees talk to a job developer who works with Southern Arizona businesses to help them in their first step toward self-sufficiency.
Some refugees are highly educated but don't speak English, so they take basic jobs while they work on communication skills, Rich said. Others arrive speaking only a non-written language from back home. Some refugees, including the Lost Boys of Sudan, arrive in the United States at an advantage because they speak America's dominant language.
Alier Duany, one of the 60-some Sudanese refugees who call Rich "Mom," started a job at University Medical Center two months after arriving in 2001. He now works there as a surgical assistant. Resorts such as the Westin La Paloma Resort and Spa and the Hilton El Conquistador Golf and Tennis Resort offer ample housekeeping jobs to refugees who arrive with less of an advantage in the job market, Mousseau said.
"The resorts are fabulous about refugees," Mousseau said. "They understand they come (here) drug-free with great ethics and want to work."
Church congregations sometimes help in the refugee resettlement effort, as well, by adopting families. St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in the Northwest, for example, has taken a family from the Congo under its wing. Sometimes individuals volunteer to welcome refugees into their lives.
When the Lost Boys of Sudan arrived in Tucson, each was paired with a volunteer to call if the need arose for a ride to Wal-Mart or for the scoop about an American custom. Some of the young Sudanese men even lived with their volunteers.
For the whole bunch, though, Rich earned her "Mom" title by opening her house for regular gatherings, offering her spare beds after surgeries and accidents, and cooking countless gargantuan pots of soup. At the moment, 22 of the Sudanese refugees pay reduced rent by living in five houses she owns.
"Jill didn't sleep the last three years," Duany said, acknowledging the real-estate-agent-by-day's supportive role in his and his friends' lives.
Although Rich said she sees her involvement with the Lost Boys of Sudan as permanent, the resettlement agency she volunteers for receives a steady stream of new refugees needing its attention and resources.
All four Tucson resettlement agencies aim to help refugees achieve self-sufficiency quickly to make room for newcomers. Although they often secure grants to offer some longer-term resources - childcare, income tax help, counseling - the agencies roles diminish greatly within the first months.
That's where other organizations, such as the Tucson International Alliance of Refugee Communities, step in.
The alliance formed in 1995 when a group of refugees from various countries got together to try to address needs refugees often encounter after their initial months in Tucson.
One such need is job training for women in refugee families.
Oro Valley resident Amra Sabanic, the alliance's executive director, said she had trouble finding a job in Tucson upon arriving as a Bosnian refugee 10 years ago. When agencies set out to make a family self-sufficient quickly, that usually meant finding a job for one person, she said, and usually that was the man.
"What I noticed when I looked for a job here is that it's hard to find because you don't have any working experience in the United States," she said. "Nobody can tell anything about you."
The alliance runs a thrift shop that gives its refugee employees business skills and work references for their resumes. It also offers driving classes and computer classes tailored to refugees.
As new refugee groups arrive in Arizona, the challenge of meeting their diverse needs is growing, said Charles Shipman, the state refugee coordinator with the Arizona Department of Economic Security.
Until about 10 years ago, refugees to Tucson came mostly from Southeast Asia, the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Shipman said. Once programs were in place to address their specific needs, refugee resettlement ran smoothly.
Shipman said now refugees are coming from a greater variety of regions. Some new large groups include the Lost Boys of Sudan, a group of Meskhetian Turks coming out of Russia, and a group of Somali Bantus who have for years been in refugee camps in Kenya.
To help address the specific acculturation challenges of Somali Bantu refugees, many of whom were illiterate back home because they speak an unwritten language, some Northwest and Foothills residents are lending their fruit.
In 2003, a fruit-harvesting program began as an effort to introduce this group of newcomers to their neighbors in the greater Tucson area and also help them acquire business skills. The Iskah*taa Somali Bantu Refugee Harvesting Network pairs refugees eager to pick fruit with homeowners who have excess fruit falling from trees and cluttering their yards. Some fruit comes from yards along Orange Grove Road that used to harbor orange groves.
The harvesters distribute the fruit in their refugee community. They also sell it to restaurants and donate it to food banks. Students from Amphitheater Public Schools have helped the refugees pick fruit.
"This is a way for them to offer something back to groups they are being helped by, with immediacy," said Barbara Eiswerth, the founder of the network.
Northwest and Foothills congregations, including St. Mark's United Methodist Church and St. Francis in the Foothills United Methodist Church, are donating chopsticks and broken and unwanted beads to the Somali Bantu refugees through Eiswerth, as well, so they can create and sell jewelry.
Eiswerth's network may be grassroots, but it is connected to the larger network of organizations in the greater Tucson area that work together to meet the needs of refugees.
When Sabanic, of the Tucson International Alliance of Refugee Communities, arrived as a refugee in Tucson 10 years ago, she didn't even have help enrolling her children in school, she said. Now, the four agencies and the alliance meet regularly to discuss new developments among refugees in Tucson and the welfare of the newcomers in their care.
"The refugees don't know there are five agencies, they think it's just one," Sabanic said. "That's how we work."
Laura Marble is a staff writer and columnist covering features. She can be reached at 797-4384, ext. 104, or by e-mail, email@example.com.