By Mariah Secrest
My city of Tucson is like most cities of any substantial size, spread out into distinct areas in a veritable demographic paint-by-number.
There’s the kooky, intellectual university downtown area, the rich yuppie foothills area, the clean, safe family suburbs of the northwest (where my two other single 20-something roommates and I live but rather fail at fitting in), and the shady, dangerous south side. Mixed in somewhere amongst all this is the surprisingly invisible refugee population.
I say theyre invisible not because they dont stand out. Many of them wear full traditional garb as they stroll the concrete grids of 110-degree Tucson neighborhoods, conspicuously contrasted with the rest of us in shorts and tank tops.
I say theyre invisible because no one ever really talks about them. I say theyre invisible because of the massive trauma theyve endured that is grossly under-addressed in the community. I say theyre invisible because the majority of them live in the States for years before they can say that they have even a single American friend.
Intrigued by the stories of this marginalized demographic, I met with Cherie Gray of Tucson Refugee Ministry to learn more. A very gentle, unassuming woman, Cherie possesses a great deal more spunk than her gentle demeanor initially suggests. She explained to me a bit about the process that refugees go through, which could include up to thirty years of waiting in a refugee camp. Thirty years! I can hardly grasp what emotional travail that must involve!
Add to the stakes the fact that only about one percent of those who file for refugee status are actually granted political asylum, and it becomes clear that the pressures that refugees have faced in their lifetime are astronomical.
Many of the refugees that come to Tucson are from Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Cherie explained sadly that a large proportion of churchgoers across the city that she asks for help are reluctant to get involved with anyone of Middle Eastern origin. We mistakenly identify an entire race with a few radicals who most likely led to the endangerment of the refugees in the first place. Sadly, these are Christians who refuse to hel p them.
Yet, Cherie continues to rally people for the cause, sacrificing her own personal comfort and success for the comfort and success of these individuals. In regards to mistaken perceptions, she notes, Nothing changes until you get face-to-face.
I took her up on this challenge and joined her at the airport later that evening as five incoming refugee families arrived for the first time to their new American home. My love for travel, foreign cultures, and languages came to a head all surprisingly within a forty-minute drive from my suburban home.
I tried to imagine the scope of feelings that the new arrivals must have been levying as we attempted to welcome them in a language many of them didnt even know.
I wondered if they were hungry from traveling and whether they would have access to food until morning, completely in the hands of strangers in the middle of a rainy summer night in this foreign land. Since they were short on transportation, I agreed to drive one family home. As they didnt speak English, I could only guess what they were thinkingthe man, as he was forced to entrust his wife and kids to the goodwill of this young white American girl cruising through this new city in the rain with her SUV, and the woman, trying to soothe her toddler and probably wondering why I was gesturing for her not to take her fussy infant from the car seat as we were driving. Did the little ones have any idea what was going on?
We were all rain-drenched by the time we shook hands that night on the doorstep of their new apartment. Did they have food in the fridge? Did they have towels to take a shower? The refugee placement agencies and the Tucson Refugee Ministry do their best to provide basic necessities, but sometimes supplies are scarce.
The sad thing is that I know there are more than enough people in this community with the resources to help. We could make sure there are English teachers for them. We could make sure the new families have pictures on their walls and an extra blanket on the bed. Im convinced that the main gap between needs and resources is awareness. Of course, motivation and compassion are integral. But those are often activated upon awareness.
Thankfully there are folks like Cherie dedicated to closing that awareness gap. If youd like to find out more about closing the gap for refugee families in your own area, check out your local chapter of one of these agencies located in nearly every major city in the West.
- Catholic Social Services
- Jewish Refugee Resettlement
- International Rescue Committee
- Lutheran Social Services
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Mariah has currently landed herself in Tucson, Arizona, where she just finished a philosophy degree. She enjoys writing almost as much as she enjoys making music. Almost. You can visit her on Myspace at www.myspace.com/mariahsecrestmusic .