Serving Arizona State University Online Since 1995  Current Issue: Thursday, November 10, 2005





In a Strange Land

For refugees relocating from some of the world's most war-torn regions, the move to America is an extreme culture shock. One ASU club makes the transition for Valley refugees a little easier.

 by Stephanie Berger
 published on Thursday, November 10, 2005

Sambo Dul, is a Cambodian refugee and founder of COAR./issues/arts/694858
Sambo Dul, is a Cambodian refugee and founder of COAR.
Somalian refugee Ayan Abdi cradles her 11-month-old daughter Foos to keep her from crying inside their Phoenix apartment. The family relocated to the Valley in July after spending 15 years in a Kenyan refugee camp./issues/arts/694858
Somalian refugee Ayan Abdi cradles her 11-month-old daughter Foos to keep her from crying inside their Phoenix apartment. The family relocated to the Valley in July after spending 15 years in a Kenyan refugee camp.


A bustling community exists at the Arcadia Palms apartment complex in Phoenix. Residents visit each other while their small children play on an old swing set in the courtyard. But when their mothers call them to come inside, they don't do it in English.

More than 10 Somalian refugee families live at the apartment complex. While one newly arrived family moves a blue mattress and an orange couch into their new home, Ayan Abdi and her family sit in their living room watching a surfing movie.

Ayan, 19, arrived in Arizona with her mother, Fardowsa, and three little brothers (Norrdin, Abdihaki, and Fatah) in July. The family fled Somalia, a country filled with the instability of warring militias, a collapsed economy, starvation and violence. They applied for resettlement as refugees and lived in a camp in Kenya for 15 years before the U.S. government resettled them in the Valley.

"I didn't like my country because [there was] so much fighting and my father [was] killed," says Ayan, who now works at a Scottsdale hotel as a housekeeper.

Ayan's 11-month-old daughter, Foos, sleeps soundly in the apartment's small bedroom as she explains that her husband is still in Kenya.

"I like America, but I don't like [that] I don't have my husband," Ayan says. "It's so hard. I try to talk to him but I don't get to."

What is a refugee?

The official United Nations definition of refugee is "a person who flees his or her country due to fear of being persecuted for his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion."

According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, only one percent of refugees end up being resettled by different countries, with less than half of one percent resettled here by the U.S. government. Most refugees are either repatriated into their home country when conditions become safer or end up living permanently in the country to which they originally flee.

The president and U.S. Department of State set target numbers for refugees from each region of the world based on which countries are experiencing crises. Then officers from the Immigration and Naturalization Service travel to different countries to interview refugees who could potentially relocate to the United States.

If they meet the criteria -- fitting the official definition of refugee, being among a group of special concern designated by the president and being admissible to the country under U.S. law -- the INS officer will approve the refugees and make arrangements for relocation.

Resettlement agencies

Once in the United States, refugees are placed with a voluntary resettlement agency that sets them up with initial food, housing, the first 45 days' rent, assistance finding jobs and training in life skills, like using public transportation or managing a bank account.

The International Rescue Committee is the largest resettlement agency in Phoenix and has 15 other resettlement offices in cities such as Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle and Washington, D.C.

Cara Winters, a 24-year-old ASU graduate, is the Phoenix IRC's community outreach coordinator.

"When refugees arrive -- having lost everything, having had their family killed and their homes destroyed - home is more than an address or piece of property," Winters says. "Home is a meaningful sense of community and a place where they feel they really belong."

Winters says many people have misconceptions about refugees, such as assuming refugees are uneducated.

"You don't think to grab your diploma or reference letters when given 10 minutes to pack and run for your life," she says.

College-educated refugees and professionals are often unable to prove their certification when they arrive in the United States, so Winters says they often accept minimum-wage, service-sector jobs until they are able to build financial security and expand their U.S. education.

"I'm always so impressed at the spirit and the courage of these individuals who have gone through so much, and come here faced with the task of rebuilding their lives from the ground up," Winters says.

One refugee sets out to help others

Dul Dul, 22-year-old ASU graduate and Cambodian refugee, started a club on campus in fall 2003 to help refugees adjust to American life. Community Outreach and Advocacy for Refugees (COAR) has now snowballed into a non-profit organization.

"I saw that the families were going through the same things that my family went through when we got here," Dul says. "They had the same hopes, fears and dreams."

Dul was relocated to the United States in 1988 as a refugee, along with more than 20 members of her extended family.

Members of Dul's family lived through the dangerous Cambodian civil war and the genocidal regime of the communist Khmer Rouge troops that killed close to 2 million Cambodians who were considered a threat to communism.

When the Khmer Rouge fell during the Vietnam War, a chaotic period followed. It was during this time that Dul's family fled to a refugee camp on the Cambodia-Thailand border. On the journey, Dul and her mother, who was pregnant with Dul's younger brother, both became very sick. When Dul's father went to find medicine for them, he was shot and killed by a Thai soldier.

Three aunts, who had already resettled in the United States, helped Dul's family relocate on a reunification case, where members of a resettled refugee family can apply to resettle in the same place.

Dul, who says she has no memories of Cambodia and few memories of the four years her family spent in the refugee camp, was 5 years-old when they arrived in Arizona. She says she and her younger brother adjusted quickly, figuring out the culture and learning to speak English fairly easily.

But Dul says it was harder for older family members. Her 16-year-old brother and 17-year-old sister were thrown into Marcos de Niza High School, and her mother and aunts were immersed into a culture that they didn't understand.

"I don't think I fully appreciated how frightening it must have been for them," she says. "Here they were, after coming from so much, having to trust that their kids were going to be OK in this setting where they just didn't know how things worked and what was going to happen."

But Dul says she's doing well. She graduated in May 2005 with degrees in political science, economics and Spanish and now works as an intern for the state refugee coordinator's office.

COAR makes a difference

As the club's founder, Dul says she wants COAR to help bridge the gap between refugees and American culture and society. Often, she says this involves helping refugees speak the language.

Because Ayan is one of the only members of her family who took English lessons in the Kenyan camp, she is usually the one who communicates their needs. Ayan's brother-in-law, Ahmed Hassan, also speaks some English, though he has only been in Arizona for a month.

Brian Kulfan and Susan Cordier, two COAR volunteers, help refugees overcome the communication barrier.

Kulfan and Cordier have taken the Abdis to the library to rent books and movies, and helped Ayan set up an e-mail account to attempt to contact her husband in Kenya.

COAR volunteers usually work in pairs to visit refugee families once a week.

The organization began as a small group of friends that started volunteering with refugee families.

Soon, Dul says COAR attracted more volunteers than it could handle. The group began referring volunteers to other agencies and doing community outreach presentations.

Dul says she knew that COAR had even more potential to grow, but she was unsure how the organization could get the funding and supplies that it needed. Then, in 2004, she discovered the Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative, a contest for students with entrepreneurial ideas that provides grants and office space to winners.

COAR applied for the grant with a team of five people. Since getting the grant, Dul says COAR has experienced a flurry of activity. With office space, a non-profit consultant, a pro-bono lawyer who helped COAR get legal non-profit status and work on Web site design and a central server, Dul says she typically spends 30-40 hours per week working at the organization.

In addition, COAR manages close to 100 volunteers.

Community outreach coordinator Eleazar Juarez, a fourth-year political science and non-profit management student, says COAR's goal is not to assimilate refugees.

"They're still going to keep their cultural habits and traditions, and we just have to help them with little things that help them to adjust," Juarez says.

He says volunteers spend a lot of time helping refugees learn English. Many start off by plastering the refugees' homes with Post-It notes with the English words for common household objects.

Kulfan and Cordier are still getting to know their refugee family. Cordier discussed the weather with Ayan and Hassan, who told her that Kenya's climate is similar to Arizona's.

Ayan and Hassan also told the volunteers that they would like to get driver's licenses.

"I am proficient in driving," says Hassan, who was a driver in Kenya for five years.

Despite the obstacle of passing the driving test, Kulfan says he looks forward to the family, which has a car that was donated by a charity, being able to transport themselves.

"Right now they have to take the bus every day, so it turns an eight-hour work day into a 12-hour one," he says.

The Future

For the Abdis, the future holds promise but uncertainty.

For COAR, Dul says she hopes the future holds success. She put law school on hold to spend a year helping develop a sustainable foundation for COAR's future.

"We want to one day have the capacity to expand to other campuses nationwide, because the niche that we found isn't exclusive to Arizona," she says.

She adds that the big cities where the resettlement agencies are also hold the biggest universities.

"That's our main market for volunteers and our main stage for presenting this information," she says.

Ultimately, Dul says she wants to get to the root of the problems that lead to refugee outflow, so she plans on going into international development.

At the Abdi's apartment, Ayan wakes her daughter up from her nap. Foos looks sleepily around the room at the strange faces of the volunteers, refusing to smile despite her mother's coaxing.

"Yes, I do like America," Ayan says, smiling.

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