The Student News Site of University of Arizona

The Daily Wildcat

79° Tucson, AZ

The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Refugees seek safety in Arizona

Arizona receives triple the number of refugees it did almost 20 years ago, creating both volume and diversity challenges for resettlement agencies.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement has been fair in allotting funds to Arizona over the years, said Charles Shipman, Arizona’s state refugee coordinator. The key task has been adapting services to an increasingly diversified body.

In 1985, the 1,191 refugees who resettled into Arizona came from 12 different countries. In 2013, the 3,600 refugees represented 42 nations. The country count in these statistics, from the Arizona Refugee Resettlement Program, excludes refugees classified as “other,” which can be accorded to someone who is stateless or to people categorized under the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program.

Tucson’s reputation as a welcoming city for refugees goes back at least a decade. In the mid-’80s, the bulk of the state’s refugees came from countries such as Romania, Vietnam, Cambodia and Ethiopia. Today, the majority is composed of Iraqis, Afghans, Somalis and Cubans. The shift reflects instability seeping into different parts of the world, said Charles Shipman, Arizona’s state refugee coordinator.

“We’re in the work of responding to crises,” Shipman said. And lately, there seem to be a lot more of them.

Due to the Vietnam War and the USSR’s dissolution, most of Arizona’s refugees in the ’80s and ’90s came from those parts of the world. In some ways, resettlement was more manageable then because the bulk of the refugees were coming from fewer regions, and agencies in Arizona became familiarized with them, Shipman said. As trends in refugee resettlement took a more global pivot, local organizations had to adapt to the specific needs of more communities.

Ferdinand Lossavi Lossou, who heads Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona Inc.’s resettlement program, said he thinks the data hold true, noting the refugee communities he works with have grown increasingly diverse over the years.

Catholic Community Services assists refugees with housing, case management and learning English. In a field of work where budgets are always tight, he said funding is an even bigger challenge for his organization than adapting to the various needs of the people they serve.

The number of refugees Catholic Community Services helps has doubled from 150 in 2003 to 300 in the present day. He said although federal funding to his organization has increased over the last decade, more money is still needed.

Abdi Abdi, executive director of non-profit Horizons for Refugee Families, said his organization prides itself on being a place where “refugees help refugees.” The majority of its governing board are either current or former refugees.

Abdi was 8 years old when the Somali Civil War displaced his family into a Kenyan refugee camp. He learned English there and was resettled into the U.S. 12 years later. He became a caseworker within 10 days of arriving, and in 2004, helped co-found the Somali Bantu Association of Tucson. Taking into account the evolving demographics of Tucson’s refugee community, the organization changed its name to Horizons for Refugee Families several years ago.

Today, Horizons serves more than 2,000 people annually, assisting with everything from immigration paperwork to job searches, Abdi said. He added that he still feels grateful to the humanitarian workers who helped him in the refugee camp all those years ago.

Kristjan Laumets, principal of John B. Wright Elementary, estimated that 25 percent of his students are refugees.
“The other day, I sat at table with kids from four different continents,” Laumets said.

He said that not only are the children securing a brighter future than their parents had, but that they also serve as symbols of perseverance for their classmates.

Today, Naji studies electrical engineering at the UA. He said he hopes to return to Iraq someday and use his skill set to improve the area he was born in.

“I always think about that,” he said. “You can never forget home.”

Amer Taleb is a journalism senior writing for the Arizona Sonora News Service

More to Discover
Activate Search