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Any Idea What It's Like to be a Refugee?

Close your eyes. I want you, for just a fleeting moment, imagine the unthinkable.
As a mother – you are held down and forced to watch your toddled hacked to death. As a father - your eyes are gouged out but you hear the screams of your wife and young daughters as they are raped and then hideously mutilated. As a university professor -  you say goodbye to your elderly parents and with nothing but the clothes on your back, leave your home and country, destitute, alone. As a 12-year-old girl, you carry your 2 year old sister for 5 days without food. Surviving on water scavenged from puddles, sleeping under bushes, ever fearful of being caught – your 5-year-old brother died along with your parents when your hut was set fire to.

Horror stories are the common thread that binds refugees. Stories of loss, brutality, fear and, as you drive through town and see small groups of Somali women, dressed in colorful native garb; when you stand in line at the post office behind a man, aged beyond his years, in halting English try to mail a letter; when you see a teenager in a classroom, hiding his face, trying to disappear into the background - think before you move on. All of these are the faces of refugees and all of the stories above are the stories of refugees and what they have lost and endured is beyond the comprehension of most of us.

A refugee, as defined the United Nations means that you are a person "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 their nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him/herself of the protection of that country". As of June 2008 there were 11.4 million people who met that definition and a further 26 million displaced internally through conflict or persecution. Staggering numbers. 2008, the US authorized 80,000 refugees to enter the country. Their stories are as varied as their ages, religions, ethnicity, education.  Less than 1 percent of people applying for refugee status actually gets resettled, it’s an act of last resort.

There are four agencies sanctioned by the UN to handle incoming refugees into the US and these agencies have the funding to support refugees for their initial 4 weeks in the country. They provide a place to live, assistance in filling out forms for food stamp and health insurance programs and some cash - a family of four receives $110. Refugees tend to group together, economic, language and social barriers are deterrents to assimilation. The children learn English faster than do their parents resulting in a breakdown of family structure – realignment of ‘power' within the family. After that first month of support the refugees are thrown on the mercy of charities if too old or infirm to work ; others  are expected to find work. Finding jobs is a major problem because of the lack of language.  And it’s no secret that the newest immigrants, no matter what their background, are on the lowest rung of the social ladder and only low paying jobs are available to them. With the current economy those jobs are dwindling daily. Yes, there are exceptions to this general rule - the refugees who are sponsored by a specific church, organization, or university. These are the really lucky ones; they come into the country with a support group of peers waiting. They are in the minority.

These harsh realities were told to me by a soft, slow speaking woman with a fierce spirit. She gave glimpses into the horrific story of her own journey to US citizenship; she wondered at the breakdown of all moral codes. “War breaks people in so many ways”, she says. “It breaks hearts, it breaks values, it takes away all that we know about decency and kindness”.

Erina Delic’s story is riveting and she tells it almost as though it is something she is reciting by heart, the emotion striped away. Born in Croatia, she lived in Bosnia where she became a refugee in 1991. Through her initiative and guts she and her husband managed to get into Germany, there, absolutely penniless, she gave birth to her first daughter. For seven years they shared a one-room apartment in a refugee ‘ghetto’ with other members of her family and applied to numerous resettlement programs. The family was admitted to the US in 1998 and became citizens in 2003. Her parents opted to go back to Bosnia and reclaim what was left of their former home.

She talks about the problems that face refugees, the obvious ones concerning money, housing, transportation and the hidden ones involving the erosion of self-confidence, the continued despair, the breakdown of family. “Yes”, she murmurs, “it is easy to blame refugees for failing to assimilate but in realty assimilation is so difficult. We have to learn a new language and understand cultural things are so foreign.” She explains that at first, the idea of clustering refugees in the same apartment complex provides much needed community and support but that eventually it becomes isolating.

I recalled the gathering where I first met Erina and the beautiful young Somali woman who in a barely a whisper but with enormous humor told of the trials involved in finding suitable clothing for her young brother to wear to school. It seems that no matter what shirt he picked, someone in the school would assume he was associated with one gang or another. “He was just trying to go to school” she said “and this clothing was so much trouble…who could think there was so much meaning in a shirt”.  

1995 a group of refugees founded a non profit organization Tucson International Alliance of Refugee Communities (TIARC) with the mission to promote the integration and development of refugee/immigrant communities and mutual assistance associations (MAAs) in our community. Erina Delic is the manager and operates the organization from a small, old building located at 4224 E. Grant Rd. in Tucson. “It’s beyond the formal assistance that comes when you first arrive” she explains, “we fill the gap that is left when you are considered here and settled. We act as interpreters, we help with job searches, we fight to keep people in their apartments, to negotiate with landlords, we deal with school situations...”. She shook her head and spreading out her arms said “it never ends”.  

Two events illustrated her points whilst I was in the office. An older man came in and apologizing for interrupting her, handed Erina a telephone bill. She spoke to him in Croatian. “He’s from my country”, she said. “He lives with his wife and his two children... they are all three disabled. He does not understand why his bill is so high. I told him I will help him make the call later.”  When I arrived at her office she was on the phone and waved to me to sit down. The call finished and she explained...this man, 10 years ago he came to Tucson as a refugee, he had to attend court ordered anger management classes…” she breaks off, “stress changes all of us”. Apparently now in Atlanta, the man was in final stages of citizenship application but had to produce a paper saying he had completed the classes, the order showed up in his file. “We can help him locate the records” she tells me. She told me of another recent plea for help. A teenager was suspended from school. “Why” the parents wanted to know. “He always brings home letters saying how good he is”. Turned out that the young man in question very kindly offered to translate the letters the school sent to his parents and of course his interpretation was in his favor!

Erina is a one woman powerhouse but she’s not afraid to ask for help. Give me a wish list I said.Erina Delic, TIARC She smiles delightfully. “Really. Well…..”. It’s a short list. She would love to find a volunteer to manage and organize those who do volunteer. “If I could find someone who would give a few hours a week to schedule volunteers that would be great.”  Her other wish -  “oh, a big one”. She would love to find a pool of attorneys with expertise in school law, tenant law, domestic law, willing to answer the occasional question. Will you , can you, help?

Contact Erina Delic at : TIARC
tel: (520) 881-4404
fax: (520) 881-4191
Visit http://www.aztiarc.org/index.html

The center is the beneficiary of a grant from :
The Arizona Women's Partnership 2007 grant beneficiaries is Tucson International Alliance of Refugee Communities (TIARC)  for educational programs and services for refugee women. For information call: 602-863-9744 or visit www.azwp.org

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