Language barrier is a daily struggle for refugees in Tucson

2013-03-03T00:00:00Z 2013-03-11T10:21:00Z Language barrier is a daily struggle for refugees in TucsonBy Patty Machelor Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 03, 2013 12:00 am  • 

It's no surprise to hear Spanish spoken in Tucson. But in one local high school classroom, you're more likely to hear Nepalese.

And that's no aberration - Tucson and Arizona are among the nation's most common new homes for refugees fleeing violence or political unrest in their home countries. Over the past 15 years the state has ranked fifth per capita for refugee placements, U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration and U.S. Census Bureau data show.

In Pima County, more than 10 percent of the 33,700 newcomers between 2007 and 2011 were refugees, Census Bureau and Arizona Department of Economic Security figures show.

To see our growing diversity, visit the office of Catalina Magnet High School ESL teacher Julie Kasper, where the students who pop in speak one of 40 languages or dialects - not just Nepalese, but also Arabic, Somali, Marshallese or Swahili.

Watch Bhutanese refugee Devi Sharma teach fellow survivors to work a garden plot as a way to calm the horrors that still surge within them.

And see local librarians help produce videos that explain - in ways and with words refugees understand - odd American customs, like even though you get to take home a library book for free, it's not yours to keep.

Most of the world's 15 milion refugees remain in countries close to those they fled, or eventually return home. About 1 percent - those at greatest risk - are resettled in a new country.

Many come here for Tucson's strong volunteer base, low cost of living and public transportation.

Tucson "is seen as a wonderful place to start your life anew," said Melissa Winkler of the International Rescue Committee, based in New York City.

The people who end up here have varied and often tragic stories. Most struggle to adjust, and they face tough challenges: Not speaking enough English to be employable. Failing to understand doctors' orders. Trying to overcome difficult memories.

But what they have in common, says International Rescue Committee caseworker Christy Danahey, is resilience.

"The things our clients have been through to get to this point will shatter what you think the human heart is capable of withstanding," Danahey said. "People who got to this point don't just wither away."

Language barriers

A shortage of interpreters is one of the greatest challenges new refugees face, said Aaron Grigg of the International Rescue Committee Tucson's Center for Well-Being.

Doctor visits can be especially problematic. Appointments are missed, dosages misunderstood.

In 2010, Jean McClelland, who handles community-based health information resources for the UA College of Public Health, conducted a survey on health services here for refugees. The top recommendation: Improve and increase language support services.

One local business heeding that call is Arizona Language and Transportation Services, which was started by Sahra Hirsi. It includes a team of 35 people who provide interpretation in 24 languages. (Hirsi was exiled from Somalia in the early 1990s).

Medical and mental health appointments account for most requests, said Abdullahi Omar, a UA student who works for Hirsi and offers translation in Swahili and Somali.

Interpretation runs $25 to $100 per hour, Omar said, and is often paid for by, or reimbursed through, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System.

Accessing Services

Megan Fabry knows well the challenges new refugees face.

Libraries, for example.

As volunteer coordinator with the Somali Bantu Association of Tucson, Fabry said some newcomers think library books are gifts because they are free.

"Then they get high fines for not returning it," she said, "and and they end up thinking it's a scam."

So Fabry was thrilled to learn that a group of students studying under Diane Austin, a UA associate professor of anthropology, are making informational videos in several languages. They will focus on library services as well as other city services.

"We want to make sure we're targeting services and tailoring services," said library supervisor Tara Foxx-Lupo, who is overseeing the project. It's funded through a $30,119 Arizona State Library grant.

The first videos will be in English, Spanish, Maay Maay, Somali, Arabic and Nepalese (Bhutanese).

Each will be different: For example, the language Maay Maay, spoken in Somalia and parts of Ethiopia and Kenya, has no written form, so the script has to be translated orally, said Ashley Stinnett, a filmmaker earning her doctorate in anthropology.

Stinnett hopes the videos will be completed by the end of summer - and the librarians helping look forward to that day, she said: "They interact with people all the time who would like to figure out how to use the services but have a language barrier."

Processing the pain

The toughest time for refugees tends to be about three months after arrival, said Danahey, who calls it the "90-day transition."

"This is about the time they realize their English wasn't as good as they thought, that America is not as they thought, that even if they found a job they would still be poor," she said.

"They are really starting to feel isolated and homesick, and closeted emotional issues and past trauma are starting to make their way out."

Transitioning is compounded when the refugees have survived imprisonment and torture.

Devi Sharma has found that nurturing a garden plot can help. A married father of three, Sharma arrived here a few years ago after 16 years in a Nepalese refugee camp. Like many Bhutanese refugees, he was a subsistence farmer who grew his own food.

"We used to get enough food from the field, even if you don't have a job. A job is additional income," said Sharma, who teaches gardening to fellow refugees and works as an on-call interpreter.

The IRC, through Community Gardens of Tucson, offers a "New Roots" program that helps survivors of torture learn gardening while connecting with one another. "This helps them integrate into their community," said Grigg of the IRC. "It's invaluable."

Referrals for mental health support sometimes come from schools, said Grigg, but it doesn't mean the family necessarily wants to engage.

The challenge is often finding culturally appropriate means to help. They are constantly looking for new ways to reach out, he said. (One new offering this spring, for example: services by Acupuncturists Without Borders).

"We are looking at how we can expand the group work that we can do or do more in-home services," he said. "I really wish we could have the families get to know American individuals more and help them normalize their experience here."

Adjusting to America

As a teacher of English as a second language at Catalina Magnet High School, Kasper revels in her classroom's diversity.

She estimates that Catalina students speak or hear 40 languages and dialects at home. The most common in her classrooms: Nepalese, followed by Spanish, Arabic, Somali, Marshallese and Swahili. In one class alone, 16 languages are represented.

Not surprisingly, the majority of her students are refugees. Some arrive knowing English fairly well, she said, while others begin far below grade level.

In addition to teaching English, Kasper watches as her students adjust. What they feel is often compounded by what their parents and siblings are experiencing.

One way Kasper helps is by offering teens the chance to express themselves - their pain, their fear, their dreams - through essays, photography and poems compiled in an annual publication called the "Finding Voice Project."

The latest edition, called "The Cover Is Not the Book," offers glimpses of their greatest desires, and also the immense challenges in their lives and their homes: loneliness, isolation, depression.

One of Kasper's students is Purna Kafley, a senior from Nepal who loves "everything about living here."

Before Kafley was born, his parents moved to Nepal to escape political persecution in Bhutan. He grew up in a refugee camp. He left when he was 16 and described, in a Finding Voice essay, the increasing violence and instability in the camp.

"The number of terrible people - like robbers, the people who kill and the people who ruin the good people from the community by persuading other youth to smoke cigarettes and weed - were increasing in our camp," he wrote of his last years there.

Kafley remembers seeing the crushed head of a murdered man. He recalled hearing gunfire and later learning a boy had died.

As the idea of resettling elsewhere took hold, Kafley wrote, people discussed it constantly and "all became crazy." In the United States, some said, they would have to work all day and all night to survive. They would be forced to convert to Christianity. Their traditions would disappear.

"Despite their fears, when I listened to this I felt like going to the United States," he said.

A dedicated student, Kafley hopes to attend the University of Arizona and study mechanical engineering. His father is chronically ill, he said, and it has been hard for his mother to find work.

"Speaking, understanding, and writing in English are the most challenging thing that my parents are still facing," he said via email. "I want to work to support myself, my family and my community."

have time to spare? Skills to share?

To learn more about volunteer opportunities, contact:

• Andrew Jenkins, International Rescue Committee in Tucson, VolunteerTucson@Rescue.org

• Cecilia Barragan, Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest, abarragan@lss-sw.org

• Anne Gordon, Catholic Community Services, anneg@ccs-soaz.org

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at 806-7754 or pmachelor@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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