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Tucson agencies support of refugees challenging during pandemic
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Tucson agencies support of refugees challenging during pandemic

Since many recently-arrived refugees work in hard-hit industries such as hospitality, food service and transportation, they are among those greatly impacted by the pandemic, officials say

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For Manga Erasto Mfaume, leaving home was the beginning of a long journey ahead.

Mfaume and his family fled the Democratic Republic of Congo more than two decades ago in search of freedom and a safe place to call home. After spending 20 years in a refugee camp in Tanzania, where even basic necessities like food and medicine were limited, they were finally on their way to the United States.

On April 20, 2018, a date he remembers vividly, Mfaume resettled in Tucson with his wife and their five children. “We all like this place,” he said. “This is a peaceful country.”

There are nearly 26 million refugees globally, and refugees like Mfaume and his family make up less than 1% who are resettled each year, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports.

Teenage girls at a refugee camp in Jordan are turning LEGOs into robots.

Refugee resettlement differs from asylum, and those who are admitted are vetted extensively as part of a process that can take several years.

“People don’t come here because they decided they want to come to the United States; people come here because they cannot return to their country because it’s not safe to do so,” said Connie Phillips, president and CEO of Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest. “Refugee resettlement is something that enjoyed bipartisan support before the last few years. It’s been very successful. There’s been all kinds of economic studies that show it’s good for the U.S.”

The United States has historically been the largest nation for resettlement, according to International Rescue Committee community engagement coordinator Stanford Prescott. “That has actually allowed us to lead on this issue globally.”

But in recent years, U.S. resettlement numbers have dropped significantly. The Department of State’s Refugee Processing Center reported that in the 2020 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, 11,814 refugees were admitted. Largely due to the pandemic, numbers were well below the annual cap of 18,000 — an already historically low bar set by the Trump administration, which was further decreased to 15,000 for 2021.

As U.S. resettlement numbers have decreased, so have the global numbers, Prescott said. “Refugee resettlement is a diplomatic tool to help stabilize regions to help work with our partners in different parts of the globe. That has been, under the current administration, a tool that has not been used.”

President-elect Joe Biden has said he will increase that cap to 125,000. Arizona resettlement agencies expect that cap to climb over time, allowing them to readjust and prepare for more arrivals in the future.

Pandemic’s impact on local refugees

Nationally, Arizona is one of the highest states for resettlement, Prescott said. The IRC and Lutheran Social Services are among the organizations that provide a number of resources for newly arrived refugees, including job placement, enrolling children in school, finding and furnishing housing, and social services and community support.

“Refugees, under normal circumstances, are self-sufficient within six months,” Prescott of the IRC said. “About 84% of them have a job, they’re paying their bills and paying taxes. So, refugees are a key component of our local economy.”

These are not normal circumstances, however. The unique challenges resettled refugees face have been further exacerbated by the pandemic. To help refugees cope with these added complications, several refugee-serving agencies have redirected their resources.

“When the pandemic first came last spring, it really threw our refugee clients into quite a crisis,” said Phillips of Lutheran Social Services. “Between the community and the staff’s ability to be innovative and to pivot, I think we were successful in providing for basic needs and responding to the immediate crisis.”

Since many recently arrived refugees work in hard-hit industries such as hospitality, food service and transportation, they are among those greatly impacted by the pandemic, Prescott said.

More than 40% of the resettled refugees that Lutheran Social Services has assisted lost their jobs since the pandemic hit, Phillips said.

Arizona resettlement agencies addressed these issues by helping those who lost their jobs find new employment, as well as distributing food and supplies. They also supplied refugees with information about economic relief programs for which they might qualify, such as rent and utility assistance through the city of Tucson.

But more assistance presents its own challenges.

“The increase in requests for assistance have created challenges for resettlement agency staff in meeting the demand,” Brett Bezio, Arizona Department of Economic Security deputy press secretary, said in an email.

One of Lutheran Social Services’ solutions was to bring in an additional staff member to help with pandemic-specific outreach and education.

“They take care of their people,” Mfaume said about Lutheran Social Services, which has worked with him and his family during their resettlement. He said the agency gave his family food, socks, shoes and other supplies since the pandemic hit, and the agency regularly calls to check in.

Safety and testing initiatives

The pandemic has revealed factors that contribute to greater positive rates among low-income communities, communities of color and immigrants — many of which apply to refugees. The nature of their work in essential industries coupled with living situations in which multiple generations reside in one home makes them more at risk, Prescott said.

To counter this, agencies have implemented measures to improve safety and testing in refugee communities.

Thanks to a grant from the Arizona Department of Health Services, the Pima County Health Department and the IRC have partnered to establish free local testing sites and ensure information about these sites is shared with the city’s refugees, Prescott said.

“This testing program is so important because if we can make sure that the most vulnerable people have access to testing, then we can keep those rates lower, which helps the community.”

In addition, Lutheran Social Services’ Refugee Women’s Empowerment Program and church group volunteers made masks, which were distributed to refugees along with cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer.

Communication between refugee-serving organizations and refugees has been increasingly important during the pandemic.

“It was a little difficult sometimes to help them see how this unseen threat was something they needed to really be careful about,” Phillips said. “People who have experienced trauma can sometimes see things differently than those of us who have not.”

Since they had already developed relationships with local refugee communities, the agencies became a trusted source for information. They created, translated and disseminated informational COVID-19 materials through various platforms, including WhatsApp, phone calls, websites and videos.

The DES joined the Refugee and Immigrant Service Providers Network to create multilingual COVID-19 resources as well as Valleywise Health Medical Center in Phoenix to produce multilingual videos, said Bezio.

Strategies for Continued Education

The switch to remote learning created a range of barriers for refugee families, from access to digital literacy. And for many parents like Mfaume, it is a struggle to juggle work and helping children with online school.

Tucson schools have jumped in, providing essential equipment to refugee youth. Local resettlement agencies also work with families to help them navigate digital education.

“Now that we have most of our refugees working again, which has helped tremendously because then they have an income, the focus now has really been on working with the youth about how to manage virtual school,” Phillips said.

The organization also has two staff members dedicated to school mentorship programs.

Tucson has “a heart of support for refugees,” which has gone a long way in supporting them during the pandemic, Phillips said. She believes the systems the agency and the community put in place have been effective and they are in a good place moving forward.

“Our city partners, our state partners, the philanthropic community — everyone really rallied,” Phillips said.

That community support is part of what Mfaume said he enjoys about living here.

“I like Tucson because the people, the community of Tucson is good. We live together like friends, like brothers.”

Since arriving in Tucson, Mfaume has learned English, his fifth language, and works as a certified nursing assistant. He and his wife welcomed their sixth child in 2019.

He now has his sights on the next chapter. Mfaume dreams of becoming a registered nurse when the pandemic subsides so he can continue to support others, just as he believes the community here has done for him and his family.

“I need to help people. That is my passion.”

Mandy Loader is a journalism graduate student at the University of Arizona who is an apprentice for the Arizona Daily Star.

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