Community members had a chance to speak and listen to refugees and resettlement services about their stories and services during a community panel on refugee resettlement held at Roosevelt Community Church Friday evening.
“I think one thing to remember is that refugees are mothers. They’re sisters. They’re fathers. They’re sons. They’re our neighbors, and they’re people. Becoming a refugee could happen to any of us,” said Nicky Walker, development manager at the International Rescue Committee in Phoenix.
Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University collaborated with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Phoenix this past year to host the event. During the panel former refugees from Africa shared their stories and answered questions from the audience. The two groups aimed to dispel myths and stigmas associated with refugees and refugee resettlement in the Valley.
Walker opened up the panel by addressing the audience and speaking briefly about the extreme process refugees must go through before resettling.
“Refugees are the most screened population of immigrants that are coming into this country,” said Walker.
The rest of the panel consisted of Mathilde Langford from Liberia, Lillian Rizik from South Sudan and Kay Diggs, a Jordanian immigrant and business owner in the Valley.
Langford said her story began long ago when she was a baby and a civil war broke out in her home country. She described how she had to walk for two weeks with her family through the desert in order to get to neighboring Sierra Leone but not without losing family members along the way.
“So we got to the border, and actually my grandma, she was walking with us, but she died. Then we lost some of our relatives on the way,” Langford said. “People were just scattered everywhere. So we crossed over to Sierra Leone, and that’s where we took refuge.”
They lived in Sierra Leone for 15 years as war refugees before Langford and her mother eventually resettled in Boston, Massachusetts.
Lillian Rizik, who came from South Sudan in Northeastern Africa, lightened the tone by describing her first meal in the United States.
“We came, a case manager received us very well at the airport and then we were taken from the airport right to Burger King,” Rizik said while chuckling.
Rizik has since obtained her associate degree in nursing and started a non-profit for South Sudanese women called South Sudan Women’s Empowerment Network, through which she seeks to help other women from her home country who are in a position like she was nearly 20 years ago.
Both Langford and Rizik then shared anecdotes about learning to integrate themselves into American culture and navigating through dramatically different customs and dishes.
Kay Diggs, business owner and immigrant from Jordan, has been in the United States for 23 years and is currently helping members of the Syrian refugee community in Phoenix get back on their feet selling baked goods.
“They’re really excited to be working. They get to resettle, and it’s not like people think. The government doesn’t hand them money. They have to work. In two months they have to support kids, and we have refugees that have five or six children. They’re outside trying to sell their baked goods,” said Diggs, referring to the bakers gathered outside of the church selling Syrian sweets and pastries.
Diggs described what the situation is like for Syrian refugees who are resettling in the Valley.
“They do not choose their status. It just happened. Some of them, one of women, she lost her daughter. Some of them walked the desert to get to Jordan and lived for years in camps. It’s a rough life. You don’t get to come to this country just because you want to come to this country,” she said. “They can’t live in Syria. The situation is really bad. They’re trying to work and become part of the society by becoming a productive part of society.”
Diggs helps connect home bakers, who include Syrian refugees, to local customers through an app called Tappetite. The app also includes backstories on the refugees participating.
Walker also shared a variety of programs offered through the IRC which include counseling services, home-buying and a micro-enterprise program which helps refugees wanting to open their own business.
Once the panel ended, attendees were invited to check out the tables outside of the church where refugees were selling their goods.
Julia O’Flaherty, who was visiting from Ireland, identified with the stories that were shared during the evening because of her own immigrant status.
“It’s amazing what people are going through just to live. I’m an immigrant myself, not a refugee, but an immigrant, and I know what that process was like for me. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for them,” said O’Flaherty.
Valley residents Andrew and Tyler Fontes shared their reactions and reasons for attending the discussion.
“I think that’s part of the reason why you come to these events is to learn a little bit more so that you can expose this to other people. With the current climate, this is the best way to just get things out on the table and being open, being honest, listening to stories and sharing them,” Andrew Fontes said.
After the event, Walker shared that the biggest hurdle for refugee resettlement is being able to find affordable housing and apartment managers willing to work with refugees.
Walker ended with her reasons for partaking in an event like this.
“The whole idea of having a conversation about refugees was based on ‘We don’t want to teach you. We want to talk with you. We want to converse with you,’ and we meant that sincerely because people have legitimate questions because they’re getting misinformed, or they don’t have the information, and so for us it’s a time to build those bridges of understanding. That was definitely the goal of the event,” Walker said.
Contact the reporter at Lmarque7@asu.edu.