Original URL: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/local/articles/0125refugee.html
Refugee forms Valley group to help families adjust
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 25, 2004 12:00 AM

Peter Ortiz

When she listens to the horrific stories told by refugees, Sambo Dul is reminded of stories her mother tells of her own family's suffering in the "Killing Fields" of Cambodia.

The 20-year-old Arizona State University junior escaped the haunted life that scarred her family when she settled in Arizona at age 5. The refugee experience she recalls is watching her mother struggle to adjust to a foreign language and culture while trying to put the horror behind her.


One family's story

Members of the Mohamed family spent 12 years in a Kenyan refugee camp after leaving their native Somalia. Habiba, 22, and her three siblings lost their mother to disease and their father to a gunman while living in the camp.


Waktia, 16, attends Camelback High School and speaks enough English to translate for the rest of the family, which moved from Kenya to Arizona last summer. Her favorite foods are spicy chicken, burritos and pizza, a far cry from the meager servings of maize, corn oil and the half-cup of beans rationed to each family member every 15 weeks in the camp.


"At 7 a.m. I'd go to school and then come back at 1 p.m., but there was nothing to eat," she recalled. "Sometimes I'd cry because of hunger."


Habiba and Waktia live in a four-bedroom Phoenix apartment with siblings Kasim, 14, and Omar, 9; Habiba's husband, Abas Ahmed, who works as a dishwasher in a Phoenix hotel; and Habiba's children Fatuma, 6, Abdirizak, 3 and Lula, 1. Waktia said her sister, who is learning English with the assistance of some ASU student volunteers, says she is glad for a new life for her children and thankful they don't have to wake up under a tree in the refugee camp.

So a year ago, Dul sought out other ASU students to help Valley refugees adjust to life in Arizona. Her organization, Refugee Resettlement Volunteers, has quickly grown to about 50 students on the Tempe campus. Some teach families English. Others show them how to work a microwave oven or set up a computer. They accompany families on trips to the supermarket and library where they learn about express checkout lanes and due dates on books.

The ASU students work with resettlement agencies like Catholic Social Service and the International Rescue Committee, which focus on such core services as getting refugees jobs, enrolling children in school and providing housing. Both agencies rely on volunteers to provide a critical bridge of befriending families and helping them adjust to their new environment.

Betsy Parkes, program coordinator of community education and volunteers at IRC, has 10 ASU students among the 50 active volunteers in the American Friend mentor program. She praised the students for making families who have lost everything feel welcome.

"We meet the basic needs, and the volunteer is there to show they will be accepted in the community," Parkes said.

For Attila Magyar, coordinator for special refugee services with Catholic Social Service, ASU volunteers are a welcome addition. Magyer doubted the Tempe students would last because most of the families his organization helps live in the West Valley. But he said he has a powerful link on campus with Dul and André Olivie, another student who assisted in forming the ASU volunteers.


You can help


For information on helping refugee families or to make donations, contact the following agencies. There is a huge need for donated cars.


• Refugee Resettlement Volunteers at Arizona State University, www.asu.edu/clubs/rrv. (480) 213-5439 or (602) 538-6143.


• International Rescue Committee, www.theIRC.org. (602) 433-2440.


• Catholic Social Service, www.catholicsocialserviceaz.org. (602) 997-6105.

"If they would not keep the fire burning, for sure from my office I couldn't," Magyar said of the students' strong advocacy. "I am very pleasantly surprised that they are so enthusiastic and committed to working with our refugee clients."

Of the ASU volunteers, about 30 work directly with families and an additional 20 advocate for refugee rights.

Diane Newell, 20, started volunteering about three months ago. Along with Cara Winters and Cara Kennedy, she spends two hours three times a week giving English lessons to the Mohamed family, refugees from Africa. Waktia Mohamed, 16, attends Camelback High School and knows enough English to translate for other family members.

Newell and the other volunteers are teaching English to Waktia's sister, Habiba Mohamed, 22. The sisters lost their mother to disease and their father to a gunman as they eked out life in a Kenyan refugee camp for 12 years. They are among about 4,700 refugees from Africa living in Arizona, a small number compared with the more than 10,000 from Vietnam and 6,800 from Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Now they live in a sparsely decorated Phoenix apartment with siblings Kasim, 14, and Omar, 9; Habiba's husband, Abas Ahmed, who works as a dishwasher in a Phoenix hotel; and Habiba's children, Fatuma, 6, Abdirizak, 3, and Lula, 1.

During a recent visit to the Mohameds' apartment Habiba sounded out simple words with Newell's help.

"When we first started she did not know the alphabet, and now she recites it and is starting to say the sounds," Newell said.

The volunteers use Post-It notes to help families learn the English words of household items like table, chair and refrigerator. They bring in documents like a high school diploma or photos so the families can visualize a slice of American culture and create a stronger bond.

"While you are telling them about American culture, you can ask them what it is like in their culture," Dul said. Her interest in refugee issues was sparked two years ago when she spent five hours listening to her mother, Leng Poch, 53, describe the death and destruction she witnessed in Cambodia. A soldier killed Dul's father after he illegally crossed the Thailand border 20 years ago in search of medicine for his pregnant wife.

"I was a little nervous to ask her because I thought I was opening old wounds, but she was really receptive in wanting me to know," Dul said. "She related the stories to me with so much passion, I couldn't help but feel I was there."

More than 1.5 million Cambodians died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. Dul and her mother fled Cambodia in 1984 and settled in a refugee camp where they shared a bamboo shelter with another family before making their way to Arizona in 1988.

Reach the reporter at peter.ortiz@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-7726.