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“Fleeing to a Foreign Country:” A Reflection on the Arizona Refugee Resettlement Conference

by Yamila El-Khayat, MALS
Outreach Services Librarian, Arizona Health Sciences Library
University of Arizona
Tucson, AZ

On September 7-8, 2011, I attended the Arizona Refugee Resettlement Conference, which is dedicated to identifying the needs and providing a better understanding of the refugee community, and how we can come together to help enrich the lives of refugees. The event was held at the Westin La Paloma in Tucson, Arizona. There were approximately 400 participants, from many different sectors and companies, but all united in the cause to help the refugee population adapt to their foreign country and culture.

The two-day event started with a keynote address by Ms. Sambo Dul. There is no one better suited to provide true insight of what it is like to grow up in a different culture than your own, because your family had to flee from their original hometown. She mentioned how young she was when she came to this country, only one year old, but the impact would last a lifetime. Her cultural upbringing in this country significantly affected her interactions with her mother, due to a total culture clash, until the day they were able to sit and talk and sort out why they were having these differences. Ms. Dul wanted to know where her family came from and why they ended up so far away in a foreign country, with a language and culture foreign to their own. It was scary to listen to what her mother had to say, because they risked their lives several times and were put on waiting lists to enter refugee camps, and at times they were homeless. Right before entering the refugee camp, her father was killed. Once in the camp, they had the opportunity to flee to the United States, a decision her mother didn’t hesitate to make, because living in the camp was like being at war, constantly surrounded by gunshots every day and night. After such a struggle to learn the language and the culture, Ms. Dul decided to go to school and eventually obtained a law degree. She is now an attorney and says that the most rewarding work she does is her pro bono work with refugee families that need help understanding the legal system.

With this in mind, it made me think of the difficulties refugees face when entering this country. Can you imagine how difficult it is just to learn a foreign language, much less learn how the healthcare system works? Questions like these running through my mind made me think of ways to collaborate as a community to help simplify things for the refugee population. In the Latino population, we have community health workers (CHWs), or promotoras, to reach out to the community. Since these individuals understand the culture and speak the language, they are ideally suited to provide guidance in understanding and navigating the healthcare system. Why is it that we can’t do this for every minority population in the U.S. and call it a career? This career path would require informal continuing education training in order for these individuals to keep up-to-date on different topics and better reach out to their communities. This was an idea that I voiced to the group at large, which I hope in the near future can become a career for key individuals in the community.

The conference had a few sessions focused on health, where many others supported my idea of having training sessions on different topics for key individuals in the community, to help bridge the gap of understanding. Some of the programs available to help refugees are incredible; these were also shared at the sessions. The conference closed with discussion about the ideas that came up during the brainstorming sessions and a talk by Pamela Simon, Outreach Coordinator for the office of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. She spoke about work that she had done with refugee families, and her talk was very inspirational. She even received a standing ovation from the audience!

Editor’s Note: Yamilla’s work is funded in part through the Arizona Outreach program of the NN/LM Pacific Southwest Region.

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