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Refugee Rescue

As each month begins for Zulfiya Shakhmamedova and her family, it isn't always clear if they will have enough money for rent and food.

Zulfiya, her husband, Gafur, and their five children--all refugees from Uzbekistan--have lived in Tucson since February 2006. Gafur's work is seasonal, and three of their five children are disabled, with one suffering from cerebral palsy.

When Rashida Gadiwalla met Zulfiya, Gadiwalla says, her heart went out to the family. Gadiwalla, a volunteer teacher with Noor Women's Association, has taught Zulfiya English and helped the family with errands, doctor's appointments and applications. She says the association stepped in and paid the family's rent one month.

The Noor Women's Association was founded in 1999 by a group of volunteers who wanted to help refugee families adjust to life in the United States. In an eight-year period, the association has assisted approximately 350 families and raised about $100,000. Refugees are referred to Noor through four local organizations: Lutheran Social Ministry of the Southwest, Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona, International Rescue Committee and Jewish Family and Children's Services. (The latter recently closed its refugee-resettlement program.)

The word "noor" means light in Arabic. The association's logo depicts a lit candle in a window. Priority goes to widows and single mothers, then to families in crisis and then to new families. As necessary, refugees receive financial assistance with rent, utilities and medical bills.

Noor volunteers teach refugees English and basic living skills. New families are supplied with items that cannot be purchased with food stamps--such as soap, detergent and paper towels. Volunteers assist family members with job searches, doctor visits and transportation.

Noor raises money through membership dues and fundraising. While financial assistance is given to the refugees, the ultimate goal is to have them become self-sufficient.

Gadiwalla joined Noor one year ago after moving to Tucson from Connecticut. "When I heard about the refugee program, I said, 'OK, I will help.' I am an experienced teacher. It is very challenging teaching the (refugees) coming from Russia."

Regardless of the challenges Gadiwalla faces teaching the refugees, she acknowledges the great struggles faced by refugees like the Shakhmamedova family.

"It's very hard on them. They struggle monetarily. They don't have a car, so the husband walks to get groceries. It's quite a walk."

But the Shakhmamedova family is working toward a better life. The three brothers who have relocated to Tucson hope to start a construction business of their own.

Zulfiya also has a dream of running her own business. "She is a very good cook," says Gadiwalla. "She is very good at baking and pastries and makes great cakes. She wants to have a place for herself and have a little bakeshop. That, and having her daughter walk, are her wishes."

Wishes have come true for other refugees assisted by the Noor Women's Association. Founding member and teacher Shama Qureshi recalls two success stories.

"Nargis Nabi has been here for five years. She is an Afghan widow and has eight children--four boys and four girls. When she came here, the youngest child was 7. Nargis was never educated. She worked as a cook and cleaned houses. Today, she is doing pretty well, lives in a house and has a job in health care at a small nursing home.

"Kamisse Sano was a pediatrician in Guinea with four daughters. She came here under political asylum. Two of her older daughters were circumcised, and she came here so that her other two daughters would not be. She has lived here for four years and is very successful and has bought a house.

"These are all legal residents. They are very brave. It's not easy to be a refugee. Many (of the people we help) have spent most of their lives in refugee camps. It has been very traumatic for them. ... I am amazed at how well people do in spite of all the obstacles."

A fundraising picnic for Noor Women's Association takes place from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 8, at Reid Park Ramadas 18 and 19, near Country Club Road. A catered picnic with halal kebab, bread and salad will be served for $5. A jumping castle, train, henna painting and a clown will be on hand for children. Bring folding chairs or a blanket to sit on. For more information, call 877-9343.

More by Irene Messina

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