Peter Biro, Courtesy of the International Rescue Committee Tucson
To be a refugee is to find oneself in a land that is not their own, with unfamiliar customs and behaviors, while trying to live a new life that is different from the one they are escaping.
Refugees face adverse hurdles in their origin countries and where they settle. Many believe that they need all the help they can get. There are programs that do this within our own welcoming and supportive community, as Patricia Repolda describes it.
Repolda is the development manager at the International Rescue Committee in Tucson. This resettlement organization helps newly arrived refugees adapt to life here so they can have a smooth transition. The local IRC runs programs that help refugees navigate the missions of finding homes, English language classes, finding a job, legal help, and other services necessary to be successful in the U.S.
“Walk a Mile in a Refugee’s Shoes” which is the first time, according to Repolda, that there is a simulation event in Tucson that allows participants to immerse themselves in the experience a refugee endures.
“They will assume the role of a refugee and they will gain an understanding of the different challenges refugees encounter to access basic needs prior to arriving in the United States,” she said.
Through this interactive event, the IRC wants to inform and unite both the refugee community and the local community alike through education and fostering understanding. Along with simulation exercises, there will also be an advocacy station to inform people how they can help refugees in the community—either through volunteer work or donations.
“Our goal is to provide education to the Tucson community to some of the unique challenges refugees have overcome before coming to the United States. And also, provide education to what’s going on around the world—why we’re helping refugees,” Repolda said.
“There’s different things they can do to share their welcome and support to the refugee population here.”
Nejra Sumic fled her native country, Bosnia, with her family as a child because of religious persecution. She came to the United States in the early '90s as a refugee.
Today, Sumic dedicates herself to helping refugees as the advocacy and outreach coordinator for the IRC in Tucson. To her, events like “Walk a Mile in a Refugee’s Shoes” are ways to show people about the reality surrounding refugees and for them to have more compassion toward refugees.
“Most people have never experienced it, it’s to kind of give them a little glimpse of their lives and their experience,” Sumic said.
She said that events like “Walk a Mile in a Refugee’s Shoes” challenge stereotypes and misconceptions.
“I want to express the importance of a welcoming community for refugees, the refugees are safe, they’re not a burden to the community. Refugees come with the mindset of being driven, of taking ownership of their lives that has been shattered and giving [to] that community that has helped them resettle,” Sumic said.
Benjamin Lawrance, a professor at the University of Arizona and historian that conducts research on African migration.
He said that 60 million people in the world, today, are refugees and only 200,000 of them end up being resettled in another country. Many end up living their lives in an indefinite limbo where they remain in refugee camps for long periods of time while others are lucky enough to go through a lengthy resettlement process and live somewhere. Various refugees end up calling the United States home, a couple of them even becoming our neighbors, here in Tucson.
According to Lawrance, one of the best ways to help refugees is donating money and supplies to local resettlement programs, as well as volunteering. “Refugees need friends. They need helpers to help them learn,” he said.
Events held by refugee centers, like the the International Rescue Committee are the connecting point that brings together refugees and the community, are also important to help them.
“I think it’s very useful to learn about the personal experiences of somebody else, to really become familiar, in whatever way, that you can to the difficulties that people experience,” Lawrance said. “The more exposure you have to other people’s lives, the more capacity of empathy that we have.”
“Walk a Mile in a Refugee’s Shoes” will take place on Sunday March 18 at the Jewish Community Center (3800 E. River Rd.) which is partnering with the IRC. It will begin at 10:00 a.m. For more information, please check out this website.