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Midtown: Tucson’s melting pot

Citizen Staff Writer



They come from around the globe, making a home in the heart of Tucson.

In the past decade, about 2,000 newly arrived refugees have settled in midtown Tucson, looking to start a new life free from violence, persecution and poverty.

The melding of cultures is evident in the adults and children who stroll down East Grant Road, near Dodge Boulevard, and in the classrooms at Blenman Elementary, Doolen Middle and Catalina Magnet High schools.

Families from Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa and other nations live side by side in apartment complexes, settled there by agencies that assist refugees.

Adjusting to a new language, culture and community is challenging for these displaced and often traumatized people.

Helping them can create challenges for local agencies, police and schools.

Now, the economic crisis all Americans are wrestling with has become their challenge, too.

Krishna Khadka, 24, has a part-time job at a mall food court, but it is not enough to support him and seven family members who resettled here. He is searching for full-time work, filling out an application Friday at Goodwill Industries, 2907 N. First Ave.

Manager Liz Donaldson explained the different jobs at the resale store to Khadka, but told him she gets at least 50 applications a week.

“It has been hard to live here,” said Khadka, a refugee from Bhutan in South Asia, who was a high school teacher before coming to Tucson last year.

He came with his wife, Phul, and daughter, Crissma, 2, as well as his parents, brother, sister-in-law and niece.

His friend, Uttam Rizal, also a refugee from Bhutan, was with Khadka as he filled out the job application. Rizal, 30, had no trouble finding work after arriving in January. He was hired as a night auditor at a Tucson hotel.

But his hours were cut, and he works only three nights a week.

“It’s not enough money,” Rizal said. “I have many friends who are having trouble finding work. It is quite difficult.”

Ken Briggs, executive director of International Rescue Committee in Tucson, which resettles refugees here, said before the economic downturn, most refugees found jobs adequate to support themselves within 30 to 45 days.

Now it’s taking six to nine months, he said.

Hotels and resorts historically provided jobs for refugees, as did small manufacturers and stores like Target.

Now those businesses have cut jobs, and the ones available often go to skilled workers laid off from other jobs.

Briggs said that in the past, companies have been happy to hire refugees, who generally are loyal, hard-working employees.

“But now they don’t have the money to hire them,” he said.

Jill Rich, of the Jewish Refugee Resettlement of Southern Arizona said the agency is still finding jobs for refugees.

But the program is not placing many refugees at one business, in case it closes, she said.

Refugees do get assistance from the U.S. Resettlement Project. But the 18 months of financial help they used to get has been cut to one month.

Briggs said that in the past six months, IRC resettled 145 people, including 23 families. It is one of four Tucson agencies that resettle refugees fleeing Iraq, Bhutan, Somalia, Central Africa, Cuba and other countries.

He said for the most part, refugees settle comfortably.

“We rarely hear of any complaints,” Briggs said. “We work with (apartment) managers and clients so they are comfortable and safe.”

Briggs said some bullying and teasing occurs because refugees dress and look differently.

But for the most part, “the Tucson community has been welcoming to refugees,” he said.

The agency also connects refugees with English classes and mental health services.

The IRC has reported that almost all of the 1,500 refugees they resettled in Tucson since 1997 originally moved into midtown, with most living in an area bounded by 29th and Glenn streets, Alvernon Way and Kolb Road, along with 500 refugees resettled by other agencies.

Becky Noel, a community service officer with the Tucson Police Department, works with refugees living in midtown apartments.

She teaches them personal safety – why they shouldn’t stand in the middle of Grant during rush hour, for example – and helps them understand police are there to help.

“When there are people from Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries, police to them are not good,” Noel said. “They are not to be trusted. They beat them. Over there, when police show up, you run the other way.”

Recently, a refugee child fell off her bike. An officer stopped to help, “and the kid took off, running and screaming,” Noel said.

Since refugees tend to be fearful, they are hesitant to call police when they become crime victims, she said.

And if they do call, there is often a language barrier. Usually, no one within TPD can speak the many languages represented in the midtown area. Often, police must rely on people from the neighborhood to translate, without being sure that the translation is accurate, she said.

To help refugees understand that police are here to help, the department will hold a fair for refugees May 2, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Reid Park. The department will have officers from SWAT, the dog unit, bicycle unit and other departments.

Refugees are also encouraged to go on police ride-alongs, “to see what we do,” Noel said.

She said some refugee teens get picked on by gang kids. Sometimes they fight back by forming their own gangs.

“But I’ve had more issues with one refugee group not liking another,” she said.

She said refugees with different religious and political views can end up living in the same apartment building, and sometimes have to be separated.

But for the most part, refugees live together peacefully, Noel said.

City Councilwoman Nina Trasoff said the mix of people living in her ward adds to the richness of the community.

“It’s part of what America does for people,” she said. “Sometimes it’s good to step back and see the hope other people have for themselves through what we have in this country. We lose sight as to what a magnificent system we have.”

When Trasoff’s father immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine in 1921 at age 6, his first English words were “You’re it,” having learned them playing tag.

She said children give her hope that all groups can live and work together.

“These kids from all over the world come together and they’re just kids,” she said. “They figure it out.”

Calling Tucson Home

According to the Arizona State Refugee Resettlement Program, 877 refugees resettled in Tucson in 2008.

From 1990 to 2008, 7,524 refugees resettled here.

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