Arizona offers a safe haven for newly displaced refugees

[slideshow_deploy id='144304']In the mid-1980s, the south-central Asian country of Bhutan began a cultural campaign known as “One country, one people” in order to create a unified Bhutanese national identity. The campaign enforced harsh, singular restrictions on dress, language, and religion on all Bhutanese people, regardless of heritage, and made it difficult for ethnic minorities to prove citizenship. Those who refused to conform were denied citizenship and forced out of their homes. The campaign quickly devolved into a humanitarian crisis, and by 1993, more than 100,000 Lhotsampa Bhutanese were displaced.

Tara Napal and his family had to flee Bhutan. Their plan was to trek into northeastern India and see where the journey took them, hopefully escaping the persecution they faced back home. But at the Bhutan-Indian border, Napal was captured and sent back to Bhutan.

At the World Refugee Day celebration in downtown Phoenix last Saturday, Napal shared his story with a full and silent room.

“You have to understand that we went through so many harrowing and hindering situations,” Napal said. “People lost their families. People lost their life.”

Not long after Napal was forcibly returned to the country he was forcibly removed from, he and his family were sponsored by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and were on a plane to Phoenix.

“Through our experiences, we know how to find opportunity anywhere,” Napal said. “So, we didn’t come to Arizona for opportunity. We came here for survival. We came here for security and protection.”

Napal’s story echoes those of the thousands of refugees who enter Arizona each year.

Arizona consistently ranks in the top 10 states of refugees resettled each year. According to the Arizona Department of Economic Security, the state accepted 3,600 refugees in 2013, more than three times the amount per capita than its more liberal neighbor California accepted last year. The total number of refugees living in Arizona is nearing 62,000.

Part of Arizona’s receptivity to refugees is due to the work of Charles Shipman, the state refugee coordinator.

Staphany Pich (left) and Kaitlin Sorm (right), originally from Cambodia, perform a traditional Khmer dance during Phoenix World Refugee Day in the A.E. England Building in Phoenix on June 21. (Photo by Sean Logan) Staphany Pich and Kaitlin Sorm, originally from Cambodia, perform a traditional Khmer dance during Phoenix World Refugee Day in the A.E. England Building in Phoenix on June 21. (Photo by Sean Logan)

Over the past few years, Arizona has taken in almost three times the number of refugees who arrived prior to Shipman’s hiring, and the state’s refugee integration services have improved greatly. Once the recession hit, Shipman helped shift federal funds into local rent relief for refugees in order to combat refugee homelessness. He also advocated for new language interpretation services to close the language gap between new refugees and local residents. The International Rescue Committee’s Phoenix office now offers interpretation for 37 languages, including Farsi, Haitian Creole, Bosnian, and Somali.

“It’s so important to understand that refugees are coping with … the effects of living in protracted refugee situations, often having spent years in refugee camps where they lived in poverty, had a lack of control over their own lives, and lived between moments of crisis, boredom, anticipation and hopelessness,” Shipman said. “To help these (refugees) transition into the U.S. is critical.”

In part by the resettlement efforts of various agencies, Arizona is becoming increasingly more diverse. District 5, which covers the area west of 7th Avenue in Phoenix all the way to Litchfield Park, has seen the biggest boom of refugees. It is now the most diverse district in the state.

District 5 city councilman Daniel Valenzuela said more than 50 nationalities and 40 languages are represented in Alhambra High School’s senior class alone.

“What you see at Alhambra High School is a precursor to what we’ll see in our city in about 10 years, and I don’t know about you, but I’m really excited about it,” Valenzuela said. “We’re already a diverse city. The key is becoming an inclusive city.”

Besides impassioned agency officials and an already diverse setting, local industries have a lot to do with why Arizona is so welcoming to refugees, said Nicky Walker, development manager for the IRC.

“When you look at it economically, it’s a very affordable place to live,” she said. “There’s excellent housing available, and the types of industries here are hospitable to immigrants. So there’s good job opportunity here as well.”

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, rent prices in Phoenix average 15 percent lower than the national average and a staggering 54 percent lower than Los Angeles, which is another popular destination for refugee resettlement.

Despite what people think, Walker said, there’s a vibrant community in Phoenix that opens its arms to refugees to provide much-needed support. For Pierre Karorero, who moved to Phoenix from central-African country Burundi in 2004, the aid and community support made all the difference in his integration.

“Back home, life is very different,” Karorero said. “Life was very simple … so, in the beginning here, things were really difficult. This is a very competitive world, and I’ve noticed here it’s all about power.”

Karorero was sponsored by the IRC, who helped find him a home and signed him up for food stamps and cash assistance for the first six months of his residency. They also provided support to his mother until Karorero turned 18 and got a job. “Once you start to get yourself together, they cut the assistance little by little,” he added. “It’s not so bad.”

The IRC also got Karorero in touch with other refugees from Burundi and neighboring countries who shared a similar culture. He is now a part of the Komezakaranga AZ drumming group, which performs traditional Burundian music and performance around the Valley. Karorero says he loves Phoenix. “We now take refuge in a land that is not ours, and happen to be part of a celebration where we are celebrating ourselves and all the other people in our lives,” he said. “It’s a blessing.”

Walker said that the ultimate goal of the IRC is to help restructure communities so those displaced can potentially return home to rebuild their lives. “We really focus on the types of programming that will be the most impactful,” she said. “We have to think about long-term effects.”

Florence Nkurc and her daughter Geoy wait in line for a photo booth at Phoenix World Refugee Day in the A.E. Building in Phoenix on June 21. (Photo by Sean Logan) Florence Nkurc and her daughter Geoy wait in line for a photo booth at Phoenix World Refugee Day in the A.E. Building in Phoenix on June 21. (Photo by Sean Logan)

All of the refugees in Arizona account for just .001 percent of total refugees worldwide, reflecting a larger global problem in which more and more people are being displaced from their homes. According to the UNHCR annual report, the number of refugees are the highest it's been since the end of WWI, in part due to a sharp increase in civil wars in recent years.

An estimated 51.2 million people are displaced around the world. The majority of them, 33.3 million, are internally displaced in their own countries, while 16.7 million are refugees in other lands and 1.2 million are seeking asylum in other countries.

According to the same report, developing countries that may be experiencing dangerous climates of their own host 86 percent of refugees. Less than 1 percent of all refugees are resettled in secure third countries, but the US accepts more than half of said refugees — more than every other resettlement country combined.

Back at the World Refugee Day in downtown Phoenix, however, the refugees are celebrating their circumstances and shared experiences with others. Somali women in hijabs and young Burmese children sit in silence as former Cambodian refugees perform a traditional Khmer dance involving delicate hand movements and fallen flower petals. Outside, a row of young Nepalese children can’t stop smiling as Nepalese/Indian singer Jasmine Pradhen belts a song in Nepali. “No one ever speaks Nepali here!” one of them whispers excitedly to his friend. The Komezakarange drummers seem to burst into song and dance spontaneously, captivating the room’s attention instantly.

When the cultural commotion simmers down, a slight man stands at the front of the room and starts speaking in a thick eastern European accent. A former refugee from Bosnia, Naim Logic lost almost everything during the war between Bosnia and Serbia. After coming to America, he slowly but surely built everything back up. Logic has since become a prolific figure in the engineering community of Arizona, and has worked with multiple organizations including ASU, the Salt River Project, and the Power System Engineering Research Center. He’s authored 61 journals. In 2012, he summited Mount Everest.

“After you resettle, everything’s up to you,” Logic said. “But ‘refugee’ doesn’t mean you are worth less. You are a human being just like everyone else. We’re all just human beings.”

Reach the reporter at

Get the best of State Press delivered straight to your inbox.