The Iskashitaa Community helps refugees really feel protected in Tucson, however not resistant to COVID or politics

Randa Samih Abdu |

Especially for

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and the upheavals of refugees, Tucson is a kind of haven for some people fleeing war and genocide around the globe.

The Iskashitaa Refugee Network, a local nonprofit group founded 18 years ago, encourages optimism among refugees and gives them hope for a better future in Tucson.

With four employees, 200 volunteers per month, and an annual budget of $ 160,000, the nonprofit provides refugees with work that helps the wider Tucson community in return for settling in their new homes.

One of the current activities in Iskashitaa is reducing food waste with the help of their volunteers. The network and its volunteers collect food that may not be sold in grocery stores and find people in need if they redistribute it.

Iskashitaa’s parish partners benefit from its proximity to the Nogales border crossing, where the daily handover of produce provides the opportunity to intercept food that would otherwise be wasted and pass it on to local tribes, other community organizations or Abaahs, Arabs, said Barbara Eiswerth, Iskashitaa’s founder and CEO.

Iskashitaa’s volunteers help harvest and collect more than 100,000 pounds. of food every year, the group said.

Refugees who volunteer for the group feel connected to the Tucson community, which is a challenge for many refugees. By voluntarily distributing fruit and vegetables, planting, growing food, and doing daily paperwork and office tasks, refugees get a sense of interaction with one another. You also have the opportunity to practice your English.

Richard Otim from Uganda speaks nine languages ​​- the most useful of which he said is Swahili because it allows him to improve the interaction around Iskashitaa. He sees his engagement in the group as one of the easiest ways to feel stable and secure, he said.

“It means a lot to me because it brings me back to church work. I did that when I was back in Uganda, ”he said. “I worked with the various non-profit organizations as well as the church (in Uganda). When I came here, I just got involved in Iskashitaa activities.”

“One of the biggest challenges for immigrants is social isolation,” said Eiswerth. “Refugees who have been through war and genocide and may have PTSD in particular to break that isolation are more of a challenge, and besides, we have COVID.”

Every Wednesday, refugees and Iskashitaa staff gather in the University of Arizona Community Garden to socialize and socialize. Iskashitaa has a festive spirit on these weekday mornings, with tumbe drums pounding, guitar strings tinkling, and colors finding their place on canvases. Eiswerth said this was all part of the mission – a critical aspect of it.

“I came as a refugee migrant and was in Texas for almost a year,” said Nijikang Coney, a refugee from Cameroon who now lives in Tucson and who, among other things, voluntarily stirs compost and does paperwork with Iskashitaa. “I used to be in the house all the time thinking, but when I got in touch with the Iskashitaa refugee network … I feel like I’m leaving the house, coming here and spending the day going home I’m waiting for my papers to go through – I feel like it has detached me from the stress and thinking I was getting before. ”

The coronavirus pandemic changed the way Iskashitaa worked like any other. Problems with the network included delays in obtaining government documents. According to Coney, state authorities have been slow to provide him with the documents he needs to stay in the United States, which has been stressful for him.

“COVID has been more negative than positive for me as the whole process is related to court sessions,” said Coney. “Since March 19th, my last court session has been postponed. Until today I am waiting for a few more months because of the corona virus. ”

Coney said he was waiting for information he needed to work like his social security number.

“I’ve been in the US for over a year and I haven’t. So it was questionable, ”he said. “It was a subset of issues that no matter what they say are due to COVID, so we just believe that.”

“COVID has been a huge setback in many areas,” said Otim. “First, it delayed my filing. You know, I couldn’t get my records because the offices are closed, ”Otime said of government offices like the Arizona Department of Economic Security, which handles much of the resettlement process for refugees in the state.

Otim and Coney agree that delays have created unwanted stress, and Eiswerth said COVID disrupted Iskashittaa’s growth plans.

“We were following a model that would mean larger groups and larger gatherings to harvest more efficiently, like during citrus season when we have 28 trees in one neighborhood,” she said. “Instead of the five to ten volunteers we have during the week on a Saturday that we could have a Super Citrus Saturday that we can take in 40-50 volunteers – well, that has now been complicated by COVID.”

Filling these volunteer positions means connecting more refugees in Tucson to Iskashitaa’s network. However, Eiswerth also said Iskashitaa has been affected by the Trump administration’s restriction on admitting new refugees.

According to the Catholic Charities Community Services, an organization that works with refugees, around 2,800 refugees relocated to the Pima and Maricopa counties in 2017, with nearly 80 percent going to the Phoenix area and 20 percent to Tucson.

According to DES statistics, a total of 1,392 refugees relocated to Arizona in the next year. That number, however, was a sharp decrease from 2,824 the previous year and 5,115 refugees in 2016, the year Arizona hosted the largest number since 1975. That year, Congress passed the Refugee Act to regulate the transportation and relocation of Fund refugees in this country.

In 2016, around 79,000 refugees from all over the world came to the USA. In 2020, only 6,700 arrived, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Last year, only 684 refugees came to Arizona, the lowest number in history, according to DES figures.

“We saw that last year the lowest number of refugees were resettled in the US,” said Eiswerth. Although Iskashitaa’s operations are affected by federal decisions on refugees and she needs to be careful of what presidents are doing, Eiswerth said politics has nothing to do with the group’s mission.

“This is humanitarian work,” she said.

President Joe Biden announced last week that he had enacted an executive order “to begin the hard work of restoring our refugee reception program to meet unprecedented global needs,” he said. The order will “increase the admission of refugees to 125,000 for the first fiscal year of the Biden Harris administration.”

Eiswerth said any increase in refugee resettlement means Iskashitaa can continue to work to meet Tucson’s needs and the needs of refugees and have the ability to grow the organization.

“I love Tucson,” said Coney. “In Africa we always said we have the spirit of African togetherness. I find that among the people here too. ”

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