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Iskashitaa network helps refugees feel secure in Tucson, but not immune to COVID or politics

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

Iskashitaa Refugee Network, a local community service group that started 18 years ago, fosters optimism for refugees, giving them hope for a brighter future in Tucson.

With four staffers, 200 volunteers each month and an annual budget of $160,000, the nonprofit organization provides refugees with work that helps the broader Tucson community, in exchange for helping them get situated in their new homes here.

One of the current operations at Iskashitaa is reducing food waste with the help of its volunteers. The network and its volunteers gather food that might not be sold in grocery stores, and find people in need when they redistribute it.

Iskashitaa’s community partners benefit from being close to the Nogales border crossing, where the passage of produce that takes place there every day has created opportunities to intercept food that would otherwise go to waste and redistribute it to local tribes, other community organizations or Abaahs, Arab market, said Barbara Eiswerth, Iskashitaa's founder and executive director.

Iskashitaa's volunteers help harvest and glean more than 100,000 lbs. of food each year, the group said.

Refugees who volunteer with the group said they feel like they’re blending with the community of Tucson, which is a challenge for many refugees. By volunteering to distribute fruits and vegetables, to plant, grow food and do the day-to-day paperwork and office tasks, refugees get a sense of interaction with each other. They also get the opportunity to practice their English.

Richard Otim, from Uganda, speaks nine languages — the most useful of which he said is Swahili because it enables him to enhance interaction around Iskashitaa. He sees his involvement with the group as one of the simplest pathways to a sense of stability and security, he said.

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“It means a lot to me because it’s taking me back to community work. That’s what I did when I was back in Uganda,” he said. “I worked with the various nonprofit organizations as well the church (in Uganda), so when I came here I found myself just blending into the Iskashitaa activities.”

“One of the biggest challenges for immigrants is social isolation,” said Eiswerth. “In particular, refugees who have been through war and genocide, that may be suffering from PTSD, to break that isolation down is a bigger challenge, and on top of that we’ve got COVID.”

Every Wednesday, refugees and staff of Iskashitaa gather at the University of Arizona Community Garden to connect and socialize. Iskashitaa on those midweek mornings has a festive spirit with tumbe drums pounding, guitar strings strumming and colors finding their place on canvases. Eiswerth said this is all part of the mission — a critical aspect of it.

“I came as a refugee migrant, and I'(d) been in Texas for close to one year,” said Nijikang Coney, a refugee from Cameroon who now lives in Tucson and volunteers with Iskashitaa stirring compost and doing paperwork, among various tasks. “I used to be in the house thinking all the time, but by the time I got in touch with Iskashitaa refugee network... while volunteering with them, I feel like leaving the house, coming here, spending the day going back home while waiting for my papers to go through — I feel like it has detached me from the stress and thinking that I’ve gotten before.”

The coronavirus pandemic changed the way Iskashitaa works, like it did for everyone, and the problems the network faced included delays in getting government documentation. Coney said state agencies have been slow to provide him the documents he needs to stay in the U.S., which has been stressful for him.

“COVID to me has impacted negatively rather than positively because the whole process in terms of court sessions,” Coney said. “So, since the 19th of March, my last court session has been postponed. To this day, I’m still waiting to have it in a couple of months because of coronavirus.”

Coney said he’s waiting for information he needs to work like his Social Security number.

“I have been in the U.S. for more than one year, and I don’t have them. So it has been questionable,” he said. “It has been a subset of issues that, no matter what they say, it is because of COVID, so we just believe that.”

“COVID has been a real big setback in many areas,” Otim said. “First of all, it has delayed my paperwork. You know, I have not been able to get my paperwork because the offices, they’re closed,” Otime said about government offices like with Arizona Department of Economic Security, which handles much of the refugee resettlement process in the state.

Otim and Coney agree that delays have brought an unwelcome stress, and Eiswerth said that COVID has disrupted plans Iskashittaa had for growth.

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“We were pursuing a model which would mean bigger groups and bigger gatherings to more efficiently harvest like during citrus season, where we have 28 trees in one neighborhood,” she said. “Instead of five to 10 volunteers, which we have during the week, on a Saturday, where we could have Super Citrus Saturday, where we’re able to handle 40-50 volunteers — well that has now been complicated by COVID.”

Filling those volunteer positions means connecting more refugees in Tucson to Iskashitaa’s network, but Eiswerth also said that Iskashitaa has been affected by the Trump administration's curtailing the admission of new refugees.

About 2,800 refugees resettled in Pima and Maricopa counties in 2017, with close to 80 percent going to the Phoenix area and 20 percent heading to Tucson, according to the Catholic Charities Community Services, an organization that works with refugees.

A total of 1,392 refugees resettled in Arizona the next year, according to DES stats, but that number was a sharp decline from the 2,824 from the previous year, and the 5,115 refugees from 2016, the year during which Arizona took in the greatest number since 1975. That year, Congress passed the Refugee Act to fund the transportation and resettlement of refugees in this country.

In 2016, about 79,000 refugees from around the world came to the United States. In 2020, just 6,700 arrived, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

Last year, just 684 refugees came to Arizona, the lowest number on record, DES numbers show.

“We've been seeing the smallest amount of refugees being resettled to the U.S. in the last year,” Eiswerth said. But even though Iskashitaa's operations are affected by federal decisions about refugees and she has to pay attention to what presidents do, 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 was issuing an executive order “to begin the hard work of restoring our refugee admissions program to help meet the unprecedented global need,” he said.  The order will “raise refugee admissions back up to 125,000 persons for the first fiscal year of the Biden-Harris administration.”

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

“I love Tucson,” said Coney. “In Africa, we used to say we have the spirit of the African togetherness. That I also find here among the people.”

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Gretchen Crossley/Special for TucsonSentinel.com

Refugees from the Central African Republic, Aline and her mother, share the joy of splatter art for the first time at an Iskashitaa gathering in early February.