Burundi Refugees Relish New Life In Valley

John Faherty, Arizona Republic (Phoenix), Jul.y 4, 2007

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The 35-year-old mother of three is one of 54 Burundians who have moved to the Valley in the past two months.

They are refugees from a violent ethnic war in the small central African country that has forced them to spend most of their lives in refugee camps.

Those camps save lives as desperate people are given food, shelter and medical care, but they absolutely stifle independence.

That may be the most daunting challenge facing these families as they spend their first Independence Day in their new country.

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Suddenly lifted from their old environment, these new arrivals will now try to learn English, get jobs, enroll their children in school and adjust to a culture that was impossible even to imagine two months ago.

They could not be happier.

Learning everything

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The Burundians are working with the International Rescue Committee, a non-profit agency that provides “access to safety, sanctuary and sustainable change for millions of people whose lives have been shattered by violence and oppression.” Although worldwide in scope, the IRC has an office in Phoenix with 30 full-time employees who help 500 to 600 people a year settle in the Valley.

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The list is almost endless. But also pressing are the psychological wounds some will need to process as they begin their new life.

Burundi, in addition to being perhaps the poorest country in Africa, has also been the center of some of the worst violence.

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The IRC will help with the psychological issues as it works on the more practical matters.

The group is already taking English classes. The refugees are being taught how to use appliances, bathrooms and shop for groceries. They will learn how to work, ride buses, pay bills and open bank accounts. In short, they must learn everything.

Over the next few months, they will receive financial assistance from the federal and state governments. They are getting help from local churches and other volunteers.

But when their Social Security cards arrive in the next few months, they are expected to start working.

Because of their limited language skills, the IRC will help place them in jobs related to food preparation, hotel maintenance and janitorial services.

Daunting journey ahead

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The U.S. State Department defines a person as a refugee if he or she has left his or her country and is “unable to return home because of past persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

The status provides a clear path to citizenship.

After one year, the Burundians will be eligible for permanent residence status. After four years and nine months, they can become American citizens.

Still, the overall adjustment will not be easy.

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