Refugee Experience

Don’t Miss Out!

There are only a few more days until our Welcome Breakfast, where we’ll celebrate 15 years of welcoming refugees to the Phoenix area! Our speakers include Wasan, a refugee from Iraq, who will share her family’s journey, fleeing persecution to resettlement and prosperous lives of safety and opportunity. Also speaking, Phoenix, Arizona mayor Greg Stanton! Don’t miss out on this inspirational, educational, and free event! RSVP here


Refugees in Our Communities

IMG_1897Marina Kovacevic, Law Student and Former Refugee from Banjaluka, Bosnia & Herzegovina

Where are you from?
Banjaluka, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Why did you have to leave? Who did you leave with?
I left when I was 8 years old with my mom and sister. We had to leave because the living conditions in Bosnia at the time were unbearable. We had just gone through a civil war, and much of my family was either killed or in financial despair. We did not know the future of our home or what would happen to us if we stayed, if we would even live to see another year. During the war, my father was drafted into the army on the Serb side because we lived predominantly in a Serb region. His platoon was captured and taken to Croatia. He was held in a prison camp, but was allowed to leave when he called an aunt who proved that he was half Croatian. However, the Croatian army had taken all of his identification documents, so he could not stay in Croatia as half Croatian and could not prove his half Serbian identity when he tried to return to Bosnia. He applied for refugee resettlement with the United States and several other countries. Luckily, the Catholic Social Services in the U.S. helped him immigrate to the United States and after several failed attempts that took a year, my mom, sister and I, were able to immigrate as his dependents.

What were you able to bring with you?
I brought clothes and one doll. We also brought some photographs, video cassettes, and music cassettes.

When did you arrive in the U.S.? Which organizations helped you when you arrived?
I arrived on January 16, 1997 and the Catholic Social Services helped us.

What surprised you about daily life in the U.S.?

I was surprised about how HOT it was in Arizona in the middle of January.

I remember thinking that the grocery stores were gigantic and I had so much fun going. In Bosnia, we only had coca cola on birthdays and New Years because it was expensive. So I thought it was wonderful to have coca cola whenever I wanted. I also gorged on cookies, chips, and McDonalds, which I had only seen in movies. It isn’t that my family was poor in Bosnia, but chocolate and snacks were just not sold ever since I can remember.

I also found it wonderful that everyone always smiles in the U.S., something that we consider ingenuine in Bosnia. But, I loved it.

I loved the desert and the fact that western movies that I had seen stayed true to the actual scenery.

I loved how many children’s movies there were on TV and even though we only had basic cable back then (about 10 channels), there was always something fun to watch. Once we got the Disney Channel, I was in heaven.

Lastly, I was mostly surprised how emotional people are here. I felt this as a child, but more so as I grew older. Here, it is okay to express your emotions, even encouraged. It is okay to stop in the middle of what you are doing and smile, cry, or laugh. It is okay to tell people you love them every day and you will not be seen as weak or ingenuine. That is my favorite thing about America.

What would you like fellow Americans to know about refugees arriving in the U.S.?
I would like them to know that refugees and immigrants are just as intelligent and capable as you. I did not appreciate being talked down to (which I still do) because people thought that just because I did not speak English, I was not as intelligent. I work with immigrants and always imagine where they used to work in their home countries and how intelligently they speak in the native languages. So, I appreciate that someone does the same to me.

I would also like people to know that immigrants and refugees are not “stealing” Americans’ economic opportunities or social benefits. Refugees did not choose to leave their countries and the lives they likely loved before things became ugly. They simply needed to save their own lives and do what is best for them. They had to find another countries and if they need any public benefits Americans claim they abuse, refugees are only allowed to use it for a certain amount of time until they settle in.

I would also like Americans to know that we are the same. I would like to put themselves in refugees’ shoes and think–would I do anything necessary to save my own life and the life of my child? If so, what would that be?

What do you (and your family) do now?
I am immigration attorney in the making, my sister is a bankruptcy attorney and my mother is a student liaison for refugee and immigrant students at an elementary school district and she teaches behavioral health (psychology) at a university.

What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
I want to continue traveling the world. I want to learn Spanish and several other languages. I want to ride an elephant, sky dive, and have my own garden. I want to live in a big city and work for a non profit organization that deals with human rights. I want to present a case to the U.S. Supreme Court. I want to write a book. I want to have a column in a fashion magazine. I want my mom to retire in a beach house. And lots more!


Volunteer Spotlight: Quteiba Al-Timeemy

Quteiba “Q” Al-Timeemy: Communications Committee Intern

How long have you been volunteering with WTAP?IMG_1569
I’ve been a volunteer for almost 4 months now. I started with WTAP as a service learning project for school but I’ve grown very attached to WTAP’s vision and mission, so I decided to stay on board. 
Tell me about some of the people you’ve met while working with WTAP?
Everyone I’ve met at WTAP is so extraordinary. The amount of compassion the volunteers have cannot be measured with words. I refuged from Iraq to America in the mid 90’s so I know how scary it is to be a refugee. To find so many who care about the position that people like my family and I were in is beyond amazing. 
Why do you choose to donate your time to WTAP?
At first, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I started my school project with WTAP, but after a few days and speaking to some of the volunteers, it was clear that I wanted to be here. It’s incredibly difficult to know what a refugee goes through, even for me being a refugee, my story to me seems to be unreal. That first time I did a delivery and spoke to a Iraqi refugee and saw how happy they were even after everything they went through, I knew I was at the right place. 
Describe an experience you had while volunteering that made you realize you were making a difference. 
The first delivery I did was truly exceptional. Not just the part where we delivered everything they needed, or set it up to their liking, but to actually take time to speak to them and get to know them. It’s hard to find people that are truly interested in lives of total strangers but the amount of compassion and support that the volunteers showed on that day and gratitude that refugees displayed really showed I was at the right place. 
What do you do when you aren’t volunteering?
I am a prelaw student and work full time so I tend to stay busy. If I find any free time I’m usually working out or hiking or playing a pick up soccer or basketball game. 
What secret powers or talents do you have?
My secret powers include flying and having a mystery solving intuition but that’s a secret, so shhhhh. Not much of a secret power though is honestly just trying to make people smile. I think a smile is contagious so I try my best to spread it.

A Warm Welcome Goes a Long Way

Submitted by Saad

Shortly after our arrival to the USA, my mother, sister and I received a wonderful welcome from The Welcome to America Project.

We first received a visit from them to check our furniture needs and to get information on our journey to Phoenix. Just two weeks later, a group of 20 volunteers of all ages came to our home bringing much more than we expected.

Warm WelcomeWhat was really interesting was the warm, welcoming comments we received along with their readiness to help. This gave us a push of hope and encouraged us never to give up. They proved to us that life is still good and helped us overcome our suffering.

We love being here in Phoenix, especially its warm weather, which we are used to because it is quite similar to the weather of Iraq. Although starting life in a new country is not easy, we are adapting to the new situation, appreciating the great opportunity we had to stay alive and safe.

We think WTAP is doing a great job helping the newcomers to Phoenix find their way in their new lives. Thank you to the volunteers who help make this possible.

• • •

Saad is a refugee from Iraq who lived in Jordan with his family for seven years then resettled to the US in 2009. Here is his story.

Refugee Community Lends Helping Hand

Submitted by Collin Cunningham

On a recent Saturday morning, eight refugee youth gathered outside an apartment complex in West Phoenix, ready to join 15 local Phoenicians in a day of volunteering. The group volunteered with us to deliver a complete home makeover to three new refugee families. Not too long ago, these youth arrived to Phoenix as refugees from Bhutan, a country nestled in the Himalayan Mountains next to Nepal.

In the late 1980s, early 90s the government of Bhutan forced out the Lhotsampan people in an effort to eliminate cultural diversity and bolster the predominantly Buddhist culture. In the last two years, Bhutanese refugees have made up the second largest group being resettled in Arizona.

This past summer, these refugee youth, like many of their high school peers in Arizona, are heeding President Obama and Governor Brewer’s call to volunteer service. But, unlike most of their peers, these youth grew up in a refugee camp in Nepal and have only lived in the U.S. for 1-2 years.

Executive Director, Megan O’Connor states, “The Welcome to America Project is so grateful and excited for more helping hands. It is incredible that in such a short time these teenagers have acclimated to their new homes, enough that they now wish to give back and invest in the Phoenix community.”

The refugee families they helped came to Phoenix from all over the world, escaping persecution, overcoming unimaginable hardships and resettling in the U.S. with the simple hope for peace and freedom.

Giving Back and Remembering 9/11

“If One Hurts, All Hurt,” An Interview with Niragira Alexis

When it comes to giving back to the community, it warms our hearts when one of the refugees served by WTAP is able to give back and help newly arriving families who are in the same position as they once were. Niragira Alexis is a great example of this and he was recently interviewed by the Arizona Republic to give his insight on the 9/11 attacks from the viewpoint of a refugee.

Q. Do you remember hearing of those attacks in New York and Washington?

A. Yes, I do very well. It was one of the mornings back in the refugee Camp in Tanzania when I woke up and turned on the stereo. I got informed of those tragic attacks in those areas.

Q. Now that you are an American resident, does 9-11 mean anything to you? If so what?

A. It breaks my heart because conflicts and attacks bring down everything, causing materials and people to perish. That problem did not only affect America, it affected a large number in the world, even us in the refugee camp we were affected because the amount of cereal, beans, peas, flour, soap, and salt were reduced. Being in U.S.A. now, I am affected because all Americans are experiencing the consequences of those attacks.

As the motto of United States: “E Pluribus Unum.” “Out of many, one” so if one hurts, all hurt. Now I am in American society, so I am hurt with them.

Q. Why did you decide to volunteer, and then work for The Welcome to America Project? How important has the agency been to you?

A. I love to work for this organization in order to help them to achieve their goal of supporting people in their needs. Initially, they showed an awesome kindness to help people who sought refuge after fleeing Afghanistan after 9/11, and now they help new refugees who come from all countries where there is war. They help them as they helped me when I came to the U.S.A. in 2008. They came to my unit with a group of people – young and old – with arms full with gifts, furniture, etc. They shook our hands, and they placed those items where they should go and told us how we should keep them. My wife and I were astonished by this good welcome and unforgettable care.

About Alexis:

Niragira Alexis was born in Burundi, which is in the middle of East Central Africa. His family fled the war in Burundi and came to Congo (formerly Zaire) where they stayed in a refugee camp in Tanzania for 13 years. In the refugee camp, he graduated with a certification to teach at an elementary school, and met his wife Ninteretse Estella.

Niragira currently lives in Phoenix with his wife and four children, and has been working at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport while also taking classes at Phoenix College to become a teacher in the US. You can read his full profile on our Board & Staff page.

Read another recent Arizona Republic article about WTAP.

Refugee Turned WTAP Volunteer

Submitted by Sue Koesser

The WTAP Clothes Closet is an opportunity for volunteers to help create a “shopping” experience that allows refugees to select gently used clothing for their families. The Clothes Closet wouldn’t be possible without our volunteers, and for over a year, a young refugee named Cadeau has become a main contributor to these events.

A Phoenix refugee becomes a volunteer for WTAPAs one of our most reliable volunteers, Cadeau helps organize the line of shoppers, hands out shopping bags, assists with sign-ins, sorts donations, folds clothes and even helps the shoppers find what they need. And he does it all despite his difficult journey to America.

Cadeau was born in Congo in 1997 and when the war broke out, his family fled to a refugee camp in Burundi. Cadeau then discovered he needed heart surgery but local doctors were unable to help. His family was brought to Phoenix so Cadeau could have this surgery. His mother explained he is very grateful, but he has two more surgeries ahead. She also said he’s a good student and a great helper at home. And it’s with this positive attitude that he contributes to the Clothes Closet.

We can all learn from the helpful heart of Cadeau. Thank you Cadeau for your hard work and the joy you bring to us all.

A Heartfelt Thank You

The following letter was sent to Carolyn Manning in 2008. We felt this heartfelt thank you needed to be shared.

Dear Carolyn,

I hope this mail would find you in your good health and spirit. I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your generosity and kindness. No matter how much I thank you and appreciate you, it still would be inadequate. Every material that you have given me is wonderful and is of so much use that they shall be cherished forever. I would particularly like to thank you for the fans because now my children sleep so well.

thank you to the Welcome to America ProjectPlease feel free to ask for any help or support that you feel that [you need]. I would feel myself very much privileged to extend the same. I know that it would be a drop in the ocean, still I would be the happiest person to contribute that.

I would like to thank all the students and people who have spent their precious time to come to my place carrying all the stuff on their shoulder and fixing them on the exact locations where they are needed to be. It is all amazing. God bless you and your children and all the staff members of WTAP.
Long live WTAP and your social work. Thank you and have a good day all year round.

Bhawani Baral

Country of Origin: Bhutan