When she listens to
the horrific stories told by refugees, Sambo Dul is reminded of
stories her mother tells of her own family's suffering in the
"Killing Fields" of Cambodia.
The 20-year-old Arizona State University junior escaped the
haunted life that scarred her family when she settled in Arizona
at age 5. The refugee experience she recalls is watching her
mother struggle to adjust to a foreign language and culture while
trying to put the horror behind her.
One family's story
So a year ago, Dul sought out other ASU students
to help Valley refugees adjust to life in Arizona. Her
organization, Refugee Resettlement Volunteers, has quickly grown
to about 50 students on the Tempe campus. Some teach families
English. Others show them how to work a microwave oven or set up a
computer. They accompany families on trips to the supermarket and
library where they learn about express checkout lanes and due
dates on books.
The ASU students work with resettlement agencies like Catholic
Social Service and the International Rescue Committee, which focus
on such core services as getting refugees jobs, enrolling children
in school and providing housing. Both agencies rely on volunteers
to provide a critical bridge of befriending families and helping
them adjust to their new environment.
Betsy Parkes, program coordinator of community education and
volunteers at IRC, has 10 ASU students among the 50 active
volunteers in the American Friend mentor program. She praised the
students for making families who have lost everything feel
"We meet the basic needs, and the volunteer is there to show they
will be accepted in the community," Parkes said.
For Attila Magyar, coordinator for special refugee services with
Catholic Social Service, ASU volunteers are a welcome addition.
Magyer doubted the Tempe students would last because most of the
families his organization helps live in the West Valley. But he
said he has a powerful link on campus with Dul and André Olivie,
another student who assisted in forming the ASU volunteers.
You can help
For information on
helping refugee families or to make donations, contact the
following agencies. There is a huge need for donated cars.
Resettlement Volunteers at Arizona State University,
www.asu.edu/clubs/rrv. (480) 213-5439 or (602) 538-6143.
Rescue Committee, www.theIRC.org. (602) 433-2440.
Social Service, www.catholicsocialserviceaz.org. (602)
"If they would not keep the fire burning, for
sure from my office I couldn't," Magyar said of the students'
strong advocacy. "I am very pleasantly surprised that they are so
enthusiastic and committed to working with our refugee clients."
Of the ASU volunteers, about 30 work directly with families and an
additional 20 advocate for refugee rights.
Diane Newell, 20, started volunteering about three months ago.
Along with Cara Winters and Cara Kennedy, she spends two hours
three times a week giving English lessons to the Mohamed family,
refugees from Africa. Waktia Mohamed, 16, attends Camelback High
School and knows enough English to translate for other family
Newell and the other volunteers are teaching English to Waktia's
sister, Habiba Mohamed, 22. The sisters lost their mother to
disease and their father to a gunman as they eked out life in a
Kenyan refugee camp for 12 years. They are among about 4,700
refugees from Africa living in Arizona, a small number compared
with the more than 10,000 from Vietnam and 6,800 from
Now they live in a sparsely decorated Phoenix apartment with
siblings Kasim, 14, and Omar, 9; Habiba's husband, Abas Ahmed, who
works as a dishwasher in a Phoenix hotel; and Habiba's children,
Fatuma, 6, Abdirizak, 3, and Lula, 1.
During a recent visit to the Mohameds' apartment Habiba sounded
out simple words with Newell's help.
"When we first started she did not know the alphabet, and now she
recites it and is starting to say the sounds," Newell said.
The volunteers use Post-It notes to help families learn the
English words of household items like table, chair and
refrigerator. They bring in documents like a high school diploma
or photos so the families can visualize a slice of American
culture and create a stronger bond.
"While you are telling them about American culture, you can ask
them what it is like in their culture," Dul said. Her interest in
refugee issues was sparked two years ago when she spent five hours
listening to her mother, Leng Poch, 53, describe the death and
destruction she witnessed in Cambodia. A soldier killed Dul's
father after he illegally crossed the Thailand border 20 years ago
in search of medicine for his pregnant wife.
"I was a little nervous to ask her because I thought I was opening
old wounds, but she was really receptive in wanting me to know,"
Dul said. "She related the stories to me with so much passion, I
couldn't help but feel I was there."
More than 1.5 million Cambodians died at the hands of the Khmer
Rouge from 1975 to 1979. Dul and her mother fled Cambodia in 1984
and settled in a refugee camp where they shared a bamboo shelter
with another family before making their way to Arizona in 1988.
Reach the reporter at email@example.com
or (602) 444-7726.