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A Congolese refugee, Zaburiya arrived in Tucson seven months ago with five children, aged 10 to 26, after spending 18 years in a refugee camp in Rwanda. Illiterate and not speaking a word of English, she became a member of a women’s empowerment group operated by Refugee Focus, which receives support from Episcopal Migration Ministries through funding from the United States government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement. Women learn basic math skills during a morning training workshop at Refugee Focus’s office in downtown Tucson. Through Episcopal Migration Ministries, the Episcopal Church partners with 30 resettlement affiliates in 26 dioceses nationwide.
In 2014, the Episcopal Church and its partners worked to resettle 5,155 of the tens of thousands of refugees who came to the United States through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) screening process. Over the next several years, UNHCR plans to resettle 50,000 refugees from the Congo, with 70 to 90 percent to be resettled to the United States, said Kurt Bonz, Episcopal Migration Ministries’ program manager, during a recent webinar hosted by the Episcopal Church aimed at educating the faith community about the situation in the Congo and how to support and advocate for Congolese refugees. Ongoing armed conflict has been particularly brutal in the Congo; the number of Congolese women-at-risk is double that found in other refugee populations. A refugee is someone who has fled their country of nationality and its protection because of a “well-founded fear of persecution” based on race, religion, ethnicity, political or social affiliation. Upon arriving in the United States, refugees receive three months of case management and financial support to help them adjust, plus additional support to help them find employment and reach financial self-sufficiency.
Recognizing the need, in 2013, with an $8,000 grant from a nondenominational church, Refugee Focus created its own program aimed at empowering at-risk women. Given the elevated rates of violence and trauma endured by Congolese women and their children, it was crucial that this population have the opportunity to be resettled in the United States and have access to a supportive community environment where women could connect with each other to rebuild their support systems, said Trudeau.
Refugee Focus’ women’s empowerment program began with a question to the women: What can we do to better serve you? The empowerment program’s goals were to create a social network for refugee women, strengthen employable skills through improved English proficiency, encourage economic independence, and promote personal development and financial skills. Through private grants, the women were paid between $300 and $400 in small increments for their participation in the program: attending trainings, attending ESL classes, participating in community events. More than its measurable factors, the empowerment program provides a lifeline to women who otherwise would be navigating a new way of being, a new country and an unfamiliar city on their own. Namughisha Nashimwe, 41, arrived in Tucson in December 2013, after four years in a refugee camp, with her five children, now aged 5 to 20. Nashimwe’s peers in the empowerment group and Refugee Focus staff, however, had other advice: They told her that she was capable of working and of providing for her family.
Investing in refugees, she continued, is more than just initial resettlement; it’s about developing plans and support that individuals and families can depend on over the many years they struggle to overcome the barriers associated with poverty in the United States.


Balezi attended a university in the Congo and, besides being fluent in French, speaks at least seven other regional languages. Through Balezi’s interactions with the women, the love and respect they have for her is obvious.
The food pantry is stocked, and a culturally appropriate meal – typically rice and beans and chicken, in the case of Congolese refugees – has been prepared for the family. Refugee Focus is working with local partners to landscape this outdoor space for hosting events and so teenagers have a place to hang out. Refugee Focus operates on a $1.6 million annual budget with 16 full-time and 10 on-call employees and two full-time AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers. Given the Episcopal Church’s role in refugee resettlement, General Convention in 2012 passed legislation calling for the modernization of the nation’s refugee resettlement program to meet the needs of a diverse population.
Tucson, a city with a population of just over half a million people, is served by three refugee-resettlement agencies and becomes home to 1,000 new refugees annually. Imago Dei Middle School’s student body includes 12 refugees, 11 of them referred through Refugee Focus. The new location has provided visibility both for Refugee Focus and its clients, who often take the bus and then walk to the office on North Stone Avenue across from the main branch of the Pima County Library. The student body now includes 12 refugees, 11 of them referred through Refugee Focus, said Sawyer. The African students, originally from the Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi or South Africa, say they plan to study medicine, engineering and other professions, and that small class sizes, individual attention and shared language contribute to a comfortable, supportive educational environment. Another way in which Refugee Focus has fostered community is through hosting events in partnership with Richard Noell, who uses drumming as a way to help trauma survivors regain confidence and express themselves. Music and drumming help the women reconnect with joy, and it opens them to healing, said Noell. The staff and volunteers who have worked with at-risk women have been “blown away by the amount of strength and perseverance that these women have come with,” said Trudeau. Ephesians 4:16 ESV  From whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
About half of the 300 refugees served annually by Refugee Focus come through Episcopal Migration Ministries. This has led to studies aimed at identifying particular risks, challenges and strengths and developing strategies for policymakers and service providers to better serve the women and their families. Among female refugees considered “women-at-risk,” most have endured rape and other forms of gender-related sexual violence, with many giving birth to children conceived as a result of rape.


Last year, the program continued with the support from Episcopal Migration Ministries, said Trudeau. It counted toward payment if they arrived on time, and their payments were docked if they didn’t.
Initially, a counselor told her first to take time to recover from her trauma and that, rather than attend school, her eldest son should get a job and support the family. I was motivated by the group,” she said, speaking in Kinyarwanda – the official language of Rwanda – interpreted by Jeanine Balezi, an intensive-case manager for Refugee Focus. You cannot make progress when stuck in a crisis mode, and Refugee Focus doesn’t have the money to assist clients in crisis, only to help them toward self-sufficiency, she added.
Still, when a refugee arrives in the United States, the thrill of beginning a new life also brings increased anxiety, isolation and a loss of family and community. From the airport, refugees are driven to their furnished apartment, where staff and volunteers teach them how to operate appliances like the stove and television, the kitchen sink and the shower. In addition to federal funds, Refugee Focus relies on support from donors, local partners and community volunteers to fund and carry out its programs.
Work-eligible refugees often fill vacancies in low-wage, unskilled jobs in the servicing industry, washing dishes in restaurants and cleaning hotel rooms; working largely unseen. And then, about a year ago, Trudeau moved its offices from a strip mall outside the city’s core to a few blocks from the city’s main bus terminal downtown.
It’s also around the corner from Imago Dei Middle School, which provides holistic education aimed at breaking the cycles of poverty to 70 students grades five through eight. Of those, at least 20 percent are expected to be women-at-risk and eligible for intensive case management.
But it’s also clear she pushes them to leave their comfort zones – to learn a new bus route or apply for a job – and that they appreciate it. Department of Health and Human Services provides additional money for resettlement agencies to assist refugees with special challenges – in this case, single women with children. But in talking to others in the group and with Jeanine, I decided I’m going to get a job to help my family to have a better life,” she said during an interview with ENS in her apartment, a 10-15 minute drive from downtown Tucson. Later, Trudeau visited the school and began to identify refugee children who would benefit from the school’s intensive, six-day week, 11-month school year, which allows students who may not be at grade level the time and personal attention to catch up.



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