Refugee “resettlement” in Arizona: focusing on women and non-core services

by Charlotte Shurtz

Women’s Empowerment Program Graduation. Author: Charlotte Shurtz

Refugee women face challenges particular to their gender in the context of resettlement, which non-core social programs can respond to. These social programs may be under threat under the current U.S. administration, though they are essential to refugees’ resettlement beyond the first 30-90 days of their arrival.

When refugees arrive in Arizona, one of the highest refugee-receiving states in the U.S., their initial path of resettlement follows a very similar pattern to that of other U.S. states. After the lengthy 18-24-months vetting process, a refugee’s case is automatically re-distributed to a local non-governmental organization (NGO) specialized in refugee resettlement, via one of the nine national voluntary agencies contracted by the U.S. State Department. This local resettlement NGO will deliver the most immediate core services during the first 30-90 days of arrival, such as furnishing new apartments, paying for rent, and providing food.

To provide these services, the U.S. State Department provides a one-time allowance to the local resettlement NGO, equivalent to about $1,000 per person depending on the size of the family. Refugees are also assigned a case manager, who is often a former refugee and speaks a common language. Within the initial 30-90 days, case managers will receive individuals and families at the airport. They will coordinate necessary immunizations, schedule cultural orientations and public transport trainings, apply for health care and federal benefits, and begin school enrollment for children and English class registration for adults. Each refugee aged 18 to 65 will also be assigned an Employment Specialist to help them find their first job, when the refugee’s level of education and English permit.

In addition, the U.S. government requires the case manager to visit the refugee individual or family once a month during the first 90 days, and once after 180 days. These visits aim to ensure that refugees are able to fulfill certain basic requirements of “resettlement” and “successful integration,” such as stating their address and phone number in English.

These mandated core services undeniably provide for the most urgent physical needs when refugees arrive in a third-country, with rarely more than a single suitcase. However, beyond those initial core services, the question of resettlement and what it means to “resettle” emotionally, psychologically and socially, seems far more complex. In fact, the complexity of resettlement seems to take even greater depth for women, whose particular gendered context and challenges have received little public or academic focus.

Focusing on Women

The largest number of refugee women recently arrived in Arizona come from under-developed and traditionally patriarchal countries, such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Congo, Central African Republic, Iraq and Eritrea. Most often these women come with children, with little or no prior formal education or professional training, and sometimes without husbands or other supportive family members. In a context of migration to the U.S., where ideals of women’s independence are culturally strong and the need for basic education and English skills eventually become inevitable, the process of resettlement can render refugee women particularly isolated and vulnerable.

Many refugee men arriving in Arizona seem to possess a level of English, education and professional experience that allows them to obtain employment reasonably quickly, an obvious step towards their social and economic integration. However, for refugee women, their limited education and knowledge of English, their religious or cultural expectations as well as their personal fears often lead them to stay home rather than find employment.

Clearly, adjusting to life in Arizona constitutes a particular challenge for women whose central socio-cultural expectations and duties remained within the domestic sphere in their country of origin. Yet, without fulfilling the most crucial step towards assimilation that learning the country’s language represents, refugee women then have extremely limited access to the multiple opportunities that do come with speaking English. For instance, being a dual-income household is financially beneficial to the family that often relies on the government’s limited support. But employment is even more crucial to the women’s ability to perfect their language skills, to create meaningful relationships, to learn to navigate the country’s various administrative systems, and to feel a sense of personal and social involvement in their new country of living.

Without these opportunities, women can become extremely dependent on their husbands, older children and neighbors, in much more restrictive ways than they experienced in the camps or their country of origin. Indeed, fulfilling the most basic needs such as buying groceries, going to doctor’s appointments, taking children to school and activities, or even responding to emergencies can be difficult. In the vast and hot landscape of Arizona, this challenge is only made greater in that any errand requires a driver’s license and a car, which very few women have access to. While their husbands’ work, refugee women must walk great distances with their children, or rely on the city’s costly and disconnected public transport system.

In other words, the traditional expectations towards women to re-establish a home and maintain their domestic duties may remain strong regardless of displacement; however, and paradoxically, the context of resettlement itself makes it a struggle for refugee women to do just that. Similarly, it appears to hinder their very ability to feel “settled”, as their increased dependence and inability to fulfill a role central to their identity, as mothers and wives, can lead to feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, frustration, anxiety and depression.

All in all, for many refugee wives and mothers, the ideal of resettlement and integration is pitted with social, cultural and economic roadblocks that may bring debilitating isolation. This again leads us to question the idea of “resettlement” itself, as the notions of being “settled” and “at home” seem so challenging to re-establish for women.

Non-core services and the current administration

It is in consideration of this particular gendered context that in 2008, Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest-Refugee Focus, received a three-year grant from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement to create the Women’s Empowerment Program (WEP). The WEP focuses on providing empowering and educational opportunities to refugee women within five years of their arrival, from yoga, health, sewing, computer and leadership classes, to child care and direct care worker training.

The goal of the program is specifically to respond to the issues of inadequacy, isolation and unemployment mentioned above. By teaching women new skills such as sewing or caregiving, the program has been able to provide additional income and permanent employment for some women. These classes were particularly successful and popular as they were based in the realm of traditional womanhood, teaching skills within the women’s familiar and domestic sphere, while providing them with opportunities for earning income. Also, for many women the women’s health education, computer and leadership classes have allowed them to gain new crucial knowledge about their own body, their rights and the more bureaucratic U.S. systems, promoting confidence as individuals and in their community.

Overall, the WEP has been successful in giving refugee women the tools to become self-sufficient, improve their English skills and socialize within and outside their ethnic community. Upon arrival, and sometimes long after, refugee women tend to limit their interactions to their family unit. Therefore, the WEP fosters relationships among women of common cultural and language groups, as well as with the American staff. It is important to note that part of the refugee women’s daily challenges are undeniably due to their difficulty in relying on the kind of female support-group they had before migrating. In this sense, the WEP provides multiple opportunities for building new relationships, as well as for minimizing some of the apprehensions they may have about American women’s more liberal values.

The WEP does not constitute a core service mandated by the U.S. government. Consequently, like most non-core social programs, it has and continues to face a number of challenges, such as inconsistency and uncertainty in funding, high staff-turnover, and disjointed guidelines and goals. Yet, beyond core services, non-core social programs are essential to refugee’s resettlement, as surely the social and economic acts of “settling down,” “settling into” and making a “home” all take place beyond the first 30-90 days. It is fair to assume that once their most basic physical needs have been met, refugees throughout the U.S. struggle with the more socially complex and personal aspects of resettlement, which non-core services can fill the gap for.

Particularly, more refugee women-focused awareness and social programs are needed nationally and internationally, as the struggles of women in resettlement are specific and acute. The WEP constitutes one program among just a handful of similar ones in the U.S. However, with the current U.S. administration’s executive orders to reduce the number of refugee arrivals by more than half, and the uncertainty of what the following three presidential years will bring, these social programs may be under threat. Though non-core social programs are not guaranteed direct funding by the government, the government’s reduced allocated funding and diminished interest in receiving refugees into the U.S. could certainly lead non-core services to be deemed as “superfluous” and outside of priorities.

In fact, the presidential cuts in numbers and the uncertainty of the refugee national program has already led to freezing hires and staff realignment in larger agencies, and to the closure of numerous small resettlement agencies throughout the U.S. For the Women’s Empowerment Program in Arizona, the reduced number of refugee arrivals has inevitably led to lower class attendance and renewals, which constitutes a clear detriment to the positive impact the program can bring to newly arriving and already participating women. Lastly, there is a potential that the kind of governmental grants that Refugee Focus received to create the WEP in 2008, as well as the charitable donations received since, will no longer be renewed or be discontinued as support for refugees may be deemed as nationally unpopular and undesirable.

On the other hand, Refugee Focus has also received an increase in volunteer inquiries in reaction to the U.S. administration’s actions and views towards refugees. Therefore, the hope for the future is that increased awareness and participation from the general population may provide the kind of support needed to maintain non-core social programs and to better understand refugee women’s particular needs. For surely, when one particular vulnerable population is being targeted, we must be concerned about what will happen to the most vulnerable individuals within this population.


Charlotte Shurtz
Native to Paris, Charlotte moved to the United States at the age of 19, and then to the U.K. at the age of 24. She holds a Master's degree from the University of Oxford, where she became particularly interested in refugees, while studying diasporas and transnationalism. Since obtaining her degree, Charlotte has worked with refugees and asylum seekers in the Campsfield detention center near Oxford, bringing storytelling to them to offer a distraction from their difficult situation and hoping to bring their story “outside” and foster awareness. In the last year, Charlotte has been teaching computer literacy and leadership skills to refugee women at the NGO Refugee Focus, in Phoenix, Arizona and has raised funds to create a Driving Education project for the refugee women at the same organization. Currently, Charlotte is an Adjunct Instructor in Anthropology at Chandler-Gilbert Community College.

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