A woman to woman welcome in Tucson
Chandra Sangrula, an IRC well-being promoter, welcomes fellow Bhutanese refugee Dhana Thapa to Tucson with an IRC welcome basket. “I’m happy that we can talk about anything,” Thapa says. (Photo: Peter Biro/IRC)
By Peter Biro
Arriving in a new country as a refugee can be a daunting experience. How do you navigate a sprawling American city, make an appointment with a doctor or enroll your children in school? For women refugees, the adjustment can be especially difficult. Women often find themselves isolated at home looking after their children but without the extended social network and family support they had in their home country.
In Tucson, Arizona, the International Rescue Committee is employing female refugees to welcome newly-arrived refugee women to the community and help them to begin new lives in America.
Chandra Sangrula, 32, resettled in Tucson with the aid of the IRC in 2009. She had spent the previous 18 years living in a refugee camp in Nepal after being expelled from her native country of Bhutan for being a member of a persecuted minority group.
“I felt lost when I first came to America,” she says. “I didn’t know my way around and learning the language was a big problem.”
Sangrula had been a teacher in the refugee camp and the IRC was quick to enlist her to work for its Well-Being Promotion Program. As a well-being promoter, she personally visits every newly arrived Bhutanese refugee woman when they arrive in Tucson.
“I inform them about everything that is new to them,” Sangrula says. “If someone is sad or if they need to talk about their problems or a traumatic experience, I can refer them to an IRC counselor or to other help.”
Chandra Sangrula personally visits every newly arrived Bhutanese refugee woman when they arrive in Tucson. (Photo: Peter Biro/IRC)
Every year, the IRC resettles some 350 refugees in Tucson from countries including Bhutan, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan. Every newly arrived female refugee is matched with a well-being promoter who speaks their language and shares their culture and experiences. The Well-Being Promotion Program was inspired by promotoras—grass roots community health workers who work within their communities to serve rural and poor people. Promotoras are increasingly active in a number of Southwestern states including Arizona.
In addition to providing refugee women with basic information about such things as health care and nutrition, well-being promoters teach refugees how to navigate the social service and health care systems. They also serve as advocates and all-around morale boosters. During a first visit to a refugee family’s home, a well-being promoter will present a “welcome basket,” containing hygiene products, maps, children’s books and other items that every family member can use.
Aaron Grigg, who oversees mental health services for the IRC in Tucson, says that some refugees need more time and support to adjust to their new circumstances than others. This is especially true for women and those who have suffered extreme trauma.
“Our promoters understand the stress that is involved in establishing a new life in a new country,” Grigg says. “The promoters we train have already gone through a similar experience and are able to inform and comfort newcomers in their own language. Like a friend would.”