Housing Volunteer, Sylvia, poses for photo in the IRC office.
Photo: Nisha Datt for the IRC

A Daughter of Immigrants 

“I've always felt fortunate living in this country, with all the opportunities available to us," said Housing Support volunteer Sylvia Engeln. As a daughter of immigrants, Sylvia recalls some challenges her parents faced as they built their lives in Clinton, a small town in New Jersey, which had a population of 2,000 people at the time. "My parents came from Germany in the 1950s, and although they weren't refugees, I saw as a child what it was like for them to try to adapt to a new country," she shared.  

Although Sylvia's parents never struggled financially, having owned a bakery and being landlords, there was a significant language barrier. "I went to Catholic school, and I remember coming home and not understanding my homework assignment -- they couldn't help me with it," she expressed. After receiving a Bachelor's degree in Business from Fairleigh Dickinson University, Sylvia moved to Arizona in 1992, where she received her Master's degree in Counseling from the University of Phoenix.  

Volunteering at the IRC 

Sylvia handled psychiatric malpractice claims in the insurance industry for over 25 years. When she retired six years ago, Sylvia wanted to find ways to give back. Through her research, she discovered the International Rescue Committee. "It just felt like a fit for me because I had seen what my parents went through, and I couldn't imagine what it was like for people coming out of crises to come here and have to adapt to a new culture, new communities," she said.  

As the Housing Support Volunteer, Sylvia was initially out in the community building relationships with landlords in the Phoenix area. She then transitioned to looking for financial support for our clients at low-income properties and conducting apartment inspections. Sylvia was warned about the difficulties she would encounter and admits, "It was a little bit of a challenge – most apartment complexes [now] are corporate-owned rather than mom and pop businesses so it’s hard to convince somebody who you can’t sit down with face-to-face." Now, Sylvia works with the housing team to help secure financial support for clients. 

Despite the challenges, Sylvia's driving force stems from her immense gratitude and belief that everyone deserves a roof over their heads -- a place to call their own. "I just feel like everybody has the right to live in a safe, clean home -- they need a safe haven for them to go to," she expressed.  

Having volunteered with the IRC for a little over a year now, Sylvia enjoys being able to support our team and clients and the flexibility she has. She dedicates 6-8 hours a week to volunteering. "What impressed me the most was the dedication of the people working here -- [The housing team] always makes time to support me if I need support. They're just great to work with!" she shared. 

Housing Volunteer, Sylvia, feeding a rescue elephant named Laduma in Zimbabwe.
Sylvia feeds baby elephant, Laduma, at eleCREW, which is an elephant sanctuary in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. She was rescued from the wild as a baby after her mother was killed by poachers.
Photo: Photo courtesy of Sylvia Engeln

Fulfilling her passion for  travel 

When Sylvia is not volunteering, she enjoys planning immersive trips around the world! Having visited around 30 countries, her experience in Southern Africa moved her. "Some places you visit inspire you mentally because of the history, but something about Africa inspires your soul, so it's hard to put it in words," she said. From visiting an elephant sanctuary in Zimbabwe to exploring the varied terrain in Zambia and Johannesburg, Sylvia left feeling inspired, hoping to return soon. Her travels serve as a reminder that even though "we may come from very different parts of the world, we are all connected," she added. 

The IRC's willingness to work with Sylvia's schedule allows her to experience the perks of retirement and serve others at a pace that works for her. "That's rewarding to me, especially coming from a corporate environment I worked in my whole life. I almost feel like I finally have come home in a sense. It took 60-some years, but at least I am here!" she said. 

Counting on community 

In Arizona, we are experiencing a housing crisis, which is the single most significant barrier for refugees and other newcomers rebuilding their lives in our community. Our Housing program and volunteers like Sylvia are doing all they can to provide immediate support to clients at risk of being unhoused.  

We've created a Soft Landing Fund to support refugees and immigrants who hope to make Tucson their new home through: 

  1. Housing and Rental Costs 
  2. Utilities 
  3. Emergency Housing Support 

Help give the gift of shelter to our newest neighbors by donating to our Soft Landing Fund today. Donating to this fund, will establish a safety net for families working towards self-sufficiency. "We're talking about our neighbors here, in essence -- the more help they can get, the more they can contribute to the community, economically, socially, and in every way possible," Sylvia explained. 

Housing Volunteer, Sylvia, visits school in Zimbabwe and takes a photo with the students.
Sylvia in a photo with students she met during a school visit in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. "We may come from very different parts of the world, but we are all connected!"
Photo: Photo courtesy of Sylvia Engeln