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Arizona's Neglected Immigrants -- African Elders

Thanks to scarce jobs, transportation barriers and generational conflicts, many African elders are struggling in Arizona.
 
 
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While Arizona is a hotbed for immigration issues, concerns about aging African immigrants and refugees in Phoenix don’t always garner the same attention as the much larger Latino population.

This article is the first in an occasional series of three articles for PhxSoul.com conceived and produced as a project for New America Media’s Ethnic Elders News Fellowship, supported by The Atlantic Philanthropies.

While Arizona continues to make headlines as a hotbed for immigration issues, concerns about African immigrants in Phoenix do not always garner the same attention afforded to the larger Latino population, or the predominant African American community.

African immigrants residing in the Metropolitan Phoenix—many of them refugees resettled here by the U.S. government--are a compact pan-African group of less than 20,000, according to the 2008 American Community Survey. They enrich Phoenix culture from an impressive array of nations, from West Africa (Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria to East (Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia), and from the central continent (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Tanzania), to South Africa—plus many other countries.

Life in this arid new land is especially trying for many older African immigrants. They find themselves far from often strife-ridden homelands, unable to find work and facing barriers of language and mobility. Adding to their stress are daily confrontations with a generation of Americanized children, who seem to turn traditional values upside down.

Although immigrants constitute an underwhelming 4.3 percent portion of the total black population of the Valley of the Sun region, they continue to raise families, start businesses and establish themselves in Phoenix. They also face the daunting challenges of transportation, language and eldercare.

Among the African immigrants in the Valley, the main population increase has come from refugees escaping brutal circumstances at home. According to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, the overall refugee population in Arizona more than doubled from 2006 to 2009 to 4,327.

Refugees resettled in the Phoenix area are not only from multiple African countries, but include large numbers from Iraq and Burma, as well as other strife-torn nations.

Jobs Are Scarce

The recession is having a strong impact on employment for Arizona’s refugees. Finding jobs for immigrants is a primary concern for the state-contracted refugee resettlement agencies, which bring a large portion of Africans to the Valley.

Only one in three of people in the refugee caseload entered the workforce in 2009, the lowest level in three years for the Office for Refugee Resettlement. Those who landed work received an average hourly wage of $7.17.

Job placement was particularly tough for non-English speakers. At the AZ Lost Boys Center, outreach coordinator Tap Dak said the program is developing English as a second language (ESL) classes for the organization’s service population of Sudanese immigrants.

“Lost Boys” is the term for the generation of Sudanese refugees orphaned and dislocated by religious and ethnic conflict since the mid-1980s. Since 2001, the U.S government has resettled many of them to Phoenix and other American cities.

Dak said the center is examining whether to start a training program for stay-at-home seniors. “We want to get elders a daycare worker's license, but with state requirements and liability, we're still looking at how that will work,” he explained.

Transportation Barriers Isolate Many

High unemployment among African immigrants and refugees also reflects their difficulty getting to and from work.

“Transportation definitely impacts a lot of people here,” acknowledges Lorraine Stewart, chief operating officer of the Maricopa County Area Agency on Aging.

Stewart states that there have been great strides in affordable housing and that support for elders is particularly strong within the religious community. She stressed, “But without transportation, elders can become extremely isolated.”