I sat, captivated, at a stoplight off Osborn Road as they crossed the street in front of my car. Flowing fabrics full of life, vibrant and sharp, creating a kaleidoscope of color rich with the brightest of yellows and deepest of reds. I turned down my radio so I could hear their laughter escape from wide smiles of white against coal black skin. Accented by the sound of their worn flip-flops hitting the heated Phoenix asphalt, their movement created an intonation that spoke of purpose, confidence. In all their beauty, they were three young refugee women, including one whose profile was defined by a small, swaddled weight on her back.
In the space between a red and a green light, I lost my sense of time. The scene triggered an unexpected and visceral response in me as my eyes brimmed with tears. I was ushered back to a time when I had, months earlier, watched figures like these with similar admiration. Women who walked across the dusty swallows of a refugee camp, gathering water in tattered jerry cans as their heels kicked up clouds of dry Sudanese dirt around them. In the noonday sun, the brilliant colors of their dresses punctuated the barren landscape with stunning contrast then as they did today. In my mind, the parallels were striking.
In the noonday sun, the brilliant colors of their dresses punctuated the barren landscape with stunning contrast.
The stoplight changed and my eyes refocused. They went along their way, unaware of my silent spectating, and I was left with the colliding encounter of a profound memory and a fleeting, present moment.
I had recently returned to Phoenix from a season overseas, and the longing for something meaningful to connect with from a world I sorely missed was exposed during moments like these. I pulled over and grabbed a stained Dunkin’ Donuts napkin from my glove box (where all great ideas are scribed), and wrote down two words: serve and refugee.
The next day, I called Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest (LSS-SW) to see how I could volunteer within the refugee community. This is where I met Jacqueline “Jacqui” Mounce, who heads up the women’s empowerment program called Refugee Focus, a division of LSS-SW.
Phoenix is the melting pot of the Southwest, and engaging with the refugee community offers a wealth of opportunities to learn about culture, conflict, and the realization of how fortunate we are.
Jacqui’s love of culture began when she was young, as the daughter of a professor who frequently traveled internationally for his work. Her interests led her to pursue roles that included training and education, and an eventual master’s degree at Thunderbird School of Global Management. But it was during a stint in Haiti as a volunteer, which she describes as a “defining time in my life,” that she became very interested in economic development and women’s empowerment issues. After a recent assignment adjunct teaching in the Masters of Public Health program at Washington University, she decided it was time to get back to her heart’s work.
“In many ways, this role within Refugee Focus is my perfect fit, combining everything I’ve done in my past,” she describes. “This was that opportunity I had been searching for to work with cultural diversity, locally.”
Phoenix sets the perfect stage for culture-rich encounters, welcoming more than 3,000 refugees a year to resettle and make their home here. This past July, Refugee Focus welcomed around 130 refugees in one month—the most in its history.
A foundational aspect of Jacqui’s work is increasing the visibility and understanding of what the refugee community has to offer a city like Phoenix. “Phoenix is the melting pot of the Southwest, and engaging with the refugee community offers a wealth of opportunities to learn about culture, conflict, and the realization of how fortunate we are,” she shares.
But Jacqui recognizes that a large part of embracing Phoenix’s refugee presence is educating others on what a refugee is compared to an immigrant. “A refugee has been forced to flee. It is not a choice for them. An immigrant makes a conscious decision,” Jacqui explains. Taking the time to understand the refugee experience dispels common misconceptions, and affords people with a new lens to see refugees as a viable and critical part of Phoenix’s changing economic landscape. “Refugees offer huge economic impact for Phoenix. There are many successful refugee-owned businesses because someone valued the importance of helping them integrate into our culture.”
Refugee women, in particular, arrive in large cities like Phoenix often after escaping unspeakable tragedies and have little to no knowledge of how their skills and experience can transfer into gainful marketability—especially when language barriers and lack of support networks enter the equation.
This is where people like Jacqui and programs like Refugee Focus enter in. Through offering refugee women the ability to take part in “incubator” programming, they rotate through a process of learning and skill development in areas like sewing, childcare, nutrition, and small business training. Individualized pathways are created in collaboration with community businesses so that when prepared, these women can be considered qualified candidates for job openings. Jacqui and her team also integrate focus groups and evaluative tools to ensure they are regularly listening to their clients’ needs.
The goal for each refugee is the same: to bridge the gap from benefit to self-sufficiency and ultimately increase their economic viability.
Jacqui’s intuitive connection to her work has bolstered the program’s success and created an environment conducive to distilling individual potential of each woman she comes alongside. Her goal for each is the same: to bridge the gap from benefit to self-sufficiency and ultimately increase their economic viability. Yet her humility and the emphasis she places on the relational aspect of her work are the unsung elements that make it all come alive. “My inspiration comes from them. Every idea I have, it’s all from them. Truly, they are my role models,” Jacqui says with sincerity.
I see this first-hand the day I come to an “upcycle” workshop she is leading, which trains women to turn discarded jewelry into repurposed goods for profit. She walks into the room and the mood changes; her gentle disposition seems to have gone before her to settle silently over the cluttered space. Mara Yan’s face softens into a smile, her eyes clearly reflecting the recognition of a friend as Jacqui leans by her to offer words of encouragement.
A Burmese refugee, Mara Yan has been in the United States for almost eight years and has quickly moved through the advanced levels of sewing classes that Refugee Focus offers. She is one of the model women in the program, having recently been hired as a seamstress at a local apparel business.
“Jacqui is not just my teacher. She is my friend,” Mara Yan says in a peaceful voice. Rosy, also a Burmese refugee, sits across from Mara Yan and nods in agreement. It’s quiet, and under the hum of the fluorescent lights their fingers skillfully string bright beads and charms until they take the form of a lanyard. A Congolese refugee named Bingi looks up at me every so often, the endearing gap in the front two teeth of her smile making its appearance as she proudly holds up the efforts of her work.
Although the class has been over for 30 minutes, they don’t want to leave. I don’t want to leave, either. It’s a safe space here and you can feel it. My heart is at rest listening to the hushed movement of their hands, sorting and stringing, accompanied every so often by a release of laughter and a shared thought in a native tongue.
Jacqui’s final thought offers a perfect punctuation to this scene. “Really, the most important part of this is the happiness of the women involved. If they reach the point where we can prepare them to move into work they want to do and get hired by small business owners who will recognize their value, it’s a true win-win.”
She pauses and smiles. “And that’s what this is all about.”
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