Student Newswire of The University of Arizona School of Journalism

Arizona Sonoran News

Arizona Sonoran News

Student Newswire of The University of Arizona School of Journalism

Arizona Sonoran News

A women-led organization empowers Tucson’s refugee community

Afaf+Hasan+talks+to+a+visitor+while+selling+homemade+citrus+sweets+at+the+Mission+Garden+in+Tucson%2C+Ariz.+on+Feb.+9%2C+2024.+ELFA+collaborated+with+the+Mission+Garden+to+table+at+its+%E2%80%9CTasting+History%E2%80%9D+event.
Summer Williams
Afaf Hasan talks to a visitor while selling homemade citrus sweets at the Mission Garden in Tucson, Ariz. on Feb. 9, 2024. ELFA collaborated with the Mission Garden to table at its “Tasting History” event.

ELFA Refugee Empowerment works with the women and families within the refugee community in Southern Arizona through building and fostering community. The organization plans to reopen at the beginning of the summer after pausing classes and events since March in recognition of Ramadan.

Around nine years ago, after dozens of Syrian refugee families settled in Tucson, the president of ELFA, Rania Kanawati, started the non-profit with the hope of empowering refugees struggling with depression and homesickness.

“We help and support the refugees, especially women and children, through learning,” said Kanawati.

Photo courtesy of ELFA

Kanawati said ELFA aids refugees with resources and opportunities to learn to support and empower themselves in their new communities. The volunteer board and cohort include women from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and skill sets.

“I’m originally from Syria,” said Kanawati. “I came here as a student with my husband.”

“I’m from Palestine, Jordan,” said Afaf Hassan, a volunteer with ELFA. “I come here with my husband and my family since six years ago.”

“I’ve been in Tucson about 17 years,” said Mary Schlimgen, another volunteer with ELFA. “I wanted to get very heavily involved in volunteer work once I retired, and I decided this is the avenue I wanted to do because it was in such dire need.”

They teach women English classes and baking and help them start their own businesses. They also host art classes, like painting and drawing, for youth. Sometimes, they help men find jobs through connections with local businesses.

Courtesy of ELFA
Courtesy of ELFA

Hassan has volunteered with ELFA for four years, helping at events, distributing resources, and meeting with people. She also tries to bring her kids with her to volunteer.

“You know, if I can help, I will help,” said Hassan. “And this is very important for me also, to teach my kids these values.”

Courtesy of ELFA

​​Some volunteers meet people in their homes to assist with various needs, such as translating, appointments, furnishing, and finding jobs. Mary Schlimgen’s preference for small, local businesses and organizations drew her to ELFA, where she often volunteers over 20 hours a week.

“You know, I’m helping the family get comfortable here, get stabilized, do all of that for eventually them, you know, to keep building,” said Schlimgen.

Courtesy of ELFA

ELFA works with refugees from countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Somalia who become part of this new community. Volunteers share resources, aid, and sometimes meals with the families and women so they can work toward supporting themselves, their families and their community.

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About the Contributor
Summer Williams
Summer Williams, Photographer
Summer is in her second year at the University of Arizona, pursuing a B.A. in Journalism. She is focusing in photojournalism, multimedia, and environmental journalism. Her desire to capture the world and communicate through her camera comes from having moved several times, which formed habits of curiosity, creativity, and exploration. Summer aims to document the stories around her and give others a space to be seen and heard through her work.
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