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ARC Changes the Lives of Refugees and Makes a Difference in the Community

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Every little bit counts.

Every stroke of a helping hand, every flicker of friendliness, and every soul determined to transform a person’s life—that’s what the Arizona Resource Connection, better known as ARC, is all about.

ARC began with the idea of helping local refugees better assimilate to American culture. Between 6,000 and 10,000 refugees currently reside in the Pima County area, having traveled from countries across the globe, many with roots in Africa and Asia.

Tucson serves as a large refugee resettlement area since the weather is warm and the cost of living is relatively low in comparison to other locations.

It's also because Tucson “is a multicultural environment. There are already people here of many different ethnicities, races, colors and different forms of dress, so it’s felt that refugees will be accepted here in the community,” said Dr. Cindi Gilliland, University of Arizona senior lecturer and founder of ARC.

Gilliland began working with refugees and Tucson refugee resettlement agencies years ago. She noticed that many of the refugees and their families needed essential, basic tools to build and improve their lives.

“If you can imagine: your entire family getting put down in the middle of Bhutan or someplace where you maybe don’t speak the language or probably don’t know much about the culture. You have elders with healthcare needs, you have adults who need to find jobs to support the family, you’ve got teenagers who need to go to school and want to have some fun, too,” said Gilliland.

“I saw all of these needs and thought, ‘My business students are developing a lot of skills and abilities that they could really put to use to make a positive difference in the community and help with the acculturation process for the refugees.”

The very first ARC event involved helping a local refugee agency manage a Refugee Community Connections Fair. There, refugees sought advice on job hunting, healthcare needs and receiving help by calling 911. Thousands of donations in diapers and hygiene kits were collected for the families as well.

Gilliland recruited the help of UA students, most of whom are in the Eller College of Management, to aid her in her quest to give back.

Now, there are more than 50 students involved with ARC.

Through ARC, these students are able to apply concepts learned in the classroom to real, genuine situations. They're getting a hands-on experience.

They’re doing things like partnering up with programs to teach refugees how to find jobs and build resumes. They’re helping refugee resettlement agencies with marketing, accounting and overall business structures. They’re helping refugees build life-long connections and skills.

“It gives students a real-world business experience outside the classroom, and that’s why it’s really cool,” remarked Max Goshert, ARC marketing executive and UA marketing student. “One of my favorite things about Eller is that it gives you so many opportunities to work in the real-world, to receive real-world experiences.”

And the experiences keep on coming.

The GiveBack KickBack, ARC’s big fall event hosted on University Boulevard, has already raised about $18,000 in the two years of its existence. Gilliland calls it “a street party with a purpose.”

John Akuar, a UA graduate, had a vision to give back to his community through this event. As one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, Akuar has never had it easy. When he was just eight years old, he was forced to flee from his home in Abul, Sudan when the Sudanese armies invaded his village.

Akuar traveled hundreds of miles across Africa, ending up at a refugee camp in Kenya. Ultimately, he was able to come to the United States and study at the UA.

“Just hearing his stories about what he had to go through, and how he had to flee his hometown and leave all of his family and everyone behind, and ending up here, it’s inspirational,” said Matt Bridgewater, ARC president and UA economics student.

“He didn’t get to go home until about 15 years later, just to find out his mom died. Just understanding what he went through, and what he’s going through, being able to shake his hand and see his was pretty cool and something that has really inspired me.”

In Akuar’s village of Abul, there were 2,000 people living with no electricity, no local school, and no water source closer than five miles away. The women and young girls spent all day traveling back and forth from their houses to the distant muddy ditch, just to bring water back to the village.

The first GiveBack Kick Back in 2010 earned about $16,000—enough to change the lives of Akuar’s friends and family.

“That was enough money to drill a hand pump well in the village of Abul,” said Gilliland. “Right in the center of the village, so now there is access to clean, running water. Our next goal is building a school building, and now that the girls are freed from their water trips, they will be able to go to school with their brothers.”

“It was really cool because I had done all this work, and my team had worked so hard, but we never actually met the guy who inspired us to do this work,” said Goshert. “It was really cool to finally meet him.”

ARC’s largest cause is helping the people in Abul, but the organization is constantly brainstorming new ideas that might make a difference in the community.

Just this past Tuesday, Jerry Schuster, a graduate of the Eller MBA program, began a 48-hour run on the UA mall in which he stopped only to eat and use the bathroom. Last year, Schuster ran about 150 miles.

“He wanted to use his runs as a way to symbolize the plight and the flight of refugees from their home country,” said Gilliland.

ARC is also focusing on a bike-drive event, which will take place on April 14.

“We get bikes, we refurbish them, and we give them to refugees,” said Bridgewater. “We give them bike safety instructions to help them get around town, to school or to anything like that.”

Since many refugees work night shifts, they aren’t able to use the Sun Tran or other low-cost forms of transportation to get around town.

“Our goal is to help refugees become self-sufficient,” said Gilliland. “That’s one tool for increasing their involvement in their community and their ability to navigate the streets.”

Goshert helped organize “Swimmers from Abroad,” a program in which five Phoenix-area high school students gathered earlier this week to locate local refugee children who do not know how to swim.

Now, these children have the opportunity to learn.

“We’re expanding the scope, and we’re doing it in very different ways,” commented Goshert. “This program will go until about the middle of May.”

He’s also involved in a research project with other Eller students. Their plan is to distribute surveys to almost 100 Southern Tucson businesses to determine if help from a student team would benefit the businesses.

That’s the neat thing about ARC. The students are going above and beyond helping local refugees. They’re helping the entire community.

ARC has raised about $25,000 over the past few years, but since the money goes directly to helping others, the organization operates on a tight budget.

“But, every semester, we get more teams of students who come with willing hands and open hearts and good minds and willing to make things work,” said Gilliland.

For Gilliland, one of the most important triumphs from her work is meeting new people and developing connections with them and their families.

About five years ago, she met an extended Bhutanese family consisting of five siblings, spouses and children, and parents. The family was approved for U.S. resettlement in stages, but now, Gilliland is closer to them than ever.


“They have enriched my life immeasurably, not only just through the emotional connections to them, which are very precious, very dear to me, but also learning about other ways to live,” Gilliland said. “And I feel like I’ve learned some spiritual lessons from them as well.”

She also said that she’s learned a lot from her own students.

“Some people say business students just want to make millions of dollars, and that has not been my experience at all in teaching,” she said. “The students involved in ARC are some of the smartest, but also kindest, and most loving, people that I know.”

“We’re trying to better the community,” said Bridgewater. “We’ve already made a successful impact on the community, and we look forward to continuing that in the future.”

Anyone who wants to become more involved is welcome, and there’s more information available on the ARC website.

“A lot of our projects have a non-traditional means of helping society,” commented Goshert. “It teaches everyone the importance of giving back to our community; the importance of helping your society in ways nobody realized existed.”

Written by Lauren Inouye

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