Nearly 7 million people call Arizona home. And within the 114,000 square miles of the state, diverse tongues, skin colors and cultural groups as diverse as the Syrian, Polish and Vietnamese communities are present.
Arizonans listed 96 different ethnic groups as their ancestral background, according to the 2016 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau. 27.1% of Arizonans speak a language other than English.
While the Latino culture is the most predominant in the southern state, cultures from Europe, Asia and the Middle East remain hidden to the public eye.
Over five thousand miles separate Poland and Vietnam with Syria in between. Though each cultural group faces its own difficulties with transitioning to the U.S., the groups are linked by strong family ties and active communities in the diverse state of Arizona.
When Mohammed Al Zoubani was eight years old, he was scared all the time. He had a different life than most eight-year olds. He wasn’t worried about school or making friends. He was worried about survival.
“I was scared all the time,” he said. “We can’t sleep. We’re scared any time they hit us. We were really young, we didn’t want to die.”
Mohammed is Syrian. He used to live in Daraa, a southwestern city in Syria that borders Jordan, which is widely regarded as having an important role in the Arab Spring protests that sought to bring down President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
One day in 2011, after classes had ended, Mohammed started hearing gunshots and bombs outside. These weren’t foreign sounds for him. He had to rush back to school along with his family for protection.
His mother Bashm, his two older brothers, his younger sister and about 55 other families were all locked in the bottom floor of his school for four days with little food and vital supplies.
A few months after the ordeal, the family moved to Jordan, where Mohammed´s father, Mamoun, worked.
Mohammed wept as he left his childhood home.
“I can’t explain that feeling. I was sad and I was crying. My dad was in our house and started yelling at me, saying we were coming back some day. I’m still waiting for that day to come,” he said.
The Al Zoubani family lived in Jordan for three years. Then, they received a letter from the International Rescue Committee asking them to apply for refugee status.
They moved to Phoenix in 2015, after an exhaustive interview process consisting on multiple interviews and background checks that lasted a little over a year.
The IRC’s mission is to help relocate and reestablish refugees, asylees, victims of human trafficking, survivors of torture, and other immigrants to thrive in America.
The IRC is one of four refugee resettlement programs in Maricopa County.
And it’s not easy going through what most of the refugees usually experience when applying for refugee status, Development Manager for the International Rescue Committee Nicolle Walker said.
“Resilience. When you try to put yourself in their shoes, and you hear some of the stories of what they’ve gone through, I would just want to curl up and stay in bed,” she said.
The refugee vetting process involves up to six government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and may last up to 36 months.
The Syrian civil war has caused an estimated death toll of 400,000, according to a 2016 United Nations report.
Children represent nearly half of all refugee arrivals in Phoenix between June 2016 and May 2017, according to the IRC.
Mohammed is currently a 15-year old freshman at McClintock High School in Mesa, Arizona.
The first few months weren’t a breeze for him. He was suspended for eight days after hitting a student for insulting his family. “You can kill me, but do not say anything about my mom,” he said.
But things have turned around for the Al Zoubani family.
Mohammed, who is now practically fluent in English, started to call himself Don when he first arrived in the country. No one could pronounce his name, so he watched an American YouTube video and took the simplest name he could find.
His mother, Bashm, is one of the owners and operators of Syrian Sweets, a Mesa-based Syrian bakery that sells baklava and other Middle Eastern desserts.
She cooks the sweets in her own home, putting on a one-woman show in a small kitchen, along with the help of her family, and they sell them at the Phoenix Public Market on Saturdays.
“Our goal, it has to be, is self-sufficiency,” Walker said.
While self-sufficiency can be a slow process, some cultural groups, such as the Polish community, experience fewer transitional struggles when arriving to the United States.
When Klaudia Jurewicz decided to apply for her green card and received the letter from the U.S. Embassy to come to America, the transition was relatively painless.
Her mother, who lived in Chicago for many years, recently retired and moved to Phoenix. Klaudia already knew English and felt comfortable with American culture.
She arrived in the U.S. in late 2010 from Suwałki, a town in northeastern Poland.
As soon as she landed, her mother immediately told her she had been signed up as a volunteer for the Polish Festival at Our Lady of Częstochowa Catholic Church in Phoenix.
“Our Lady of Częstochowa Church is the glue that keeps the Polish community together,” Jurewicz said.
Our Lady of Częstochowa Parish in Phoenix is the only fully active Polish-speaking church in the state.
It is also where most of the Polish community in the Valley gathers for a variety of organizations including religious groups, a Polish Sunday school, Polish language school and annual Polish Festival.
The Polish culture will change in the next 15 years because the most active group in the Polish community, the senior citizens, will be aging, Arizona State University Instructional Designer Sylwia Cavalcant said.
“They will be dying. Then we will lose this strong perspective, this strong meaning of Poland,” she said.
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Phoenix, Arizona is ranked the eighth-largest city with people of Polish ancestry with 32,050 people, 2.4% of the population.
The 2016 American Community Survey reported that 45,168 people in the state of Arizona claim Polish as their single ancestry. Of the 39 European groups identified in the survey, Polish ranked the fifth-highest in Arizona.
While the older generation strongly carries the Polish culture, particularly with Polish Roman Catholic traditions such as the Easter basket blessing or the Christmas Eve dinner, called Wigilia, Jurewicz said she was impressed by the youth in the community.
“I think the community here is strong, and it’s changing, and I think that’s great,” she said. “There are more younger people joining the community and being active.”
For 15 years, the John Paul II Polish Catholic Saturday School at Our Lady of Częstochowa Parish has been teaching Polish children in the community about their heritage through Polish language, history and religion.
Learning Polish language is important because Polish children living in the U.S. are constantly exposed to English with day-to-day interactions. Without structured lessons, they can lose their Polish language skills, kindergarten teacher at the school for the past ten years, Joanna Dub, said.
“This is the country that their parents, grandparents come from, and it’s very important to know their roots,” Dub said.
One student in the school, Edyta, is in the highest level of language classes offered. She said learning Polish is important to her because her parents only speak Polish at home, and she is able to talk with her relatives back in Poland.
“It’s just a nice way to go to my Polish self,” she said.
Another religious center present in the Polish community is the St. Cyril of Alexandria Church in Tucson, which offers a monthly Polish Mass for the smaller but very active Polish community.
Joanna Schmidt, an immigrant from the Polish capital of Warsaw, participates in the Polish choir at St. Cyril and said that the monthly Polish mass is always filled.
“I think the Polish culture is focused around family and the Church,” Schmidt said. “You want to teach with traditions and bonding families and generations. Teaching the kids the culture helps you to teach them about your roots and where they are coming from.”
That was Schmidt’s hope when she created Lajkonik, the Polish folk dance ensemble in Tucson, which started in 1998. She was looking for a way to get her two young sons immersed in their Polish culture.
Schmidt’s son, Matthew, has danced with Lajkonik since its inception. Now at 25 years old, he carries on the group’s legacy as the new instructor of the group.
“It’s a way to get young people involved in the community and bring people together,” Schmidt said. “Without something in common to do, I doubt the young Poles in Tucson would hang out this much.”
Strong community bonds aren’t exclusive to the Polish community in Arizona. When maintaining cultural identity, there is a country from Southeast Asia whose culture permeates the Grand Canyon State.
Vietnamese Americans like Andrew Cao have been first-hand witnesses of the many struggles and disadvantages that minorities face here in America.
Andrew’s parents are considered part of the “boat people,” a wave of 2 million refugees who fled Vietnam to escape communism.
Cao said that being first generation means having to shoulder the generational gap that they are disadvantaged with due to their upbringing.
He also said that many shy away from identifying themselves as Vietnamese Americans because they don’t want to be different from everyone else. Upon arrival in the United States, many Vietnamese migrants faced discrimination for not learning the English language and were forced into assimilation training to help them adjust to life in America.
Currently, there are over 29,000 people residing in Arizona who report Vietnamese as their single ancestry, according to the 2016 American Community Survey, making them the fourth- largest Asian group in Arizona.
According to the UN Population Division, the U.S. is the top destination country for Vietnamese migrants.
The Vietnamese refugee crisis began soon after the Vietnam War ended in the mid-1970s, eventually leading to the development of change to U.S. refugee policy.
The crisis started in 1975 when an estimated 130,000 Vietnamese refugees were airlifted by the U.S. government to bases in the Philippines, Wake Island and Guam. From there, they were transferred to refugee centers in the U.S. to receive cultural training in order to help them get acquainted to their new lives.
Many immigrants, especially in the second wave of migration, often lacked education and skills, which made assimilation even more challenging.
However, they discovered ways to make a living through entrepreneurial methods.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, Vietnamese immigrants participate in the labor force at a slightly higher rate than the overall immigrant and native-born populations.
Some of the biggest ways that the Vietnamese community maintains their culture is through family and tradition.
“I feel like with the Vietnamese culture, and with a lot of Asian cultures, it’s very family-oriented. It’s really important to stay in touch with your family, keeping your family close together both figuratively and literally,” Vietnamese American student Amy Le said.
A unique way the Vietnamese celebrate their strong family bonds is through the holidays they celebrate together, the biggest one being Tet.
Tet is a three-day holiday that celebrates the New Year, in accordance with the lunar calendar. “It’s a way to give back to the community, to our family and to our ancestors especially,” Le said.
Le said that Tet is especially important to the Vietnamese community because it means new crops and starting over essentially.
“Whether or not you’re an immigrant, you’re going to end up celebrating it somehow, and growing up, that was the one holiday I always remembered and looked forward to,” Le said.
Even though most Vietnamese families are close-knit and try their best at keeping their traditions alive, Le admitted that sometimes it’s hard to maintain their culture.
“Not having other Vietnamese people around made it really difficult. I became very Americanized, or I was interested in other cultures that weren’t my own but once I found people that were a part of my culture, it made things a lot easier.”
She also mentioned how language plays a key role in staying in touch with one’s culture.
“Growing up, I always just spoke English and so during all those years, I lost touch with what it meant to be Vietnamese,” Le said.
Le said there were not many Vietnamese Americans in the schools she attended. It wasn’t until she enrolled at ASU that she discovered the VSA - Vietnamese Student Association - where she could connect with her culture.
She said once she started taking Vietnamese classes, she started embracing her culture more than she ever did before.
Syrians fled war and destruction. Poles escaped communism. The Vietnamese survived a humanitarian crisis. Members of all three cultures overcame conflict and have now found a home in Arizona. They are now part of the nearly seven million people that reside in the state watched over by sun and the mile-deep rock and stone giant.