MAPENDO: A Lifeline for Forgotten Refugees
Sasha Chanoff has always been drawn to people in need, especially those who are the most vulnerable. It’s practically in his genetic makeup—his Great Aunt Ida came to the U.S. fleeing pogroms and persecution in Russia. But it wasn’t until he was a freshly minted college graduate, working with refugees at the Jewish Vocational Service in Boston, that the nature of his calling began to take shape.
“I was struck very viscerally by the idea that I could, in some small way, help people who had lost everything,” Sasha says. “Helping them rebuild their lives struck me as one of the most important things I could ever do.”
He was hired by the International Organization for Resettlement and went to Africa for the first time in 1998, where he helped prepare refugees for their new life in America by teaching cultural orientation classes. Soon he began working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), during which time he spearheaded several large resettlements, including the legendary Lost Boys of Sudan.
Sasha got to know most of the boys at Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. But there was another, smaller group that hardly anyone heard about. Of the 3,700 young Sudanese refugees who were a part of this resettlement program, only eighty-nine were female.
“That seemed really strange to me,” Sasha says. “When I started doing research into it, I found out that there were a lot of girls in the camp who had the exact same story as the boys. But they weren’t identified, because they were hidden. They were at risk.”
The Lost Girls, who had wandered the same distances and suffered the same hardships as the boys, were living a very different life in the refugee camps. Many were beaten and raped; others were enslaved or sold off to older men by the very “foster families” that had adopted them. They weren’t identified for the official resettlement programs because they were invisible and had virtually disappeared.
“They weren’t on anybody’s radar screen,” Sasha says. “I started trying to do everything I could to get more attention on the Sudanese girls.”
Around this time, 60 Minutes II did a feature on the Lost Boys. Sasha pleaded with the CBS news team to also include female Sudanese refugees. “I kept saying, ‘You’ve got to interview the girls. They’re not a part of this and should be.’”
Then Sasha got a call that set destiny into motion.
The call was from Yar, one of the eighty-nine Lost Girls who had come to the U.S. She told Sasha that, after she left Kakuma, she had found out that her mother was alive and living in the camp with Yar’s two younger sisters. But her mother had just died from a poisonous snakebite, and the girls, ages twelve and fifteen, were in danger of being kidnapped, brought back to Sudan, and sold into marriage.
Yar’s plea to Sasha was simple. She asked, “Can you help?”
Shortly after that first phone call, Yar contacted Sasha again. She had gotten word from the camp that the girls were about to be attacked. A few days later, the girls were attacked, but they managed to escape. One of them was hospitalized. Finally, by working closely with partners in Africa, Sasha was able to evacuate the girls from the camp, take them to a safe center in Nairobi, and bring them to the U.S. to be with their sister. Today all three young women live safely in Boston.
It was stories like Yar’s that motivated Sasha to start Mapendo International. According to their mission statement, Mapendo “works to fill the critical and unmet needs of people affected by war and conflict who have fallen through the net of humanitarian assistance.”
In the last blog post, we look at how far the official system of refugee resettlement has come over the last six decades. The problem is: there are still major problems and serious oversights. Resettlement is available primarily to people who live in UN refugee camps and are easily identifiable. But up to half of Africa’s refugees don’t live in camps—they’re on their own with nobody to turn to. Mapendo makes resettlement more accessible to those who need it most. In other words: Mapendo offers assistance to the people who have no other hope.
But lack of hope does not equate lack of potential. Sasha is unwavering on this point. “Refugees are people who are in desperate and hopeless situations, but they are not helpless people. Far from it. They’re motivated. They’re entrepreneurs, businesspeople, doctors, lawyers—the whole range of people. They come here, they work, they add to our lives…and they become Americans. The refugees of today are the leaders of tomorrow.”
As of yesterday, Mapendo International has reason to celebrate. Sasha Chanoff has just been awarded the Charles Bronfman Prize, a prestigious annual award given to a young humanitarian whose work has contributed significantly to the betterment of the world. To date, Mr. Chanoff has aided more than 10,000 refugees from Congo, Darfur, Somalia, Sudan, and other war-torn regions in Africa—including the Lumumba family featured in the clip. Thanks to the work Mapendo is doing, these people have been brought from danger to safety, from fear to hope, from darkness to light.
As I write this, many are still living in danger, fear, and darkness. In honor of World Refugee Day 2010, I encourage you to give what you can to organizations fighting for a better life for the world’s most vulnerable people. Mapendo is the perfect place to start.
▪ Text the word R-E-S-C-U-E to 90999 and contribute $5 to Mapendo International.
▪ All it takes is $500 to rescue and protect one person. If you have the means, consider donating more than $5 to Mapendo. If you don’t, think about getting a group of people together to pool funds. $500 is a negligible sum when it means saving a life.
▪ Join the Genocide Intervention Network and the Save Darfur Coalition on Meetup.com to meet up with refugees and activists who live in your community.