Mapendo International has today announced that it is changing its name to RefugePoint in order to better reflect its core mission of protecting the world’s most vulnerable and forgotten refugees.
If you saw our film The Last Survivor, then you are probably familiar with Mapendo International. Mapendo was also founded by Sasha Chanoff, who helped resettle Justin Semahoro in St. Louis in the film (see video below). Now called RefugePoint, their rescue resettlement efforts, health clinic, and advocacy campaigns will continue to address the needs of the most vulnerable refugees in Africa, ensuring that forgotten victims of persecution, massacre and atrocities are brought from danger to safety.
According to Sasha Chanoff, RefugePoint’s executive director, many refugees have related to their staff that contact with his organization became the turning point in their lives. “Our effort,” he says, “is to provide lasting solutions for people fleeing from persecution, war, and genocide. The new name, RefugePoint, reflects the moment when those most at risk see the possibility of deliverance from lives of fear and desperation and a path opening up toward new lives for themselves and their families.”
Many of the world’s 10.4 million refugees exist in life-threatening situations. While some languish in overcrowded refugee camps, an increasing number flee to urban slum areas where they struggle to survive without even the barest of safety nets. In Africa they come from the Congo, Darfur, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Somalia, Southern Sudan, Zimbabwe, and other countries and regions. The international community can barely shelter and feed the majority, much less tend to the unique needs of those who are truly forsaken and forgotten. “RefugePoint’s entire effort,” Chanoff says, “is to reach and succor these people whose struggle to survive would otherwise go unaddressed.
In the past six years RefugePoint has provided life-saving interventions and helped to create lasting solutions for over 20,000 refugees in Africa. RefugePoint staff have worked in Botswana, Burundi, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Sudan, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. RefugePoint works with national governments, the UN Refugee Agency and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to enhance and improve systems to address the needs of vulnerable refugees in Africa and worldwide.
Visit their new site at www.refugepoint.org
Ten years ago, Angie Plummer’s mother sent out her annual Christmas card to friends and family, updating them on what her daughter was up to. Angie recalls the card’s message quite well. “It was, ‘My daughter works at the Department of Human Services’—which was wrong—and ‘she does contract management’—which was also wrong.” Angie laughs. “But it was the equivalent.”
Compare that to what Angie is doing now—working one-on-one with refugees as the director of Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS) in Columbus, Ohio—and you’ll find two careers at entirely opposite ends of the spectrum. Angie couldn’t be happier to have made the switch.
“I am so lucky,” she says. “Every day. I know how lucky I am to be able to do something so useful.”
In 1998, Angie was halfheartedly putting her law degree to use at an unfulfilling state job. Then she read an article about a lawyer who was volunteering for a fledgling refugee agency. When she contacted the agency to see if they needed more volunteers, they said, “Come all the time.” So she cut back her state job to thirty hours and started volunteering with refugees for twenty hours a week.
It didn’t take her long to fall madly in love with the work she was doing. She left her state job in the dust with no second thoughts.
The relationships she’s developed along the way have been deep and powerful. Take Amina, who was just eighteen when Angie started working with her ten years ago. Amina and her sixteen-year-old brother had suffered a long journey to get to the United States, and when they arrived, they didn’t speak a word of English. Angie helped Amina navigate the American justice system to get legal guardianship of her brother, assisted her when she ran into a problem with public housing, and was right by her side when Amina had her first child. Along the way, Angie became more than just a case worker; she became a friend.
Amina, now twenty-eight, has her citizenship interview coming up this year. She recently presented Angie with a beautiful framed photo on which she wrote: “Thank you, Angie, for always being there for us.”
It’s those kinds of gifts you just don’t get in a state job. And that’s because what Angie is doing isn’t just filing mundane paperwork or typing in numbers. She’s given hope to the hopeless by helping these people start a new life.
When refugees touch down in the airport of their new homes, the official work of the U.S. refugee resettlement agency that handled the placement comes to an end. At that point, one of the 250 local affiliates takes over. CRIS is one of those affiliates. That means they do on-the-ground work with newly arrived refugees, helping them acclimate to their new environment.
Whereas others might look at these people as hopeless and helpless, that’s not how they view themselves. For example, a Somali woman who arrives with three small children isn’t looking at her future as one hurdle after another—language barriers, young dependents, finding a job, etc. Instead, she sees herself as a survivor. She’s thinking, “I can do this.” And it’s Angie’s job to make sure that she can.
It’s not immediate. In fact it usually takes a little while for refugees to “settle in.” Learning English isn’t something that happens in one or three or even twelve months. Often, the parents have the hardest time learning the language. But often their children adapt readily and go on to become phenomenally successful. A former refugee turned CRIS case worker just had her eldest child graduate from Boston College law school, and her daughter graduated from Columbia with a masters. Her other three children are all college graduates. “They’re going to give back,” Angie says. “You have to give them a little time to get on their feet, and then they’ll make those contributions.”
Because of her administrative responsibilities, Angie considers herself lucky to work one-on-one with the refugees as much as she does. She still tries to go to the airport when she can to personally greet refugees upon their arrival. Airport scenes are always tender and poignant, like when the Somali orphans were reunited with their aunt and grandmother.
Angie smiles. “It makes me want to look back someday and say, “That mattered. It mattered that I was here.”
And she’s right: it truly did.
Make it matter that you’re here by:
▪ Contacting your local refugee resettlement agency and offering to volunteer. Often what refugees need most is a friend. They’ve just landed in an entirely world and could use help adjusting to their new environment—anything from learning how to cook in an American kitchen to shopping for groceries at the supermarket. A Rwandan woman once told Angie that the best thing her co-sponsor ever gave her was a phone number. She just needed someone to call when she was confused about some aspect of her new life!
▪ Making a donation to your local refugee resettlement agency in the form of either material items (towels, sheets, kitchen supplies, laundry detergent) or monetary donations.
▪ Joining the Genocide Intervention Network and the Save Darfur Coalition on Meetup.com to meet up with refugees and activists who live in your community.
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.