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Posts Tagged ‘refugees’

They Could Be Us

By Bree Barton

This week, I had the privilege of seeing The Last Survivor as a part of the Fight On For Darfur program at USC. It has been almost a year to the day since I saw the film in its entirety—at its festival debut in Dallas for the Dallas International Film Festival, April 2010.

When I saw the film a year ago, I was deeply moved. The film gripped me on many levels, both aesthetically and emotionally. I remember a patchwork of images and moments that spoke to me, to such an extent that I was moved to speak as well . . . hence why I approached one of the film’s two directors, Michael Pertnoy, afterwards to offer my services as a writer.

And here I am.

Seeing the film a year later, I remembered all the reasons it moved me. The artistry is evident; it’s gorgeously shot, exquisitely edited, and the four survivors’ stories are woven together like an elegant silk tapestry, each flowing seamlessly into the next. But of course the beauty of this film is in the stories it tells, and the lives it so poignantly captures. A year later, after learning more about Justin, Jacqueline, Hedi, and Adam—in fact I can proudly say I am now Facebook friends with two of them—I felt more connected to their stories, more personally involved. After the honor of writing about them, and detailing so many other stories for the RP blog, this issue feels nearer to me now than it did when I sat in a dark auditorium twelve months ago.

Mariet, aged 30, a refugee from Ivory Coast, now in LiberiaThe first time I saw The Last Survivor, I cried at the injustice of the tragedies suffered by four strangers. The second time I saw it, I cried because it felt like those strangers had become my friends.

And therein lies the beauty of the film. Not to mention the work the RP team is doing in general. Because it is in this very sense of connection, this sense of “Hey—those people are just like me,” that the seeds of genocide prevention must be sown.

This idea seems all the more relevant as I’ve been reading about the Ivory Coast. On April 11th, former Ivorian President Gbagbo was finally arrested after four months of chaotic violence and civil war. Both France and the UN were involved in the arrest, and today, one week later, it appears that the country is inching slowly toward peace. But the scars are fresh: a massacre in Duekoue that killed 800 people; a drive-by shooting of peaceful women protestors; and over a million people who, fleeing the violence, are now displaced.

It is this last issue—the return of these displaced persons to their homes—that seems so relevant to me. Mark Hackett of Operation Broken Silence has been chronicling the series of events in his astute and thoughtful blog. Mark writes, “Another concern is the civilian population itself, particularly the one million who fled Abidjan alone. The jumble of neighborhoods which took sides in the conflict will soon, once again, be living next to one another. Some elements within these communities are also responsible for violence against opposing neighborhoods. Implementing justice in these areas, if it ever is implemented, will be no easy task.”

I cannot help but think of Jacqueline, who speaks in The Last Survivor about her neighbors—the very neighbors whose children she had played with, the very neighbors whose children her mother had fed dozens of times, and the very neighbors who, when the genocide started in Rwanda, rounded up Jacqueline’s entire family, took them to the river, and slaughtered them with machetes.

It is a frightening thing, what neighbors can be capable of. And how boundaries disintegrate the moment that people look at their fellow men and women and say, “No. They are not like us.”

The wounds in the Ivory Coast run deep, and as Hackett points out, no one is innocent. “Revenge killings could skyrocket,” he writes, “as troops loyal to either side could strike at civilian components of the original ‘other side.’”

Sides. Divisions. Loyalties. They all hinge on one thing: differences. Walls put up. Lines drawn. People defined by what and who they are not. And as long as these supposed differences continue to be inculcated, people will fail to see the ways in which we are exactly the same.

And so I think, more than ever, that a film like The Last Survivor has a vital place in the world. Because what directors Michael Pertnoy and Michael Kleiman have so beautifully depicted is the fact that these four brave, wonderful, extraordinary people are, in so many ways, people just like us. They could be us, and we could be them. And the day we accept that, the day we truly come to terms with what that means . . . the idea of “the last survivor” will move from hopeful theory into potent truth.


“It Mattered That I Was Here”

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.

Somali Orphan Reunion from Mapendo International on Vimeo.

-Bree

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.


Remembering the Journey – Malcolm Glover

War, genocide and poverty are just a few of the problems that plague our world. No one likes to hear bad news and too much of it can numb us to the plight of others. We turn off the television, log off the computer, fold up the newspaper, and immerse ourselves in the serenity of a secure ordinary life. However, there is no bliss in ignorance and ignoring the great problems of our time won’t make them go away. Our complacency only makes things worse.

I got a “wakeup call” and was once again stirred to action after talking with Michael Pertnoy at a screening of his documentary “The Last Survivor,” during the 2010 Little Rock Film Festival. This amazing film reminded me that all of us can do something to end injustice and promote reconciliation. The beautiful cinematography and compelling characters in his masterpiece also helped me remember my own trek to the Sudan and Kenya in the summer of 2006.

My journey began while I was a graduate student at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. Part of the school’s curriculum required that I work on a service project abroad and I knew I wanted an adventure in Africa. After researching a variety of humanitarian projects, I finally committed to working on some innovative programs in Southern Sudan with Winrock International, an innovative global nonprofit organization; the VEGA consortium, the world’s largest alliance of economic growth volunteer organizations; and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Over the course of three months, I lived and worked in impoverished villages and burgeoning cities, like Juba and Rumbek. I trained Southern Sudanese journalists in the art of investigative reporting and I participated in a variety of agriculture and small business development programs that were aimed at helping the people of Southern Sudan rebuild their country’s economic infrastructure after decades of war. I shall never forget the harrowing stories I heard and the resilient people I met throughout the Sudan and at the United Nations’ Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya. The courage of the Sudanese people and the grace of that global group of volunteers working with them truly inspired me.

In 2007, on a shoestring budget, I completed a documentary with footage and interviews from my travels in the Sudan and Kenya. The thirty-minute film titled “A Partnership for Prosperity: Public Servants in Southern Sudan” focuses on all of the economic development initiatives taking place in the country. The documentary also spotlights the work of aid organizations that are assisting Southern Sudanese citizens in the valiant effort to strengthen war-torn communities. Simply put, the film project was a labor of love.

As World Refugee Day approaches, I am reminded of my friends and colleagues in Southern Sudan. I shall never forget them or my journey. There is still so much more work to be done in the Sudan and countless other countries. We all must use our energy, time and talents to raise awareness, combat inequality, and alleviate the plight of the poor and oppressed around the world. Our future cannot afford indifference in the face of injustice.

- Malcolm

Here is the link to an excerpt from my documentary on You Tube:

Don’t forget that World Refugee Day 2010 is this Sunday. To prepare for WRD:

▪ Call 1-800-GENOCIDE to make your voice heard to your elected representatives. To date, more than 25,000 activists have called this number. Let’s make it 50,000 by June 20th!

▪ 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.


Rwanda 16 Years Later: A Survivor’s Reflections

JacquelineToday we’d like to introduce you to another refugee featured in The Last Survivor: Jacqueline Murekatete is a survivor of the 1994 Tutsi Genocide in Rwanda. At twenty-five, she serves as the director of Jacqueline’s Human Rights Corner and visits schools nationwide to tell her story and educate others about genocide prevention.

Jacqueline wrote the following last April, exactly fifteen years after the genocide that claimed her family, her home, and life as she knew it. Now we’re sharing her remarkable story with you.

15 years ago, I was a young girl of nine living in Rwanda. I remember listening as a death sentence was pronounced on me, my family, many of our neighbors and our friends. The crime? Our ethnicity.

For approximately 100 days, I lived in state of extreme fear, never knowing whether I was going to live to see the next day. Every day I was exposed to horrors that no human being—especially a child of nine—should ever be exposed to. The things that I experienced between the months of April and June of 1994 are things that I will never forget.

How can I ever forget the day that I had to flee my home and everything I had ever known and loved if I had any chance of surviving? How can I ever forget my horror and lack of comprehension as I listened to a national radio station that encouraged my neighbors to pick up machetes and hunt my family and other Tutsis, calling us cockroaches that needed immediate extermination? How can I forget the days I spent watching men, women, and children being dragged to their death? How can I ever forget the nights I spent listening to the painful cries of children whose arms and legs had been chopped off—in most cases by those they had once called neighbors and friends?

And in the end, how can I ever forget that tragic day that I came to learn that while I was one of the few survivors of this Genocide, my entire immediate family and most of my extended family had been taken to a river and butchered as if they were animals. Their bodies were thrown into the passing water, never to be found, never to be buried in dignity and honor.

On Tuesday evening this week, at the Church Center for the United Nations, I joined a small of group of survivors and lit a candle for my parents, my six siblings, my uncles, aunts, cousins, teachers and friends, and the now estimated over one million innocent men, women, and children whose lives were tragically taken in Rwanda in 1994 .

Earlier that day, I was standing in front of an audience of more than 500 people, including the U.N Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, where I had been invited to be the voice of survivors as the U.N marked the 15th Anniversary of the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda. In front of world diplomats, civil society leaders, and members of the Rwandan Diaspora, I asked myself what, if anything, the world had learned in the 15 years since the Rwandan tragedy. How close are we to fulfilling the vow of “Never Again” that was promised over 60 years ago?

On one hand, I am reminded of the many letters I have received over the past eight years since I began sharing my story with young people around the world. They are letters that express young people’s commitment to genocide prevention and tolerance – not only through words, but through actions. I think of the various STAND chapters that have created a haven in schools throughout this country, of the growing movement of young people calling for an immediate end to the current Genocide in Darfur, Sudan. In all of this I find hope.

But I am also reminded of the fact that the Genocide in Darfur continues. That while humanitarian aid may flow to Darfuri refugees, the killings and rapes continue. 15 years after the Genocide in my native country, I am reminded of the fact that the ideology of Genocide remains alive and well in Rwanda, expressing itself through the harassment and killing of survivors, in denial and attacks on Genocide memorials.

In the 21st century, hate, genocidal ideologies, and intolerance of all types remain realities we cannot afford to ignore. 15 years after Rwanda, there is still a great deal that humanity needs to learn. More actions need to be taken if we are to make sure that future generations are spared the losses that I and many others experienced during those haunting 100 days of horror, desperation, and murder.

To learn more about Jacqueline Murekatete and her Genocide prevention efforts, please visit www.miraclecorners.org. You can also vote for Jacqueline for the 2010 Do Something Awards. She will get $100,000 to support her organization. You can also see Jacqueline in the 20-minute sneak preview of The Last Survivor, available now. Share with your friends and family; host local screenings at community centers, schools, universities, and your home; and start a conversation in your own community about how you can work together to fight genocide.

To prepare for World Refugee Day 2010:

▪ Call 1-800-GENOCIDE to make your voice heard to your elected representatives. To date, more than 25,000 activists have called this number. Let’s make it 50,000 by June 20th!

▪ Host a World Refugee Day movie screening. Possible films include Hotel Rwanda, Beyond Borders, Return to Afghanistan, or the sneak preview of The Last Survivor!

▪ Organize a fundraiser to raise money for refugees and the organizations who help resettle them. Possible money-making ventures include a bake sale, raffle, auction, car wash, or an old-fashioned lemonade stand.

▪ 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.


Every Voice Matters: The Story of SGN

Gabriel StauringGabriel Stauring never intended to start a humanitarian organization. In fact he didn’t start out as an activist at all.

In 2004, Gabriel was working with abused children as an in-home therapist in Southern California. He had no experience with activism or advocacy. But shortly after the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, he read about what was happening in Darfur for the first time.

“It hit me hard,” he says. “I felt guilty about not doing anything in 1994. When I started to hear about Darfur, I said, ‘I’ve got to do something.’”

For Gabriel, ignoring the truth was no longer an option. “I felt that there was a great need for people to connect on a personal level with it on both sides—connecting with the victims, and also here at home, knowing that you could have an impact no matter who you are.”

It was this line of thought that propelled Gabriel to found Stop Genocide Now in 2005. The organization’s goal is to “change the way the world responds to genocide by putting a face to the numbers of dead, dying and displaced.” Each of their innovative projects utilizes the strength and power of grassroots connectivity.

One of the most indelible lessons of Obama’s historic bid for President was that grassroots campaigns have the power to set the world aflame. And for SGN, the grassroots focus was the key to showing individual people that they could make a difference. People like Katie-Jay Scott

Katie-Jay was a full-time student and an AmeriCorps volunteer when she heard an activist speak about her time at a refugee camp on the Chad-Darfur border. “I remember sitting there,” she says, “listening to her presentation, and thinking, ‘This is my chance to do something.’ So I put on one of those green bracelets. That was the beginning of my activism. You start really small.”

It didn’t take Katie long to find other people who wanted to do something about the genocide in Darfur. So they formed an ad hoc group, dubbed themselves the Portland Coalition for Genocide Awareness, and organized a genocide awareness month in Portland, Oregon. They brought in filmmakers, gave presentations, and worked with local schools and synagogues.

Then, someone said, “We should bring in Camp Darfur.”

Camp Darfur is one of the primary programs SGN brings to schools and communities around the country—an interactive awareness and education event. When Gabriel came to Portland with Camp Darfur, he met Katie and offered her a job. Stop Genocide Now had doubled its staff—Gabriel and Katie were the first two full-time staff members!

Today SGN has more than twelve active members, and nine board members sitting on the advisory committee. Gabriel, Katie, and their colleagues have made eight trips to the refugee camps, and are currently preparing for a ninth. They’ve built strong relationships with the refugees, relationships that continue to evolve and strengthen as the years go by.

These eight trips are part of the revolutionary i-Act project, something unique to SGN. As a part of i-Act, the SGN team posts daily webcasts during each trip, creating a vibrant, interconnected community between activists and individuals worldwide. Capitalizing on the wondrous potential of the internet, they keep a blog that allows them to interact with people anywhere in the world. In turn, international website visitors can see the human face of the ongoing crisis, ask questions, and make comments. The extensive video library that accompanies each i-Act journey includes many short films featuring the refugees themselves.

“We work at a very grassroots level,” Gabriel explains. “It’s not just the big, huge, horrible numbers. Each number is an individual. We also believe that advocacy has to work that way. It’s important that the regular person, each individual, feels empowered that they can make a difference in something as huge as this.”

Gabriel Stauring has undergone quite a transformation. Today he is an international activist and innovator—something that, six years ago, he never imagined. But it’s exactly the kind of story that makes Stop Genocide Now so unique: the idea of one individual taking “small, practical action that results in large, seemingly impracticable change.

Every action—even the smallest one—makes a ripple. That ripple becomes a wave, and enough waves can rock the ocean.

So what are you waiting for?

-Bree B.

Ideas for your first ripple:

▪ If you’re planning a dinner, event, or get-together for World Refugee Day, SGN will supply you with video materials…for free! Contact them and they’ll send you a DVD with film clips from their time in Africa so your group can hear the stories of real refugees.

▪ It’s okay to start small. Tell five people about what’s happening in Darfur, and give them information about where they can find out more.

▪ Bombard your U.S. representative with postcards, letters, and phone calls, urging them to speak out about changing the way the U.S. is implementing Sudan policy.

▪ 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.

▪ Find out more ways to get involved by visiting SGN’s iAct-Zine: Issue 16: http://bit.ly/cOA6GK


A Banyamulenge Survivor

So far we’ve looked at one side of the refugee equation—the activists and organizations who are committed to the cause. But we’ve yet to meet any of the refugees themselves, or to hear their stories in their own words. As World Refugee Day fast approaches, it’s time to draw back the curtain and meet the people whom we seek to honor and to help.

We’d like to introduce you to one of the four survivors featured in The Last Survivor. Justin Semahoro Kimenyerwa is a Congolese refugee who was resettled to the United States on June 11, 2008—exactly two years ago today. This is his story.

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I would like to tell you about my home and my people.

I was born in Minembwe in the Democratic Republic of Congo—over the mountains of the land, deep within the green fields of South Kivu. It is a land full of green vegetation, lush forests, and beautiful wildlife. Between the greenery, numerous rivers always flow among mountains and flat land. We have just two seasons—the rainy season and the sunny season—both marked by favorable temperatures. Throughout the year, a nice breeze offers comfort each morning. Within this peaceful land, there exists a community that struggles to survive. These are the members of the Banyamulenge tribe. They are my people.

The Banyamulenge have lived on the lands of South Kivu for five centuries. It is the home of our grandfathers, our ancestors—the only home we know, but one that is not acknowledged by our neighbors or our government. They believe we have no right to live in Congo, constantly insisting that we return to our “real” home far from the lands of South Kivu. This unprovoked hatred of the Banyamulenge people has been the cause of indescribable suffering and massive killings of my people.

In 1996, war began in Congo—a war which continues to this day and one in which a malicious group called the Mai Mai seeks to eliminate the entire Banyamulenge Tutsi tribe. The Mai Mai is a group of many tribes in the South Kivu region (Abafurero, Ababembe, Abanyintu, Abashi, Abarega) that joined together with Interahamwe (Hutu’s who fled from Rwanda after they carried out the Rwandan Tutsi Genocide in 1994). Together, they started attacking Banyamulenge villages—killing men, women, and children, taking our cattle and burning our homes. While they attacked our villages, those Banyamulenge who lived in other areas of Congo were captured, jailed, and in some cases, killed. My brother, Bizimana Mavugo, was one such Banyamulenge—he was arrested in the town of Kalemie and was killed by machete along with 81 others. They were buried together in a single grave.
In 1998, my own village was attacked. I remember the sound—shouts, the intensifying beating of drums, guns firing at those who tried to escape. Suddenly, the sound of my father’s voice: telling us to run, to each fend for our own life. There was no time to say goodbye.

I ran through the bullets, past the attackers who were shooting us, toward the forest we call Nyarubari. I thank God I was not shot. In the forest, I stood with my cousin, Bogabu, waiting in the darkness for the silence that would signal the end of the attack. I was content to wait there, alive. But Bogabu was less patient. After sitting in silence for several hours, he insisted on walking out to see if the attackers had left. I pleaded with him to stay put, but he was older and he insisted.

As soon as he emerged from the bush he was shot. He cried out for me, but I could not help him for fear of being killed myself.

After my cousin was killed, I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I remained in the bush alone, confused, waiting to be discovered and slaughtered like the others. But God protected me from the attackers and they did not come to the bush in which I hid—a bush that was surely shaking from the twitching of my nerves.

My life changed that night. It was the last time I saw my home in the green fields of South Kivu. I lost five of my best friends that night, friends with whom I did everything throughout my childhood. I loved them very much. It was also the last time that I saw my parents and my siblings—my father’s command to run the last I have heard of his voice.

There is no way that I can explain to you in words the troubles that I endured after that night. I have no words to tell you of the hunger I felt from having nothing to eat as I walked through the forest. I survived off the leaves and roots of trees. If I discovered a piece of fruit on the forest floor, it was indeed a good day. Nor can I explain to you the pain that I felt in my heart—the longing I felt for my family and my friends, the desire to return home.

Of course, I could not return home and so I moved through the forest, comforted by the protection of God’s great trees. I went to a town called Uvira. There were other Banyamulenge in Uvira and I thought I would be safe there. A group of children I encountered upon my arrival in the village proved this thinking incorrect.

“What are you doing here?” they asked, already moving toward me with machetes. “Do you think this is your motherland?” Even young children are trained to hate the Banyamulenge.
I decided that it was better to be killed running than to stand still and wait for death. And so again, I ran. It was not until after I escaped that I realized I had been struck in the leg by a machete that had been thrown at me. I was lucky. Other Banyamulenge who had approached Uvira suffered a much worse fate, their bodies hacked apart while they were still alive or burned—simply because we are Banyamulenge and these others do not want us in their country.

From Uvira, I journeyed into Rwanda, which was not safe either. In Rwanda, I heard that there was a city in Kenya called Nairobi where I would be safe. I heard that Nairobi was a silent city—a place where I would not hear guns, where I would not hear the cry of women and children who screamed out as they were killed. I decided to go there.

I remained in Nairobi for five years. During that time I grew sick of my own struggle. I wished I had someone with whom I could share my days, but I was alone. I had a terrible infection in my sinus that kept me up at night. I missed my parents and my siblings. I missed my friends and our cattle back home. Each day I prayed to God, asking Him to bring me to a place where I could be in peace.

I thank the creator of Heavens and Earth who heard my prayer and sent his servant to come and save me.

Of course, I speak of Sasha Chanoff and the organization he founded, Mapendo International. Tirelessly, they worked beyond what was asked of them for me and my people. Mapendo found someone to pay for the operation I desperately needed on my sinus—allowing me to breath and sleep for the first time in five years. They helped me find shelter and helped me through the long and difficult resettlement process.

And so it is that suddenly, after ten longs years during which I traveled the forests of Africa, I find myself in St. Louis, Missouri, for the first time feeling safe.

I thank God for keeping me alive and now, allowing my voice to be heard—allowing me to speak on behalf of my Banyamulenge people who have no one else to speak for them. We, Banyamulenge, do not have a place to call home. We are hated in our country, our people are displaced across neighboring countries and our attackers follow of us, killing us wherever we seek shelter. Many of you may have heard of the massacre of the Banyamulenge at the Gatumba Refugee Camp in Burundi in 2004—a nightmare in which hundreds of men, women and children were slaughtered simply because of who they were. Banyamulenge.
My remaining wish—aside from that of one day being reunited with my family—is that no other child shall cross the difficult path that I passed through. I will dedicate my life to working toward that goal.

To learn more about Justin, his incredible story, and his people, check out Imuhira, the organization he founded to document, preserve, and celebrate Banyamulenge culture. You can also see Justin in the 20-minute sneak preview of The Last Survivor, available now. Share with your friends and family; host local screenings at community centers, schools, universities, and your home; and start a conversation in your own community about how you can work together to fight genocide.

More ways to get involved for WRD:

▪ Throw a dinner party and initiate a discussion about the world’s refugees. Serve a traditional dish from a country with a high number of refugees or IDPs (internally displaced persons). For a Congolese favorite, try Liboké.

▪ Wear light blue (the international color of UN Aid workers) and tell people why.

▪ Learn “Mambo Sawa Sawa” and sing it with pride!

▪ 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.


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.”

Mapendo – Congolese Family Reunion from Mapendo International on Vimeo.

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.

-Bree

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.


Refugee Resettlement: The Basics

As World Refugee Day approaches, I’m learning a lot about refugees. And the more I learn, the more I realize how much I didn’t know.

Take, for example, the topic of refugee resettlement. Up until now, my understanding of official resettlement policies was hazy at best, totally inaccurate at worst. We never hear about the logistics—the numbers, the quotas, the technical stuff. But the United States has a systemized process that’s been in effect for over sixty years. Here’s a brief history lesson on how it all began.

After World War II, the U.S. welcomed over 250,000 Europeans who had been displaced by the war. Congress ratified the first refugee legislation—the Displaced Persons Act—in 1948, which enabled 400,000 more Europeans to cross the Atlantic and seek refuge in America. 

Refugees continued to flee to the United States for the next thirty years from a number of different countries—Cuba, Korea, Hungary, Indochina, and many others. But resettling these refugees proved problematic as the process had yet to be standardized. Large numbers of refugees were coming to the U.S., but when they got there, they often encountered chaos and instability. There was no infrastructure to assist them as they commenced their new lives.

In 1980, Congress saw the need and filled it. They passed the Refugee Act of 1980, creating the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. This meant that, for the first time, there was an organized, legalized program whose main goal was to effectively resettle refugees and help them become economically self-sufficient as soon as possible. The program is administered by the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM), which partners with the UN, Red Cross, and the International Organization for Migration to provide aid and sustainable solutions for refugees.

On the ground, there are 10 U.S. Refugee Resettlement Agencies. Each of these agencies partners with the Department of State to offer invaluable assistance to newly arrived refugees, helping them find living arrangements, acquire jobs, and settle into their local communities. These agencies are: Church World Service, Ethiopian Community Development Council, Episcopal Migration Ministries, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, International Rescue Committee, Kurdish Human Rights Watch, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops/Migration and Refugee Services, and World Relief.

In 2009, the UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, reported that there were over 42 million forcibly displaced people in the world—15.2 million of whom were refugees. Over 2 million were from Africa, a large percentage coming from Uganda, Sudan, Chad, and Congo. Millions had also fled from Asia and the Middle East (for a great graphic breakdown of global trends, go here).

Of the twenty countries with active refugee resettlement programs, United States is the world leader. Each year, our President consults with Congress and sets a limit on the total number of refugees who may enter the U.S. from each region of the world.  In the last thirty-five years, the U.S. has resettled over 3 million refugees. The annual number of refugees varies—in 1980 it was 207,000, but in 2002, it had dropped to 27,110. The average is around 98,000.

But here’s what the data won’t tell you. Each year, the number of refugees seeking resettlement vastly exceeds the number of spaces available. And yet, somehow, more than 10,000 spots go unfilled each year. Despite the criteria the UNHCR has established as to which refugees are most in need of resettlement, identifying these people is a long and arduous process. Even once they’ve been identified, the application process is very involved and is often slowed down by miles of bureaucratic red tape. In the last decade, an estimated 200,000 people have been persecuted, raped, attacked, and even killed—people who might have found a safe haven in the United States. 

Resettlement is not a convenience or a luxury. Resettlement is something that saves somebody’s life.  And despite all the ways our country’s resettlement program has grown and evolved over the last sixty-two years, there is still much work to be done.

Over the next two weeks, we’re going to take a look at several organizations that work in the trenches, helping the people who would otherwise fall through the cracks. In the meantime, spread the word about refugee resettlement—the behind-the-scenes story. The more we know, the more we understand. And the more we understand, the better equipped we are to step up to the plate and do something about it.

-Bree Barton

Try one of the following:

▪ Create an ad hoc committee or discussion group in your community to educate others about the refugee resettlement system. 

▪ Write your local representative and express your concerns about the 10,000 refugee resettlement spots that go unfilled each year.

Invite 10 or more of your friends to subscribe to UNHCR Insider Update, the UN’s weekly email newsletter about refugee issues around the world.

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.


Gearing Up for World Refugee Day

On June 20th, the world will celebrate World Refugee Day—a day the UN has set aside to raise awareness and support for refugees worldwide. There are tens of millions of refugees scattered across the globe, living far from their homes and often separated from their families. These are people who have been forced to flee to escape widespread persecution or war; many are living in refugee camps in oppressive conditions, while others are wandering long distances, unprotected and alone.

The plight of refugees does not always occupy a large space in the public consciousness. But this June, it’s time to bring the issue out into the light. By working together to raise awareness, funds, and understanding, our communities can and will have an impact on millions.

In anticipation of World Refugee Day, Righteous Pictures is launching a new blog series. Our goal is to reach across the international activist community to highlight a number of different refugee stories. In the days leading up to June 20th, we’ll be discussing refugee resettlement and featuring several organizations doing important work. We’ll also share the powerful stories of certain refugees we’ve come to know.

We urge you to brainstorm ideas and suggestions for ways to get your community involved in WRD. The sky’s the limit, from having a bake sale to hosting a large-scale event. For example, in Montreal, the organization Doctors without Borders set up a mock refugee camp to “drive home the message about the plight of war refugees.”

Stay tuned over the next few weeks for more stories and information. This June, we challenge you to make a difference in the lives of refugees. Now go out there and make it happen!

-Bree

Here are a few ways to get started:

▪ 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.

▪ Invite a former refugee to speak at your school, church, temple, or community center and share their experiences.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

▪ Volunteer at a local refugee resettlement agency to help refugees who have recently arrived in the U.S.