Over the weekend, residents of Louisiana elected the first Vietnamese-American into Congress– he also happens to be a former refugee. Anh “Joseph” Cao defeated Democratic William Jefferson on Saturday in an election that was postponed for a month as a result of Hurricane Gustav.

According to the Associated Press:

Cao (pronounced “Gow”) is largely unknown, but his compelling life story attracted many voters. He was born in Vietnam and had to flee the country after Saigon fell in 1975 at age 8. His father, a South Vietnamese army officer, was imprisoned by Communist forces and later released.

He earned a degree in philosophy from Fordham University, a Jesuit college in New York City, and moved to Louisiana in 1992 as a seminarian. He earned his law degree from Loyola University in New Orleans.

Cao will join former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, and former U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland and former governor of Vermont, Madeleine Kunin in becoming refugees who have taken an active role in American politics.


A statement released by secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has called for an immediate cease-fire to the conflict unfolding in Goma, an eastern part of the DR Congo. 100,000 refugees are now in desperate situation and the fighting has prevented their access to humanitarian assistance. Since conflict has unfolded in the region in the recent weeks, 250,000 refugees have been displaced from their homes. The secretary-general has called and mobilize a UN response to address the needs of the 100,000 refugees threatened by the conflict. Our thoughts are with those in Goma and our hope is that the fighting will end so that others will not suffer.

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch recently condemned the nation of Egypt for shooting refugees crossing the Sinai desert region on their flight for asylum in Israel. In July of 2007, news about a seven-month pregnant woman being shot by Egyptian border guards only highlighted the 33 other refugees who have been killed by Egypt’s “Shot-to-Stop” policy towards those fleeing from their home. 32 of those killed have been black Africans. According to the article:

Since 2006, more than 130,000 refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants have passed though Egypt and crossed the Sinai border into Israel, according to the report. African migrants have complained about the difficulty of social and economic integration in Egypt.

The report emphasized that Egypt began a shoot-to-stop policy following a meeting between the Israeli prime minister and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in late June 2007. In the meeting, the two leaders discussed the flow of refugees into Israel by way of Egypt.

“We are not saying that Israel ordered Egypt to kill people; there is no evidence of that,” explained Van Esveld, “but what we are saying is that it seems that Egypt has responded to Israeli pressures with this policy of lethal force.”

A report entitled, Sinai Perils: Risks to Migrants, Refugees and Asylum seekers in Egypt and Israel, points to the fact that the Egyptian government has not allowed African refugees to make asylum cases and have tried them in military courts before deporting them (hundreds in numbers) to conflict zones where the refugee’s well-being is jeopardized. It is important to note the experiences of black African refugees is drastically different than refugees from Palestine and Iraq.


President-elect, Barack Obama. copyright: boston.com

On Tuesday, November 4th, 2008, the people of the United States voted Senator Barack Obama to become their forty-fourth President. He becomes the first African-American to be elected into the highest office of the United States. In his victory speech at Grant Park in his home city of Chicago, Obama stated the following:

To those who would tear the world down – we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security – we support you…

And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world – our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.

To President-elect: I hope you will keep your promise of promoting diplomacy in this world and support the work of international organizations and NGOs working to promote peace. I voted for you in hopes that you will keep your promise of not forgetting those in the “forgotten corners of the world,” especially the millions of refugees and displaced people who are in need of a new era of global politics.

America has been a nation of great humanitarian tradition. In the past couple of years it has struggled to uphold its promise to other nations. While I know one person cannot solve all that plagues our world and heal the pain of refugees everywhere, I hope you will hear the voices of those who have been displaced and do your part in promoting peace, protecting the most vulnerable, and leading the international community closer to achieving global harmony.

Untapped Talent

October 23, 2008

A Washington Post article today addressed America’s inability to utilized the talents of it’s foreign-born workers, particularly immigrants and refugees. According to a recent study produced by the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, DC, “One in five college-educated immigrants in the United States is unemployed or working in an unskilled job such as a dishwasher, fast-food restaurant cashier or security guard, depriving the U.S. economy of the full potential of more than 1.3 million foreign-born workers.

While the article mainly focuses on the impact and examines the educational level of immigrants from Latin America and Africa rather than your standard refugee who has fled war and conflict, the article did mention two paragraphs on the situation for refugees worth noting:

Refugees often face the highest hurdles because they lack even the cushion of financial support from family. Vu Dang, director of the International Rescue Committee‘s Washington area refugee resettlement office, said this obstacle has proved particularly vexing to Iraqi refugees arriving in recent months. They receive a three-month stipend from the U.S. government, at best.

The resettlement office has “to acclimatize them to the reality that whatever they were in their home country is irrelevant,” Dang said. “They need to find a job right away just to pay their rent, and those kind of jobs are going to be jobs in hotels and restaurants that pay a little bit over minimum wage.

Given the short assistance provided to refugees when they are resettled, few are able to use their skills and education from the countries in which they have fled to contribute to America. Perhaps if we were to provide refugees with some time and understand it takes a little longer than three-months to adjust to a new culture, language, and way of life, perhaps than refugees will not be burdens on our communities. Instead, they will put their talents and skills to use to contribute in a positive manner to the economy and their new communities. Americans have to understand that while we provide a safe haven for refugees, we also have to provide opportunities for them in order to both benefit in the long run.

NEWS from Radio Netherlands Worldwide:

Dutch Labour backs review of Iraqi refugees

The Dutch governing Labour Party has dropped its opposition to a government plan to stop giving all Iraqi refugees a temporary residence permit. It had opposed the move saying security in Iraq was insufficient for asylum seekers to return safely. The party says it has been swayed by Labour Deputy Justice Minister Nebahat Albarayk, who says most Iraqi asylum seekers fled Iraq through Syria and Jordan.

Labour support means the plan now has a majority in parliament. The plan also calls for a fresh review of the asylum applications of some 5,000 Iraqis already in the Netherlands. Aid agencies say the government is failing the refugees.

Environmental Refugees?

October 15, 2008

The contemporary focus on global warming has always made me wonder if the future will be prepared for when refugees are no longer fleeing from war and conflict, but instead are forced to cross other nation’s borders because of environmental disasters? With Hurricane Katrina internally displacing many in the United States and the 2004 Tsunami killing thousands and destroying homes, if global warming alters the landscape of the world, how will the international community respond?

An article by Urmee Khan in the Telegraph entitled, “Climate change study predicts refugees fleeing into Antarctica.” has begun to ask those questions and suggests the following:

Refugees are expected to move to Antarctica because of the rising temperatures that will see the population of the continent increase to 3.5 million people by 2040.

While this statement may be controversial and could be up for debate, the international community must start thinking about what impact the change in the global environment will have on the migration of people. Will we be able to respond accordingly or will chaos unfold?

When the global debate over refugees takes place, the question has always been: which country (or countries) should bare the burden of caring for those who have been displaced? Two pieces today, one from the Catholic News Service and the other, Post-Bulletin of Rochester, NY portrays what life is like for refugees in the country of first refuge and then country of resettlement.

The country of first refuge is where refugees flee to after they have left their homes. Refugees often languish in refugee camps or poor urban and rural areas in these places for years at a time before they are resettled. The Catholic News Service discussed the trouble of education for many refugees in Cairo, Egypt – a place that has been known to become a haven for refugees from Africa and Middle Eastern countries.

“The Sudanese [refugees] consider Egypt a step” to resettlement in the United States, Canada or another country, said Yasmine Serry of CRS, who coordinates the program. But hopes of resettlement often are delayed or dashed, and as families struggle to adapt to life in their new home, one of the first hurdles is sending their children to school.

While Egypt has allowed many refugees to harbor in cities like Cairo, it has unfortunately been unable to accommodate for the needs of the displaced, and as a result, many refugees live in sub-standard environments and become burdens on the surrounding communities. Few countries who have served as the first country or refuge for refugees have been able to integrate them in a meaningful manner. As a result, the burden has fallen on “western” nations such as the United States, Canada, etc. While these nations have had humanitarian traditions to be countries of resettlement, where refugees are relocated after they have entered refugee camps, they cannot continue this for years to come. The “burden” of refugees cannot fall on a select few countries but all countries must work appropriately to assist and provide for those who have fled from war and conflict.

As the article in the Post-Bulletin of Rochester, NY highlights, when refugees are provided with education, they become contributing members of societies and their children have the opportunity to be part of the new resettlement nation, developing an understanding of the country’s culture and values.

Sudanese refugee Gawa Eldabas…Two years earlier, she had fled Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, to escape oppressive government control. Now, she was leaving her temporary home of Cairo, Egypt [country of first refuge], with her husband and three children…on a plane bound for the United States.

With the help of the Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association’s program in New York, refugees like Gawa Eldabas are complete programs in nursing and joining a much needed profession in the American work force while her kids are receiving an education. Instead of becoming a burden on a community like once may have been in Egypt, Gawa Eldabas and her family are adding the the diversity and economic needs of the United States because countries of resettlements are investing in those who have sought refuge within their borders.

Refugees Among Us

October 10, 2008

Boston Globe

Nuon family and Photographer Nancy Carbonaro. Image copyright: Boston Globe

A featured article about a humanitarian photographer and a small bakery in Wellesley, Massachusetts shows many refugees in the United States contribute a great deal to the economic growth and the cultural life of their communities. The story was featured in the Boston Globe. Photographer Nancy Carbonaro was often a customer at the Nuon’s family bakery but never knew the family’s refugee background until she returned from a trip to Cambodia. What she discovered moved her a great deal:

Nuon’s family [the bakery shop owners] lived in Cambodia in the time of the Khmer Rouge, the communist party that ruled the country from 1975 to 1979. Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the regime was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million people, or roughly one-fifth of the country’s population, through torture, execution and starvation in its campaign to remake Cambodia into a radical agrarian society…

…The family’s surviving members eventually made their way to a refugee camp in the Philippines, then came to the United States in November 1982, thanks to the sponsorship of a Stoughton family who let the Nuons live in their guesthouse.

As Americans, the Nuon family wants to continue to the rich humanitarian tradition of their new home in the United States by improving the conditions of their homeland. As Mara Nuon states, “When you’ve been there, you’re not going to say, ‘I’ve made it, the hell with you.’ I’m looking for an organization where I can go and be effective, and do whatever I can do to make a difference.”

Massachusetts is estimated to have the second largest population of Cambodian refugees in the United States, where roughly 50,000 have built their homes and become a large ethnic group in cities like Lowell, Massachusetts. However, Long Beach, California has the largest Cambodian refugee populations and was the first site many were resettled to because of the cheap housing market and similar climate conditions to Cambodia.

The International Herald Tribune featured the following article today:

GENEVA: The United Nations says the increasingly negative image of refugees is fueling racism and violence against foreigners around the world.

A senior official at the U.N. refugee agency says even countries with good reputations for protecting asylum seekers are seeing a rise in hostility toward foreigners.

Erika Feller says the growing intolerance of refugees is causing countries to tighten the laws and procedures affecting asylum seekers. She says South Africa and Ukraine are examples of countries where this has led to unprovoked and lethal attacks on foreigners.

Her comments Wednesday were part of an annual report to the agency’s governing body.

Click here to see the article.