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Five Ways Americans Can Help Refugees Right Now


Displaced by war, violence and poverty, hundreds of thousands of people are at this moment searching for a better place to raise their family and build a life. Today we have a guest post from Mallory Sutika-Sipus, specialist in international migration and human rights law who brings several years experience working with displaced populations from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Congo and elsewhere.

Five Ways Americans Can Help Refugees Right Now

By Mallory Sutika Sipus

It is nearly impossible to look away from news of the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, as shocking images and stories of refugee deaths and exploitation comprise a 24-hour cable and radio news loop as well as a host of viral social media stories. I’ve spoken to several friends and acquaintances outside of the human rights and forced migration communities who are in the grips of trying to process and understand the issues surrounding the crisis. Seeing images of such suffering might have you wondering what you might be able to do to help reduce refugee suffering in some small way. There is a list going around the internet that includes places to donate, etc but it is admittedly a bit Eurocentric. Unfortunately the refugee crisis is not a strictly European phenomenon and there are some things Americans can do right now to help refugees – without leaving their own communities.

1. Educate yourself on what it means to be a refugee.

Generally speaking, refugees are people who were forced to flee their home country out of a well-founded fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. This official definition of refugee was determined by the 1951 Convention on Refugees. Today, refugee law also includes the 1967 protocol as well as a body of case law. You do not have to be a lawyer to understand refugee basics though! With so many resources out there, you can spend 5-20 minutes reading the Cliff Notes/FAQ version or just poking around the UNHCR website. In doing so, you will gain a better idea of the context of the refugee crisis, putting you in a position to effectively engage others.

2. Respectfully challenge ignorance of others

Now that you understand what a refugee is, speak up when you hear other spew ignorance and hate. It can be intimidating, especially when others may speak with arrogance. No one is asking you to ruin your friendships, but you can still stand up for what you believe and correct misinformation. Refugees are not “illegal immigrants” because the 1951 Convention specifically grants that protected class of people the right to seek asylum. Moreover, I encourage you to challenge the conceptions of refugees as poor, lazy, or monolithic. The truth is that many (if not most) refugees are among the middle or even upper classes in their home countries – after all, it takes resources just to even attempt to leave. The poorest and most vulnerable are often left behind trying to survive the conflict. Refugees are homeowners, engineers, doctors, teachers. Refugees are grandparents, brothers, and children. Refugees are people. Help others internalize this.

3. Write your Congressman/woman, and ask them to stop refugee child detention in the United States

It is easy to look and Europe and think, “My goodness, what are they doing?” It may be more difficult to look inward at our own policies towards refugees. Unfortunately many Americans have a blind spot with regards to refugees and immigration here at home. It is standard practice to place asylum seekers in the US in “detention processing centers,” – prisons – sometimes for months on end, until they are found to meet the legal definition of a refugee. Thousands of unaccompanied minors have come into the United States and are currently in institutions such as these. If you want to take action to help refugee children today, one of the best things you can do is call, write, or email your Congressman and tell him/her that you are watching their actions on the treatment of these children. Urge them to actively pass legislation that takes asylum seekers – especially unaccompanied children – out of detention immediately. So many of these children have already survived nightmarish circumstances, let us help them begin to heal instead of treating them like criminals.

4. Donate to an organization that works with refugees directly

If you are able and willing to make a monetary (or goods) donation, do so. Obviously, you are always able to donate to big organizations like UNHCR or Save The Children, but also consider the less obvious. Medicines Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) does good work directly in the field while maintaining an impressive devotion to their message and neutrality. St. Andrew’s Refugee Services in Cairo and small grass roots organizations like them are a worthy cause. Church World Service also has a variety of refugee related activities throughout the world. As long as you do your research, chances are you will find an organization that will put your money into programming you believe in.

5. Reevaluate your perception and interaction with refugees in your own community

One would be hard pressed to find a major metropolitan area without refugee community members. Surely they are in your own community, but have you given it much thought? You do not have to run out and volunteer with a local organization that provides integration services. (Though by all means, if you feel compelled – do! Such organizations are always chronically short staffed and underfunded, so they would likely appreciate a free set of hands, even for basic administrative tasks). Challenge the way you think and interact with unfamiliar people in your community. Adjusting to life in a new country is always complicated and somewhat intimidating – America is no different. Maybe you have been annoyed with the woman who seemed to be holding up the grocery checkout because she struggled to understand the clerk speaking English. Or maybe you have avoided a store or restaurant where you know the employee is from “somewhere else.” Remind yourself that we are all from somewhere else, and offer a smile. Reach out and have a conversation when it is appropriate. You never know where that person has been or what their story is, but offering patience and kindness instead of fear and animosity will only make your community a better place – refugee or not.

Update on the Somalis in Moscow Airport

Shortly after posting my previous article, The Shermeyateva 16, Somali Refugees Stranded at Airport in Moscow, I was contacted by a woman who works in refugee assistance and who has worked to assist this group of Somalis for quite some time.  She has given me permission to repost some of her previous writings on the subject.



Originally posted at MIRA, November 27, 2010

“Because [they] slipped through and fell in a crack. Nobody likes staying in a crack because they're nothing. Nobody likes to be stuck in a crack.”–Frank Dixon, character from DreamWorks’ 2004 film, ‘Terminal’

In 2004, theater-goers were regaled with the fictional tale of Viktor Navorski—a man from “Krakoshia”, an artificial Eastern European state—whose country became engulfed in war while he was in transit to the US. Upon his arrival at US customs, his passport was invalidated, no longer recognized by the US government. He was forced to remain in the airport until his status could be determined; he could not return to his war-tattered nation, nor could he, legally, enter the USA.

Comedy, friendship, love and intrigue are artistically woven into Navorski’s story as he navigates airport life over the course of the film. An ever-resilient Navorski is finally able to return “home.” This humorous and intriguing story is intended to be a piece of mainstream entertainment, enjoyed and then forgotten. But the situation is all too real.

Suheeb Mohammad and his travel companions have been living the fictional horror of Viktor Navorski for the past six months. These young men and women, desperate refugees from Somalia, paid $3,500 USD each to an individual who purported to have the means to assist them in seeking asylum via Moscow, Russia. They learned that they had been deceived upon arrival to Moscow’s Shermeyateva Dva airport, 45 minutes north of the city, in May of 2010. Russian customs officials discovered their falsified documents and their visas were summarily revoked. Unable to officially enter or exit the Russian Federation, their fates are left in the hands of charitable airport staff and non-governmental workers in Moscow’s unofficial humanitarian services sector. Food, water, and clothing needs are met through daily acts of charity. Their future remains unclear, and their hope dwindles.

In Suheeb’s own words:

“We feel stress and we need a big help. . .it’s taking a long time, you understand? Being in an airport for months? I cannot describe it. It hurts so much to be in this place but we don’t have a choice . . . we don’t feel safe and worry for the future. All we ask is when will we be out of here? Please, please try to help us.”

Suheeb and his travel companions (deemed the Shermeyateva 16) are not the first refugees to fall victim to Russia’s inadequate asylum system, forced to remain captive within its borders. Refugees and other forced migrants have sought refuge in or via Russia in great numbers since the fall of the Soviet Union. Seen as a veritable portal to the west, Moscow’s emerging economy and seeming openness (Soviet détente established ‘friendship universities,’ and recruited attendees from developing nations in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond) has captured the attention of the desperate asylum seekers from far abroad.

The first such noted case of airport detainees was documented in the Moscow Times in 1992. A group of over sixty refugees were held in a Moscow airport for months before finally being returned to their country of transit.

International conventions, to which Russia freely submits, set forward standard operating procedures to ensure the rights of forced migrants like Suheeb. The UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention recommends that governments “continue to receive refugees in their territories and that they act in concert in a true spirit of international cooperation in order that these refugees may find asylum and the possibility of resettlement.” What’s more, disallowing the Shermeyateva 16 access to the court system is, too, in direct violation of international standards set forward in the 1951 Convention.

This real-life drama, grimly mirroring fabricated situational comedy, unfolds day by unchanging day for these refugees. How it plays out depends very much on the tenacity of the cast of characters involved. Global advocates must step-up, forgive the pun, to the international stage. Decision makers, law enforcers, and politicians must unite in political prowess on behalf of the Shermeyateva 16.


Join us in asking Amnesty International to host a worldwide letter writing campaign to grant these individuals equitable access to asylum proceedings. Write or call Amnesty International USA and offer your support of this campaign: (212) 807-8400 or submit the following email to: aimember@aiusa.org and please cc: ellenp@alum.dartmouth.org.

Dear Amnesty International USA:

Please take up the case of the Shermeyateva 16 as a special focus case. This group of 16 refugees have been unofficially detained in Moscow’s Shermeyateva Dva airport for the past six months without access to legal support of any official asylum proceedings. We urge you to allow us to unite and take action under Amnesty’s esteemed reputation, in order to reach a broader global support network and assist in ensuring these refugees are afforded their full, deserved human rights.

For more information, please contact Danielle J. Grigsby, Shermeyateva 16 Coordinator, at grigsbyd@bc.edu or 801-710-7148.

Respectfully,

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