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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.

Somalis at the Moscow Airport Part IV


The other day I received an email about the Somalis who have been stranded in the Moscow airport for over a year.  Having received permission from the author, I'm posting it below.

Hello!
My name is Orshi. I was changing planes at the Moscow airport on Monday, 01.10.2011
I met a girl there, who is a Somalian refugee, and spoke suprisingly good english. She told me there are 6 of them now - 2 women and 4 men. And they are hoping to get into the EU somewhere. 


They applied for immigration, and waiting for papers. Also, they have a place to sleep, kind of, and regular food. Some international Union (sorry, forgot the name) gives them food once a week, every week, so she said they have enough.  They've been there for 10 months, and not really any hope how to get out. 
She told me they are trying to follow up on what is happening in Somalia through the net, and have no idea what happened with loved ones back there. 


Also, their problem there is that they are bored to hell, i think. She told me she would like to study, she had good education, compared to others, because she has studied for 8 years. When I had to leave to catch mz fight she asked me for blank papers, or a notebook to have something to write on. I gave her a bunch of papers. 
I don't know what could I do for them, but I really hope they won't be there for much longer. 
Maybe you can help. 

Orshi

Black Flags and RPG's: Piracy continues to reveal massive problems, while the world misses the point.


The never ending attitude toward piracy off the Somali coast continues to astound me.  Somalia is a failed state with no government, no security, an antiquated economy undermined by climate change, no food supplies to feed its displaced population, and scares the hell out of aid agencies.  Yet we all talk about piracy as if that is the problem because piracy affects international trade.  Its obvious piracy is the consequence of desperate people living in a desperate situation, and if the global community cared about that situation, then we probably wouldn't have piracy.  If piracy continued to persist while the country developed, military intervention and security measures would make sense and probably have the desired outcome.

Everyday there is a constant deluge of absurd media generated about pirates.  Today CNN featured an article on ships containing a safe room to hide their crew while pirates run the show on deck.  They lock themselves in a bullet-proof room full of food and water and wait for help to arrive.  Or consider a personal favorite of mine, as BAE Systems develops a laser defense system to disorient would-be pirates from attacking with their AK-47s and RPGs.  There is also much fanfare over the development of a private military in Northern Somalia to police the waters and combat pirates.

In the meanwhile, the global economy loses anywhere between 7 and 12 BILLION dollars per year due to the impact and accumulated costs of piracy.   So yes, every one is losing money because some really poor men in rowboats are causing problems.

Perhaps one day, somebody, somewhere, will choose to invest a billion dollars into stabilizing the water supply or investing in the workforce of Somalia.  When more donors and nations realize the potential investment opportunity for such a geographically advantaged state,  perhaps they will consider investing in solutions rather than laser beams and naval fleets.  In that scenario, everybody wins, not just the pirates.

Part III, New Information on the Shermeyateva 16, Refugees in Moscow Airport

Contribution by Dani Grisby, Posted December 12, 2010
Good news! The Shermeyateva 16 is now down to 14. Two members have been resettled to Sweden.

Bad news: there are still 14 people stuck in the Moscow airport. We cannot stop writing Amnesty International, asking them to take this deserving group on as a focus case.
Here's an e-mail I recently received from Suheeb, one of the 16 stranded, which really expresses the severity of their situation.
Dear Dani,
We are doing good but are still in the airport. We were told we may get to go to Sweden but we're not sure.
Two of us have recently been sent to Sweden, they came to the airport before us. Now we are hoping insha Allah.

It will be very painful to be stateless for the new year. Especially as we have almost been here a year.

We don't know who to blame for this situation. But it's really bad when this huge planet cannot find room for you within any border, for no reason. We did not commit a crime, we are just seeking asylum. Maybe we can go to the planet mars, maybe life is better there.

Also, it's really hard for me to see what the two women who are with us have to go through. Most of us, we are men, But for the women to suffer, it really hurts me, too much. They have no privacy.

Any information you have from amnesty on our case?

Thank you,

Suheeb


If you've emailed on their behalf before, please do so, again. While we received a response from AI-USA (telling us to talk to the London office) we have yet to hear anything from London.

Send emails to: amnestyis@amnesty.org

"Hello!

My name is _____________, and I am writing to request that Amnesty International take up, as an urgent action, the case of 16 Somalis who, as victims of a smuggling scheme, have been stranded in the Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow for the past ten months. The Russian Federation is required under international law to assist these Somalis and allow them to access courts and other mechanisms that would facilitate their right to asylum. So far, the Russian Federation has failed to meet even the most basic of its international obligations in this case. We, as members of the international community, thus have an obligation to stand in solidarity with the Somalis and to make our voices be heard.

Thank you for taking this case into consideration.

Sincerely,

Your Name Here"

Write to the author of this post Dani Grisby, Policy Intern, at grigsby@miracoalition.org

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,

Your Name Here

The Shermeyateva 16, Somali Refugees Stranded at Airport in Moscow

Have you ever seen the Tom Hanks movie about the man from Eastern Europe who is stuck in an airport when when his country implodes and invalidates his passport before reaching customs?  That movie was based on the real life experience of an Iranian man who was stuck at a French airport due to his own idiocy.  The man had acquired refugee status in Belgium, then got on a ferry to England and sent his legal document back to Belgium in the mail, thus leaving him stranded between borders with no legal clearance.  Later he wrote a book about it, which I found shoved in the corner of guest house in India, and have wondered periodically about how the matter was resolved.

But these stories are more than fiction.  Such things actually happen.

A few days ago I received an email that said the following:
This past weekend I was traveling in Russia and I encountered a group of 8 Somali refugees who told me they have been stranded in the Moscow airport for the past nine months.  I spoke with two who have very good English.  The group is safe, but they are sleeping on the airport floor surviving on instant soup and have not been able to leave the airport at all.  I'm assuming this is the same group who Rachel encountered in June.I found your contact info on the forced migration list serve via a Google search and am following up to see if you have any additional information or ideas for how to support them.  I have referred them to the Advocates for Human Rights, a Minnesota-based organization in the US, but am looking for all ideas for how to help them.  The situation seems inhumane and I would like to do whatever I can to assist them in finding a permanent new home. A Russian airport staff person has donated a laptop to the group and they have internet access.  Here is the email address that can be used to reach them [redacted].

Please let me know if you might be able to help this group, or suggest someone who can, or have any advice for the best way to raise the profile of their plight."

Having read something about this sometime during the summer, I was disappointed to learn the situation is otherwise unchanged.  Airports are a legal curiosity, as they present passengers with a 'legal fiction' of control between border points while remaining trans-national space.  Yet I cannot wonder about the particular issues facing this group.  Were they denied entry to Russia?  Were they denied exit?  Were they in transit to another destination but lacked transit visas?  What happened?  If anyone can tell me more about this, I'd like to hear about it.  You can contact me here.

Moscow Airport