Rohingya at Risk: Washington’s Call to Action
By: Tasia Matthews
This World Refugee Day, Senators Chris Coons (D-Delaware) and Thom Tillis (R-North Carolina), both chairpersons on the Senate Human Rights Caucus, hosted a briefing in the Russell Senate Office Building titled “Rohingya at Risk.”
As the name suggests, the briefing served to both raise awareness of the facts and intricacies of the Rohingya refugee crisis, as well as a call to action. In addition to Coons, opening remarks were made by Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International; Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), and a panel of three women – Joan Timoney, Jana Mason, and Francisca Viguad-Walsh, senior representatives from the Women’s Refugee Commission, the UN Refugee Agency, and the Women & Girls commission of Refugees International, respectively.
The Rohingya are an ethnic and religious minority native to Myanmar, where they have faced systematic discrimination for decades. This discrimination has accelerated to the point of becoming a contained campaign of systematic terrorism and violence in the government’s effort to force them out of the country. The campaign, which began in August 2017, has since led to more than 700,000 Rohingya being driven out of the country in an unprecedented wave of forced migration, where they have temporarily settled in Bangladesh, now home to the largest refugee camp in the world. Denied citizenship since 1982, the Rohingya are a stateless people.
In Myanmar, the Rohingya faced firebombing, ruthless execution by gunshot, gender-based violence and assault, torture, and other repugnant human rights violations. Now, in Bangladesh, they face another problem—the environment. In the tiny, overpopulated nation, the Rohingya had to make do with the only uninhabited lands they could find—barren fields, hillsides, and other such examples. These locations, coupled with the camps’ lack of infrastructure and the weakness of their simple bamboo shelters, are extremely prone to natural threats, such as landslides, erosion, and flooding. Having reached Bangladesh’s monsoon season, there are between 150,000 and 200,000 refugees at risk of these disasters, and another estimated 40,000 who are at severe risk of imminent danger.
Both Coons and Merkley called out the current administration for not having spoken about the plight of the Rohingya, nor making any efforts to pressure the Burmese government into stopping the campaign. They also praised the resilience of these refugees for the hardships they endured. All of the speakers spoke on the urgent needs of those residing in the Bangladeshi camps that were not yet being met, including access to gender-specific clinical and trauma recovery care.
“Lost causes are not lost,” Schwartz stated. “It is only with perseverance and sustained engagement that we can have results.”
The crisis of the Rohingya is a terrible example of the extreme of human nature when hate and bigotry is allowed to fester and gain enough power to do almost irreversible damage to an innocent group of people. On World Refugee Day, and all other days, it is pertinent for us all to keep them in our thoughts, our donations, and our advocacy, so that one day they will be able to return to their homeland in safety.
Refugee Road Offers A Complicated, and Perhaps Promising Path Toward Freedom
By: Melita Piercy
On World Refugee Day, a large crowd gathered in the 9th floor of the Hart Senate building. Walking in, each attendee was given a card that assigned them a color which corresponded to one of four seating areas. These random assignments would prove to be of great importance as the program progressed- deciding the experience each participant had that afternoon.
This program was Oxfam America’s Refugee Road, an interactive event held on World Refugee Day as a timely opportunity, as Oxfam’s website describes, to “humanize the Syrian refugee crisis and to create a sense of shared humanity by inviting people to spend a short time identifying with the different choices refugees are forced to make in their struggle to protect their loved ones and survive.”
Before the interactive portion of the event began, the audience – a mix of non-profit workers, Congressional members, staffers and interns, government agency employees, and citizens – was reminded of the significance of the day itself. Several speakers set the tone, reminding everyone about the importance of efforts to support refugees and displaced people around the world.
Oxfam America CEO Abby Maxman opened with comments on what Oxfam is and what they are doing, both domestically and internationally, in response to today’s global refugee crisis. Next, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-California) and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) addressed the audience, reminding us about the importance of the issues at stake, and how the United States has the capacity to be a part of the solution. Cardin, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke about how supporting refugees has a legacy of bipartisan support. He condemned the limitations that are currently being placed on the United States resettlement program.
After these remarks, the journey down Refugee Road began. Our hosts prompted us to reflect on how we keep our loved ones safe, and how we are so conditioned to believe that we have control over our own destiny.
But, many do not have the same privilege. For those who find their livelihoods entrapped in conflict, they have limited choices available on keeping themselves and their loved ones safe within forced, unsafe conditions.
In accordance to the color of the card that each person received upon entering the room, each audience member was randomly placed into one of the following statuses. They include: Living in Syria, Trying to Leave the Region, Living in a Refugee Camp, or Living in the United States. Each status symbolized the lack of choice and random nature which many refugees find characterizing their lives.
In each of the four statuses, the hosts described to the audience the conditions that existed, following several true stories of refugees under pseudonyms that correlated with each. Different audience members were given roles to assume and personal stories to read that would lead them to the next step in their journey.
For example, one audience member was asked to assume the role of Mahmoud, a man living in Syria whose entire family, except for his wife and young daughter, was killed after a bomb struck their home. He chose to flee the country in search of a safer environment for his family. Symbolizing this change of status, the audience member who read this account, along with two other volunteers, were asked to move to the Trying to Leave the Region seating area.
Each of these statuses included audience participation and addressed different choices and experiences that refugees faced in each stage of their journey. The final seating area was in the very back of the room and only had space for five audience members. These were the refugees who were actually welcomed into the United States.
Upon completing this journey through the lives and experiences of several different Syrians, the audience was asked to reflect on what we had just heard and experienced. During this time of contemplation, the three attendees who rose to stand were actually all refugees themselves. Each commented on the realistic nature of this exercise and the importance of continued advocacy for those who are currently on this journey.
After the interactive portion of the event was completed, a panel discussion followed. The panel included Minnesota State Representative and Somali refugee Ilhan Omar, who is the highest-elected Somali American woman in the United States, entrepreneur and activist Uyen Nguyen, who came as a refugee to the United States from Vietnam, Syria Project Officer at Oxfam America Ali Al Jundi, and Senior Policy Adviser for Humanitarian Response at Oxfam America Noah Gottschalk. They shared their stories, both as refugees and as activists in the United States advocating for refugees, and they concluded the afternoon with a call to action, encouraging us to share the stories of refugees and to educate others on the benefits that refugees contribute to our communities here in the United States.
World Refugee Day: A Celebration and a Call for Change
By: Maddie Rule
The U.S. Capitol was buzzing on Wednesday as lawmakers, advocates, and refugees alike gathered on the House Triangle for a World Refugee Day press conference.
Behind the podium, people held large, colorful photos of refugees from around the world, along with signs with sayings like “United Against Hate” and “Refugees Welcome”. These sayings stood as reminders of the events of the past two years and echoed the theme of many of the speeches, which was that this was not only a day for celebration, but a call to action.
House representatives spoke out about how the current administration’s policy towards refugees, especially the low refugee admissions goal for the current fiscal year, goes against American values.
“The heritage of America has been one of welcoming refugees. Having a safe place to come to when you have nowhere else to go, that is what the U.S. is all about,” said Illinois Rep. Randy Hultren (D-14). Both Imam Talib Sharif and Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb quoted the Declaration of Independence, calling lawmakers to remember the unalienable rights that it says apply to all people.
Diane Randall, executive secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, urged the administration to at least meet the refugee goal, calling World Refugee Day “a critical call to consciousness” in the face of the worst refugee crisis the world has seen in decades.
The conference highlighted some of the tremendous stories of refugees who came to the U.S. in search of safety and a better life. Speakers included Minnesota State Rep. Ilhan Omar, who also is the country’s first Somali lawmaker; Deborah Jane, a Ugandan who survived an acid attack; and Uyen Nguyen, a Vietnamese refugee from Seattle. All of them talked about the hardships they and their families experienced in their home countries.
Nguyen came to the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor after her mother and five of her siblings died trying to leave Vietnam. She now has two graduate degrees and her own business, but she made sure to emphasize that her success was not just due to her own hard work.
“I benefited from a system that wanted to help [me succeed],” she said, as she encouraged people to out-organize, out-mobilize, and out-vote those against supporting refugees in this year’s upcoming midterm elections.
Omar mentioned the many roles she identifies herself by.
“I stand before you as a mother, as a former refugee, and as a representative…I have had the opportunity of being elected by my state.”
She emphasized her position as an opportunity that she was very grateful for, and an opportunity that others who had stayed in the refugee camps never had.