Blog

  • 04 Aug 2017 by Patricia Nyhan

     

     

    Looking for a way to engage in refugee support, despite pullback on immigration? Try reaching out to members of a Congress you may not have heard of yet – the Refugee Congress.  

    This advocacy and advisory organization of refugees, asylum-seekers, and stateless persons is made up of delegates from more than 25 countries of origin. Each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia have an elected delegate who listens to the concerns of refugees where they live and lobbies for support from the other Congress, the one on Capitol Hill.

    As returned Peace Corps volunteers, you can help on both fronts by working with them directly or through networks of their organizational partners.

     

    Who better to hear from in the cacophony of voices on refugee policy than refugees themselves?

     

    Here are some ways to become engaged with the Refugee Congress:

    .  Participate in a Refugee Congress advocacy campaign against proposals to restrict refugee resettlement.

    .  Join the delegate in your state in organizing local gatherings where refugees share their experiences with the community.

    .  Help facilitate refugees sharing their stories to the news media.

    .  Participate in social media campaigns.

    .  Meet with local refugee resettlement agencies.

     

    While delegates are active in advocacy throughout the year, they also have meetings several times a year that are open to the public. Attend one to learn how you can become involved. Contact a delegate on the Advisory Board, an 11-member elected leadership group, to see what more you can do to help. Join a delegate from your state in actions like the World Refugee Day rally at the White House in June. Maryland delegate Beni DeDieu Luzau is shown in photo below, holding sign at the rally.

    "Peace Corps volunteers are welcome to support the work of the delegates in their respective states because they are interested in refugees, and the Refugee Congress is the voice of refugees in the U.S.," he says.

    UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN refugee agency) hosted the first Refugee Congress in Washington, DC, in 2011. Since then, national Congresses have been held in 2013 and 2016. The group receives financial and in-kind support from UNHCR and USA for UNHCR. Delegates come from a variety of professions, including educators, journalists, civil servants, business owners, accountants, attorneys, social workers and religious leaders. About a third of them are female. Get acquainted with them, whether offering your own advocacy, or with a refugee you may be mentoring.

    Because it’s the refugees’ own voices that are the most effective.  You can help them get heard.

     

    To connect with the Refugee Congress, visit their website: www.refugeecongress.org   View the Delegates list to find the delegate in your state.

     

  • 24 Jul 2017 by Patricia Nyhan

    Laurette Bennhold-Samaan returned home recently from a month of volunteering with refugees on the Greek island of Samos. She shares reflections on her experience in the following excerpts from her personal blog.

     

    “When I sit and reflect as to what contribution am I REALLY making, it’s not something grand at all. It’s the conversations, the human interactions and being the listening ear. It’s being open to receiving a hug from a child or giving a nod and warm smile to some of the adults. It’s reassuring them they are safe for now and that others in the world do care and they are not alone.”

    “ Samos Volunteers have current long-term refugees with good command of English as Community Liaisons who work closely with us on a daily basis. They translate for us linguistically and culturally. They are involved in every single project.”

    “They were asked what has been the hardest part of their journey and their answers ranged from making the decision to actually attempt the life-threatening trip, leaving family unexpectedly, loss of faith in public organizations to total lack of control and certainty about their future.”

    “The activities we provide, while very basic in nature (language lessons, arts and crafts, music, fitness) all serve a much deeper level. They help bring normalcy to the refugees’ lives. These activities are intended to help restore dignity and respect, create a social network, develop skills for the future, and give them a sense of identity.”

    “Not everyone comes to our activities, and I’m sure many are depressed, anxious, extremely stressed and feel helpless. I can see some of this in their eyes when we serve them tea daily. We were given a training session to look out for changes in mood, lack of interest, poor concentration, PTSD symptoms, self-harm or suicidal thinking. There was a mom a few days ago who tried to commit suicide, we heard.”

    “Here is a list of things I won’t miss and what I will miss!

    10 things I won’t miss:

    1. Kids fighting
    2. Washing my clothes in the shower
    3. Spotty internet
    4. Trash bins next to the toilet
    5. Way too narrow roads for me to drive
    6. Driving for 20 min up hills in first gear
    7. Cigarette smoke
    8. The look of desperation
    9. Barbed wire around the refugee camp
    10.  The living conditions

    10 things I’ll miss:

    1. The refugees, especially the kids
    2. The smiles and conversations with adult refugees
    3. Constant appreciation for all that I have
    4. Conversing about the state of refugee affairs globally
    5. The sense of helping, however small
    6. Poster-like views of the ocean and sunsets
    7. Olives, baklava, dolmades, stuffed peppers, gyros …
    8. New friends from all over the world
    9. Short-term meaningful purpose
    10. Experiencing immediate individual impact albeit small 

      

    “There are those who have gotten asylum status which means they go to Athens and then on to another EU country. Some get jobs immediately and others start the job search. You can barely imagine the immense relief and joy when they learn they have been granted a safe country to legally reside in. This gentleman below got all of his papers plus an amazing job in Athens!”

     

    “I have no doubt that this experience will stay with me forever. One can never “go back” from such an intense experience without being changed in some way. I will need to figure out how, and which parts to incorporate into my life.

    Do I want to go home? No, not yet….but then I pause… I am so fortunate to have a “home” and to be able to go back. Refugees do not.”

     

     

    Note:  The Samos refugee camp is funded by the United Nations Refugee Agency and Samaritan’s Purse.  Samos Volunteers is a privately funded organization working with partners on the island. Some volunteers stay for a month, most much longer, and most are returnees. Some come with their parents or their kids. Many are in their 20s and 30s, but there are some older volunteers, like me. -- Laurette

     

    Read about the early days of Laurette’s adventure in our blog post of June 19, 2017.

    To read her blog in its entirety, go to: https://medium.com/@laurettebennhold/laurette-bennhold-samaan-in-samos-greece-working-with-refugees-3ea5c56da27e

     

     Laurette Bennhold-Samaan was a cross-cultural specialist with the Peace Corps in Washington, D.C., 1994-2001. 

     

  • 21 Jul 2017 by Patricia Nyhan

    Katie Curtis works for the Georgia Department of Public Health as an Outbreak Response Planner. She served in the Peace Corps in Senegal 2013-2015.                                                 

    (Photo taken in Senegal during her service.)

     

    “I found the skills I had gained in Senegal made me well suited to working with refugees, and I enjoyed being able to welcome someone to my country the way Senegalese people had welcomed me,” says returned Peace Corps volunteer Katie Curtis.

    She enjoys mentoring so much that she is on her third family match through the Lutheran Services of Georgia resettlement agency since returning from West Africa two years ago.

    “When I first came back from Senegal, I moved to Atlanta for grad school and was looking for a way to get to know the city and the people in it better. I also really missed interacting with a different culture. And of course, with the world facing the greatest refugee crisis in history, it seemed like a great time to do what I could to help this population.”

    Katie first worked with a family from Burundi for a year, then with a family from Central African Republic for a few months, before they moved to another state.

    Recently, she met her third match – a Syrian family of 10, with kids aged one – 14. After war drove them from their home in Aleppo, they spent four years in a refugee camp in Jordan before coming to the U.S. last year.

    Katie aims to help the families acclimate to America through assisting them with English, public transportation, and understanding small everyday things like homework or filling out forms. She has found that “it’s helpful to arrive at a family’s home with an activity in mind – a book, coloring, a game, a field trip – just something to get the ball rolling! Beyond that, just being patient and flexible are the most important things.”

    So that the families can attain independence as soon as possible, Katie recommends finding long-term solutions. For example, instead of offering a ride, offer to teach them about public transportation.

    Mentorship is not without challenges, she says. “Sometimes communicating is very difficult! As a RPCV, language barriers are nothing new, but having no common language can be very difficult.”

    Once, however, she got lucky with her Central African Republic family, who spoke the same language, Pulaar, that she learned in Senegal. After unsuccessfully trying a few greetings that drew blank stares, one day when she was helping one of the kids with his homework, she said the Pulaar word for cow in her Senegalese dialect. He lit up, and they soon found many words in common.

    “It was incredible to be able to use this obscure language in Atlanta, especially to be able to help people with it.”

    Another challenge is seeing the hardships these families deal with on a daily basis and knowing that she can’t always help. “Just things like needing someone to watch their kids or not having a ride to work – it’s tough not to always have a consistent solution to their challenges.”

    Katie’s overarching goal is simple:

    “I think the true value of volunteering with refugee families (especially in the current political climate) is showing them that they are welcome in America and that there are people here who care about them on a personal level.”

    Mentorship is about just that -- caring human relationships – and Katie feels rewarded with happy moments when she arrives at her family’s apartment.

    “It’s such a joy to see neighbor kids from literally all over the world, many of whom have gone through some terrible things, playing together. I also really love showing up to visit and not knowing what to expect – there’s always something new and fun going on in the apartment or the neighborhood.”

    Serving in the Peace Corps isn’t the only thing that has prepared Katie well for mentoring refugees. She grew up in Dallas, where migration issues were often at the forefront of political discussion. “Dallas taught me a lot about the richness that other countries brought to the U.S.,” she says. In college, she studied political science and anthropology and became interested in social justice and immigrant and refugee issues.

    In Atlanta, she found a unique program run by RPCVs at Emory Rollins School of Public Health that connects students with refugee volunteer opportunities. It also has bi-monthly classes about the refugee resettlement process and how to be effective volunteers. And she has had a great experience working with Lutheran Services of Georgia. “I truly appreciate the hard work they do for refugees and others in need in Georgia!”

     

    Have you mentored any refugees? We’d love to hear your experience on our Facebook page.

     

     

  • 22 Jun 2017 by Patricia Nyhan

     

    As World Refugee Day is celebrated this week with public events and advocacy campaigns, I think of the power of everyday conversation between strangers. Recently, I had an uncomfortable one at the Tucson airport with a smart, articulate former commercial airline pilot as we waited to board our flight. The topic of Trump’s travel ban came up; he was for it.

     

    “We don’t need more Muslims,” he said. I asked him for his reasons. A self-described news hound, he quoted what to him were incontrovertible facts. “Look, 99% of all terrorist attacks in the U.S. have been committed by Muslims.” When I asked where that number came from, he replied, “A Pew Research Center study.” According to my acquaintance, almost all refugees are men. They don’t care about their women. They just leave them behind while they climb into boats to cross the Mediterranean. They take away American jobs. They abuse our welfare system.

     

    As we who support refugees and try to stay informed about immigration know, none of this is true . . . according to news sources we are consuming. If only we could remember those facts and figures when meeting a stranger who, like us, believes his sources.  Does it matter? Should we try to change someone’s mind on such a fraught topic in a few short minutes of conversation in an airport lounge? Could we?

    Share Facts When and Where We Can

     

    I’m sure I didn’t change the pilot’s mind that day. Maybe no one could have, even if much better informed than I am and armed with a sharper memory and a taste for argument. But, yes, it matters. With the cancerous spread of false news to Americans long turned-off by mainstream news, it’s important to share actual facts when and where we can. Otherwise, we two strangers just exchange opinions and leave each other uninformed and disrespecting each other.

     

    I wish I could say my acquaintance took in any of my mild advocacy for Muslim refugees. In future, I’ll try to become better informed on the points he raised, since we hear them all the time and there is plenty of solid reporting refuting them. But how to even make it through such a conversation without giving up in frustration?

     

    Experts in such matters recommend, as a first rule, listening. Be polite and try to understand what the stranger is saying – it’s common sense. Take into consideration what fears may prompt the person’s statements. For instance, a woman I met in Tucson vented about what she heard were thousands and thousands of non-Latino refugees sneaking into the U.S. across the southern border near where she lived. (Not true.)

    How to Discuss Tough Issues

    HIAS, the Jewish refugee resettlement agency, offers tips for answering tough questions in conversation with strangers, friends and family members who may disagree with our views on refugees.  They address the kinds of objections the pilot expressed to me – refugees as a security threat, drain on our economy, etc. – on their website www.HIAS.org.

     

    As for staying current on those points, the other refugee resettlement organizations with whom we collaborate in partnerships are also good resources, as is UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. See our website pages Our Partners and Learn More.

     

    Next time you find yourself in a conversation that touches on refugees, don’t be afraid to try seeking common ground. Not everyone can find a World Refugee Day event to attend near them. But we can all advocate for refugees in small ways, one fact-based conversation at a time.

     

    Of course, some conversations wind up going nowhere, like the one I had with the Uber driver who took me to the Tucson airport.

     

    “Where are you from?” he asked.

     

    “Washington, DC,” I answered.

     

    “That’s in Vermont, right?”

     

    Tell us about a difficult conversation about Muslim refugees you have had. Share tips for success on our Facebook page.

     

     

     

     

     

  • 19 Jun 2017 by Patricia Nyhan

    Laurette Bennhold-Samaan is volunteering on the Greek island of Samos in a camp for migrants seeking asylum and refugee status. Read about the early days of her adventure in the following excerpts from her blog, which she has kindly given us permission to share. Laurette was a cross-cultural specialist with the Peace Corps in Washington, D.C., 1994-2001.

    “I needed to change directions,” Laurette Bennhold-Samaan decided after her last job ended. “I needed to take advantage of the time ‘off’ in between jobs and do something that I have always wanted to do but never had the courage to explore.”

     

    “How could I take a month off of my life and go and serve out of my comfort zone? How could I not?”

     

    “I wanted to be on the front lines working with people in need. The possibilities were endless and the exploration easy with the internet. . . My mind kept returning to refugees.”

     

    After applying on line to Samos Volunteers, she was accepted and soon on her way to Samos. The small Aegean island’s close proximity to Turkey makes it a destination for migrants seeking entry to Europe from their conflict–torn countries. Laurette lives in a modest hotel near the camp, which is funded by the United Nations and Samaritan’s Purse.

     

    “The refugees arrive by dinghies in the middle of the night . . . and the typical less-than-2-hour boat ride from Turkey can last anywhere from 4–10 hours as they need to take the longer less direct routes to not get caught by the Turkish coast guard. The local coast guard might spot them or they land and a local will spot them and call the police.”

     

    “The police then call Samos Volunteers (US!!) who will come in the middle of the night to supply dry clothes, blankets, food and water. They might have not had food or water in days depending on when they left. In the morning the other NGOs and local authorities take over to get them police identification papers. They are then brought to the camp and either put in tents or barracks, as this refugee camp was an old military site. Last week, 300 arrived by dinghies.”

     

    “The majority of refugees who arrive in Samos have experienced violent conflict. While we are not here to provide any sort of medical, legal, or psychological support, we empower and stimulate the refugees through our work and activities, which include playing with the children, teaching English, German, Greek and French through Farsi, Arabic, Kurdish and Sorani [a Kurdish language], doing arts and crafts, music lessons and any other skills volunteers come with!”

     

    “I ran up to the camp to play with the children under the olive tree . . .” So begins one of Laurette’s first days at the camp. Volunteers’ activities are spontaneous, since they never know when the next migrants will arrive.

     

    “We made animal masks with the kids in which they had a lot of fun. Interestingly enough, many wanted to make sea animals such as dolphins, which I found fascinating, given how they had to cross dangerous waterways to get here.”

     

    “That night, as I was folding origami with them, they were building boats and labeling them as good or bad and role-playing some disappearing. The thought of what they were really saying still gives me a pit in my stomach.”

     

    “Today I began by working at the warehouse, where massive donations are received from all over the world, and we sorted out packages of sweat pants, T-shirts, socks and shoes which are given to those arriving by boat.”

     

    “Living conditions at the camp are extremely basic, unsanitary and can be shocking for some; there can be shortages of both water and electricity, and the majority of refugees are surviving on camp rations. Some of the refugees have been here over a year. Imagine no school, no work and nothing to do but wait, under such living conditions.”

     

    “If their papers are processed positively for asylum or family reunification, they are the fortunate ones. The others might get a denial (they have no legal representation), which they can appeal, but after a second appeal (decided by a single judge) they are arrested and put in jail for a few months before they are deported.” Laurette saw such an arrest:

     

    “As we were drawing, I looked on the street and saw at least 20 police . . . arresting someone who had lost their second appeal being taken to the deportation center. I cannot get the picture out of my head, nor the tears out of my eyes, of the Syrian refugee who I had served tea to the day before.”

    “Before I came, I thought that the refugees would be so traumatized by their past, and many are, but ALL of them are much more stressed about their future, as it is so uncertain.”

     

    Visit www.samosvolunteers.org or our Overseas Action page for other volunteer opportunities.

    Have you worked in a refugee camp? Share your experience with us here or on our Facebook page!

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • 12 Jun 2017 by Patricia Nyhan

    At no time in history have so many refugees wandered the earth or languished in makeshift camps. On June 20, we have a chance to speak up for them with a collective voice, joining millions of people around the globe on World Refugee Day.

     

     Since its creation in 2000 by the United Nations, more than 100 countries have welcomed the annual commemoration to focus attention on the plight of refugees. Of the unprecedented 65 million people now forcibly displaced by conflict and persecution, 21 million are refugees, unable to return to their country. The U.S. takes in only a fraction of them, compared to other countries.

    As our nation’s response to the refugee crisis hovers in the twin limbos of an appeal to the Supreme Court on the travel ban and the Trump administration’s proposed budget cutbacks in international aid, World Refugee Day offers a timely opportunity to advocate for refugees.

     

    Support Refugees Worldwide

     

    Stand with the U.N.’s refugee agency, UNHCR, by signing its petition #With Refugees.  The petition has drawn more than 1.5 million supporters and will be launched on June 20, calling governments to work together and do their fair share for refugees. It asks governments to ensure every refugee family has somewhere safe to live, every refugee child gets an education, and every refugee can work or learn new skills to make a positive contribution to their community. www.unhcr.org/refugeeday/

     UNHCR remains committed to bringing humanitarian aid to all displaced persons, no matter how challenging -- in Syria, for example, where the war only worsens. The agency provides a network of community centers offering child protection, education and health services in the region’s hosting countries. But they are desperately underfunded.

     

    Stand with Refugees in the U.S.

     

    To celebrate World Refugee Day close to home, check out the UNHCR website’s Events page for a map of the U.S. showing events from mid-June to early July. Find one near you at www.unhcr.org/refugeeday/us/events/

     Many other refugee organizations are hosting World Refugee Day activities, from house parties to concerts to film festivals to soccer tournaments. Visit their websites on our pages Our Partners and Refugee Organizations.  Celebrities and civic organizations across the U.S. will also mark the event to honor refugees’ strength and courage.

     

    Get together with your refugee neighbors for this global celebration. Volunteer for a local event. Show support by inviting a refugee family to your home or placing a welcoming sign on your lawn. Thank them for their contributions to your community.

     With President Trump’s travel ban on appeal to the Supreme Court, the main focus of refugee advocacy currently is the administration’s 2018 budget request for deep cuts to programs affecting refugees. Two leading refugee resettlement groups, LIRS (Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service) and HIAS, the Jewish refugee support organization, are marshalling appeals to Congress. Both condemn the cuts and urge raising the number of refugees to be resettled next year. To participate in this campaign, visit www.LIRS.org and www.hias.org.

    Spread the word about World Refugee Day. Use your social media accounts to raise awareness about refugees. Then go out and celebrate with them.

      

    Share on Twitter or our Facebook page ideas for celebrating refugees and events honoring them near you.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • 27 May 2017 by Patricia Nyhan

     

    RPCVs of Wisconsin-Madison who support refugees found an antidote for  discouragement over current resettlement cutbacks. They just keep on thinking up events to engage their community in welcoming refugees, using a model of co-sponsorship.

     

    They recently gave a check for more than $6,200 to Open Doors for Refugees, a community group, from their benefit “Freeze for Food” 5K/10 K walk/run held in February.  They asked Open Doors to use the monies for food sustainability (gardens, groceries, nutrition) for refugee families.

     

    Several local RPCVs helped launch Open Doors, which had 40 members a year ago and now reaches 800 with its monthly newsletter. Among its colorful events are “Soup for Syria” gatherings bringing together interested people over soup and a speaker.

     

    Another was a mini-film series, with talk-backs and soliciting donations following three immigrant-related independent films at the Wisconsin Film Festival in April. The event also drew a large crowd later to “Fire at Sea,” a documentary on the migrant crisis.

     

    This month, a 2nd annual community picnic was held for people to meet refugee families. Participants were encouraged to attend two future events:  a benefit concert in July and Welcoming America Week in September, an annual nationwide event to raise awareness of the benefits of welcoming new Americans.  www.welcomingamerica.org

     

         Both the RPCVs and Open Doors for Refugees felt devastated by the Trump executive orders, which halved the expected number of refugees to Madison. But they found other ways to stay engaged.

     

        “Our approach is to keep the issue visible and to turn up the heat on advocacy,” says Madeline Uraneck of RPCVs of Wisconsin-Madison. 

     

    “We are trying to make newcomers feel welcome by organizing a number of ‘teams’ to assist with ESL support, child care, transportation, employment, translation, donations, pick-ups of furniture and apartment set-ups.” Open Doors for Refugees has co-sponsored many events with Madison's two resettlement agencies, Jewish Social Services  and Lutheran Social Services.  

     

         “One of the benefits we've noticed is that we are happier being active,” says Uraneck. Write to globalmaddy@gmail.com to receive their monthly e-newsletter. Check out the RPCVs of Wisconsin-Madison website: www.rpcvmadison.org

     

     

     

    Tell us about your own RPCV group’s strategies for staying active during the refugee resettlement slowdown. Share your ideas on our Facebook page or Twitter.

  • 04 May 2017 by Patricia Nyhan

    Looking for a way to help refugees during the resettlement slowdown? The United Nations International Day of Families on May 15 offers a great opportunity to stand up for refugee families in the U.S.

    The theme of the worldwide observance this year is “Families, Education and Well-being.” What better time to send a message to our elected representatives that refugee families benefit our communities in countless ways, making them economically stronger and culturally richer?

     

    In Washington, D.C., on the 15th, refugees and asylees will lobby the U.S. Senate to protect the 1951 Refugee Convention, which defines who is a refugee and sets out the rights of those granted asylum. They will exhort Congress and the White House to oppose any plan to reduce refugee admissions and keep out Muslim refugees or others that need protection regardless of where they come from or how they pray. Advocates will include those from many groups, including the LGBTQ community.

     

    Let’s stand with them!

     

    Given the Trump Administration’s push to shift resettlement policy from family reunification-based to merit-based, this event affords a chance to send a strong message that there is good reason to continue the family-based policy. Families who reunite in the U.S. have been shown to succeed largely because of their support for each other. They add value to our economy, opening businesses at a high rate and engaging with their communities in other positive ways.

     

    We should also argue that we oppose cutting the numbers of refugees accepted annually into the U.S. There are more than 21 million refugees in the world. According to UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, 10% of them need resettlement, yet less than 1 % are resettled. If we in the U.S. reduce our already curtailed resettlement, we pass the burden on to our regional partners, who currently host millions of refugees.

    Join us in speaking up for refugee families in the U.S. on May 15. Wherever you live,

    join local advocacy efforts. Meet with refugee and asylee families to hear what they would like you to say on their behalf. Contact your elected officials – local, statewide, or in Congress.

     

    We will be out there, banging the drum for refugee families, wherever we live. Join us!

     

    To learn how to become an effective advocate, check out the Refugee Council USA toolkit on this website, under GET INVOLVED/Advocacy. See also refugee organizations’ websites under GET INVOLVED/Refugee Resettlement and LEARN MORE/Refugee Organizations. Tell us about your experience! Share on Facebook!

  • 17 Apr 2017 by Patricia Nyhan

     

    To find an example of someone making America great, look to Amin Halem, who is that American icon, the self-made man. With a natural talent for computers and electronics, the Afghan immigrant applied his broad-based knowledge and intense work ethic to an information technology career any American entrepreneur starting from nothing could envy.

     

    “A riches-to-rags-to-riches story” is how his wife Danni Leifer describes Amin’s life.

     

    In Kabul, he was born into a privileged family. His father was a surgeon and medical director of the Kabul Hospital whose life changed in 1979 when the Russians invaded Afghanistan. The occupiers demanded that he treat wounded Russian soldiers before Afghan citizens, which he refused to do. After three warnings and ransacking of his home, they poisoned him. Amin remembers his father’s sudden death one day after rising from a nap with his three-year-old son.

     

    Forced to leave Kabul, Amin’s mother snuck across the rooftops with her children to an uncle who was a general, who drove them to a smuggler who delivered them over the Pakistani border to Peshawar. Seeing how cruelly Afghan refugees were treated there, they made their way to Rawalpindi, where relatives helped them settle for the next several years while they unsuccessfully pursued refugee status. Eventually, an uncle in New York helped them immigrate to the U.S.

     

    Amin wound up on the rough streets of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where he was the only Afghan among African-American, Italian, Jewish, Irish and Chinese neighbors. No one cared that he was Muslim. Squeezed into a one-bedroom apartment with his four sisters and mother, Amin felt the sting of showing food stamps at the grocery. Everyone in the family worked, but he felt embarrassed to also have to accept government supplements.

     

    “I knew that whatever it took, I was not going to be on food stamps again,” says Amin, who by 18 was responsible for running the household and finding husbands for his sisters. “I wanted to make sure I was successful.”

     

    Today, he is an in-demand IT sales engineer consulting with clients all over the U.S. He lives in a stately home in Warrenton, Va., large enough to entertain his many relatives. Amin and his wife Danni give back by sponsoring several South Sudanese refugee students at private schools in Kenya. “I try to do direct impact,” says Amin.

     

    Asked if he has ever experienced Islamophobia in his decades in the U.S., Amin answers, “Never.” Recently, though, Amin notices that women in hijab are increasingly frowned upon, especially in Southern states. What has changed?

     

    “A percentage of the country was racist, but had this veil on. (President) Trump unveiled those people,” says Amin, adding that they are out of step with the military personnel who have returned to Northern Virginia having formed positive relationships with Afghans and now flock to local Afghan restaurants. A student of history, Amin worries that growing anti-immigrant sentiment could erode our success as a nation built on immigrants.

     

    “There came a time when the ancient Greeks said we’re not going to accept any more immigrants, and soon after that came their downfall. They lost people with different skills, technologies and talent. I fear that’s what is happening here,” he says.

     

  • 04 Mar 2017 by Patricia Nyhan

     

    The short-lived White House travel ban on Muslims may be on hold. But fallout from it persists. The ban has so hurt the image of the U.S. in the Muslim world that ISIS calls it ‘the blessing ban’ for its usefulness as a recruitment tool, says Syrian scholar Radwan Ziadeh.

    “The Trump Administration doesn’t care about the U.S. image outside. But we are living in a global world.”

     

    Ziadeh, senior analyst at the Arab Center in Washington, DC, has lived in the U.S. for ten years, forced into exile by his opposition to the Assad regime. He has written more than 20 books about democracy in the Middle East and relied on a temporary protected immigration status to work in the U.S. and build a new life in northern Virginia with his family.

     

    Now he has heard from Muslims who say, “Look what you got,” referring to recent travel detentions at the hands of the Trump Administration the weekend of the executive order.

     

    Authoritarianism

     

    “It is a blanket ban. It affects innocents. Only authoritarian countries do that,” Ziadeh says. Is the U.S. heading in an authoritarian direction? Middle East scholars like Ziadeh are weighing in on that question. He recently published an article discussing whether the U.S. system is strong enough to resist authoritarianism.

     

    “There are strong institutions here. In the Arab states we don’t have enough of them,” says Ziadeh. He believes the new President is testing where his authority ends, and that many of his promises can’t be implemented, such as the Muslim ban and reviving lost manufacturing jobs.

     

    What worries him more is Trump advisor Stephen Bannon, who he believes brought the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant ideology to the White House. “There is a mind behind all this,” he says.

     

    Still, Ziadeh cites reasons for optimism: There is a Republican Party Trump can’t control and a mid-term election to look forward to. Americans in the corporate and academic worlds have freely opposed some Trump initiatives, and the Women’s March on Washington went forward peacefully. By comparison, when Syrians took to the streets to exercise their right to free speech in the early 2000s, Assad soon cracked down on the “Damascus Spring.”

     

    “This is the beauty and the magic of the U.S.:  you have strong institutions,” says Ziadeh.

     

    As a political reformer in Syria, Ziadeh helped initiate a National Dialogue Forum and created the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies. Until 2012, he led the Syrian National Council, which became a government in exile. Since coming to the U.S. in 2007, he has worked at numerous think tanks and universities. He now serves as Senior Analyst, Middle East, at the Arab Center Washington DC.

     

    Read articles by Dr. Radwan Ziadeh at www.ArabCenterDC.org.

     

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  • 21 Feb 2017

    Written By:  Pat Nyhan

     

    Radwan Ziadeh is a Syrian scholar whose ten years of U.S. residency and a Temporary Protected Status (TPS) visa failed to prevent being caught in the travel ban, raising a question:  Can TPS holders rely on it in these times of shifting immigration policy?

    Facing delays and extensive questioning at three different airports the weekend the ban was announced, he was finally allowed to return home to his family in northern Virginia. There is no guarantee it couldn’t happen again, even with the ban suspended.

    “I’m very concerned” about an upcoming trip to Canada, says Ziadeh, senior analyst at the Arab Center in Washington, DC, who travels internationally for his work.

     

    Temporary Protected Status

     

    As an outspoken human rights advocate in Syria and a leader of the opposition to the Assad regime, Ziadeh became a target of harassment and threats. In 2007, he was forced into exile and came to the U.S. Five years later, the U.S. granted TPS to Syria due to the civil war.

    TPS offers eligible nationals already in the U.S. who can’t safely return to their countries the same privileges as a green card, such as work in the U.S. and international travel. It does not lead to permanent residency (green card) and can be terminated.

    A large number of TPS holders come from the Muslim majority countries affected by the travel ban, among them thousands of scholars, doctors and other professionals from Syria whose American communities depend on them.

    Ziadeh’s ordeal began in Istanbul, where he was attending a conference. His lawyer had assured him the Trump Administration’s anticipated executive order wouldn’t apply retroactively. But on Friday, January 27, he contacted Ziadeh to return immediately or risk being unable to.

    “I was very concerned about my wife and kids,” Ziadeh says. With the ban’s announcement came the news that even green card holders and those with visas like his would be sent back to their countries.

    Ziadeh made frantic phone calls to U.S. agencies, only to hear conflicting advice. At the Istanbul airport, he was interrogated, but finally allowed to board. At Frankfurt, German police blocked him, too, until Sunday morning, when a reversal on green card holders was announced. Ziadeh was the last passenger to board the flight.

    Arriving at a chaotic Dulles International Airport, he faced two hours of interrogation by the Department of Homeland Security. When DHS headquarters finally cleared him, some officers at Dulles quietly agreed with him that since no terrorist attacks in the U.S. have been perpetrated by refugees in the past five years, the department should spend its limited resources on homegrown terrorists, not travelers like him.

     

    Political asylum

     

    Ziadeh had hoped that by now he and his family would be living under permanent protection as political asylees. Three years ago, he applied for asylum, which offers protection to nationals already in the U.S. who meet the definition of refugees and suffered persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution.

    He is still waiting.

    As a Mideast scholar with an international reputation and an impeccable record while in the U.S., the 41-year-old Ziadeh would seem eminently qualified. However, the process has dragged on during a vetting process involving interviews with every person he has ever met in his life. A man used to roadblocks by now, he doesn’t give up.

    “I am hopeful,” he says.  

    Dr. Radwan Ziadeh is Senior Analyst, Middle East, at the Arab Center Washington DC. www.ArabCenterDC.org


    Do you know a TPS visa holder with similar concerns? Please share on Facebook.

  • 03 Feb 2017

    Written By: Pat Nyhan

     

    Many former Peace Corps Volunteers can recall times when we could have given up in the face of overwhelming challenges. We didn’t, though; we adapted and tried again. We were made better people for the experience. We may feel a lifelong connection with the friends we made, and at times a responsibility to help people like them.

    Now is one of those times.

    Moved by the suffering of refugees trying in unprecedented numbers to find a sanctuary, many RPCVs have contacted us to volunteer their assistance. Others have already helped resettle a refugee family. Now, although the White House’s executive order puts refugee resettlement on hold, there is much we can do.

     

    We won’t give up

     

    In fact, some refugees in the pipeline, vetted and waiting to be sent to American communities, are expected to make it here during the 120-day ban on admissions. They will need everything once they arrive, from basic household furnishings, to English lessons and job training, to grocery shopping, assistance enrolling their children in school, and friendship.  Others are already here. They too need us.

    “Helping this refugee family is one of the most rewarding things my family has ever done” is a common refrain from Americans already engaged in the process.

    That was true for my own family. Years ago, we mentored an Afghan refugee family from Kabul, where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer back when it was peaceful, but where they had fled war years later. Rohafza, a widow with three daughters, had survived smallpox (a scourge eradicated by Peace Corps Volunteer nurses) and the loss of her husband to torture and death as a political prisoner. Relentless bombings had left her severely traumatized.

    But she had incremental moments of joy, because she had a friend in us and others who opened their homes to her. Our families became so close that she hired a Kabul tailor to make traditional Afghan outfits for my kids, who connected naturally with hers. Today my grown children recall the friendship as a reason they feel a kinship with people from other cultures.

    We are here for you

     

    That positive experience prompted me to join this refugee support group, as we hope you will. We have the skills. We have the love of other cultures. We are good for this effort.

    • Join the NPCA and choose our Peace Corps Community for the Support of Refugees affiliate. Refer to the list of refugee agencies on our website and get in touch with the one nearest you.
    • Your advocacy on refugee issues can also play a crucial role in this time of political uncertainty. Call your elected representatives on the national, state and local levels to express your views about the executive order. Speak on behalf of refugees wherever you can.
    • Please join our community.  Follow this blog, share on Facebook and  http://www.twitter.com/pcc4refugeesTwitter, and tell us how your refugee support experience is going. We want to hear from you!