The Story of Refugees: From Camp to Albany

Written by Alison Baxter, an AmeriCorps VISTA and activist

Political and religious persecution. Forced relocation. Ethnic cleansing. Famine and drought. These are words that few Americans have had to deal with in their lives. We are fortunate to live in a country where, more often than not, a system of laws and law enforcement protects its citizens. However for some people from countries such as Iraq, Burma, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Nepal, or Afghanistan, these are stark realities.

What makes someone a refugee? A refugee is a person who faces persecution or lack of food and water to the degree that they cannot remain in their hometown, region, even their country. The form persecution that they may face varies. In Burma (also known as Myanmar), the majority ethnicity has been practicing ethnic cleansing against minority groups since the end of World War II. Violence between religious factions in Iraq has been going on for decades, and has only worsened since the American invasion. When these people – often with their families – seek protected areas, the journey is often expensive, long, and dangerous. Some people give up their entire life savings to transport their families to safety, others walk hundreds of miles through enemy territory.

Once these families escape danger, what does safety look like? Does the term “refugee camp” evoke an image of rows of blue UN tents? Again, the situation differs from place to place, but the take-home point is the magnitude of the refugee population. The ten largest refugee camps house over 60,000 people, each.

camp

Al Zaatri, in northern Jordan is home to 129,000 Syrian refugees. This picture was taken from space, and NASA claims that the camp is the size of Cambridge, England.

What’s remarkable about the camps is not just their size, but the length of time that many people spend there. Since some of the conflicts or food shortages have been going on for decades, so have people been forced to live in these camps. Many children are born into these camps, and many people who only wish to return to their homeland die in the camps. With no solution to some of the conflicts in sight, the populations of the camps are only increasing. The term used by many to describe this phenomenon is ‘warehousing’. But when standing in the middle of a large camp, a more apt phrase that comes to mind may be ‘outdoor prison’.

While the overall situation is quite bleak, there is a small trickle of refugees who manage to leave the camps. When families enter the camps, most are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees. This enables them to be put on the rations list and to be eligible for resettlement. Of the 10.5 million refugees who wait listlessly in camps, less than one percent are selected – seemingly out of a hat – to be resettled in a First World country. One of these countries is the United States, and one of the cities is Albany, New York.

The US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants is contracted by the federal Department of State to resettle refugees. The Albany field office has been resettling refugees in the tri-county area since 2005. The main nationalities resettled here are those listed in the first paragraph. Instead of refugees being resettled here from all over the world, only a few countries are represented so that ethnic communities can develop and support themselves.

What type of support do these refugees need? What do they bring to their new American homes? Other than the clothes on their backs, they are usually picked up from the Albany airport with very few belongings. Many bear the wounds of their haunted pasts: post-traumatic stress disorder, stunted growth due to poor nutrition, and the knowledge that their loved ones may never leave those terrible camps.

Some refugees are former doctors and engineers, others come from a purely agricultural background and have had only a meager education.  Either way, especially in this tough economy, it’s hard to get a job when you don’t speak much English and are brand new to the American workforce. Try to imagine years of waiting in a refugee camp, where you had little do but at least could count on your next set of rations being delivered to your door. Then suddenly being uprooted and moved to the hectic, vastly different culture of America, where they are provided with rent assistance and food stamps for only the first year or so, then need to provide for themselves and their often large families entirely on their own. Instead of being an immediate relief, resettlement for many refugees is traumatic and even after living in the US for years still struggle to make ends meet and assimilate.

North America was first colonized by people facing religious persecution and shortages due to overpopulation in Europe, therefore we share a similar history to today’s refugees. If you – or really, when you – encounter a refugee around Albany, remember this article. You now know a piece of their story, and can appreciate their struggle. It is up to the Albany community to welcome these newcomers, and to provide support and encouragement.

The main picture was taken in Mae La refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border by the author. Alison interned at the Albany field office of the US Committee for Refugees for six months in 2011, then spent four months working with refugees on the Thai-Burma border. She and members of Albany’s Karen community (an ethnic minority of Burma) will be hosting a presentation on the struggles of Karen people at Siena College on December 4th at 6pm. The exact location is yet to be determined, but to be informed of the location or to ask any questions about the article, please e-mail Alison.Bax88@gmail.com .

For More Information:

Excellent documentary about refugee resettlement on Netflix: ‘God Grew Tired of Us’.

Albany USCRI website: http://www.refugees.org/about-us/where-we-work/albany/

UNHCR page on resettlement: http://www.unhcr.org/pages/4a16b1676.html

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