Against the Current: The refugee story

"I began writing this piece at the start of 2017 after working with a local refugee services nonprofit and feeling called to draw awareness to stories like the ones I heard within the Harker community. This aim of this article is to shed light on human perspectives of people all around the world who are affected in multifaceted ways by the crisis, to change perspectives, and, hopefully, to inspire action," — Mahika Halepete (11), special story writer

September 1, 2018

On September 2, 2015, Maria Tran saw a photograph depicting three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi washed up on a shore near Bodrum, Turkey. The photo had circulated in the news, altering the perspective and conversation on refugees. Millions around the world had seen and been affected by the image, but it held special meaning for her: 36 years prior, she, too, had fled by sea with her family at the age of three, leaving everything she had ever known behind.

In the late 1970s, the North Vietnamese Communist government took over Vietnam, initiating persecution of groups that were not tolerated by the new leadership. Among them were the now-defeated Southern Vietnamese. In addition, the administration profiled the ethnic Chinese, Tran’s family’s demographic.

“Businesses got taken over or shut down. It became very difficult for people who were ethnic Chinese to live there,” Tran said of the time.

Tran’s family, like many other ethnic Chinese families like hers who lived in Vietnam at the time, had resided in northern Vietnam for multiple generations. In 1979, her family decided to flee Vietnam because of the persecution.

“[The persecution] starts happening to people closer to you,” she said. “It starts happening to people you know, or your friend’s friend. That anxiety and that worry put them at a place where they decided they needed to get out before they became victims.”

Her parents initially attempted to cross over Vietnam’s northern border into China, but, like many countries do today, the Chinese government had blocked off the border. Their only viable mode of escape? By sea.

Tran and her parents were smuggled onto a boat sailing for Hong Kong. After three to four days at sea, Tran says, the family was rescued by the coast guard. Tran recalls how Hong Kong had large refugee camps; her story of escape and seeking refuge was not uncommon. Of the estimated 1.6 million “Vietnamese boat people” who left their homes behind, not all made it safely to a new one.

Tran and her family were registered by the local refugee agency and remained in the refugee camp for six months. An American family living in central Oregon decided to sponsor Tran’s family to travel and stay in the United States, and they arrived in November 1979.

They’re giving up everything that they know to just try to find safety. That’s really the meaning of the word, it stems from ‘refuge’. They’re people looking for safety.”

— Maria Tran, refugee from Vietnam

In 2017, 65.6 million people around the world were forcibly displaced, with 22.5 million classified as refugees. The global refugee crisis is constantly evolving as hotspots of violence shift over time and as policies and attitudes towards accepting refugees develop. In the fiscal year 2016, the United States accepted 84,995 refugees for resettlement.

In October of 2015, spurred by the photograph of Kurdi, Tran traveled to Lesbos, Greece. One month later, she founded a nonprofit organization called Sea of Solidarity to ease the plight of the refugees she encountered there, providing essential humanitarian aid to the individuals coming ashore.

In 2015, in the aftermath of global political turmoil, the world began to experience its greatest refugee crisis since World War II. After photos began to circulate of the crisis in Greece, individuals across the world began to read stories about and view pictures of the crisis. As they realized that no one was there to aid the refugees, some individuals even put a pause on their daily lives to go directly to the scene.

On a Monday morning that same month, Amy Rao arrived in Lesbos on a similar mission as Tran. A board member of the nonprofit organization Human Rights Watch, she was alerted by the organization’s director of the Emergencies Division of the crisis in Lesbos.

ProActiva Open Arms had arrived at Lesbos from Spain with the goal of rescuing the refugees who were drowning before reaching the shore. Rao learned that these lifeguards were the only ones in the water and raised funds for them. She also traveled to Greece to see the crisis and the humanitarian work firsthand.


“I was standing on the shore watching and they swim out to the boat and they bring the boat in as far as they can. They’re waist deep in water. The babies come off the boat first, and all of a sudden, they’re looking at me and handing a baby to me,” she said, remembering the boat that arrived just a few minutes after she had arrived on Lesbos, immediately compelling her to start helping the families.

Rao recalls a family of nine, with seven children from the ages of six months to 18 years, arriving ashore. All were drenched in ice-cold water, and they had arrived on the beach with no knowledge of where they were or what their next steps would be.

Their 14-year-old boy walked up to Rao and introduced his family, asking if Rao could talk to his uncle, who was on the phone with his father. After exchanging contact information, Rao says, she informed the man of where his brother’s family was, how they were doing, and what their next steps would be.

What happens next?

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, would register the family at a camp, nine miles away from the beach they had arrived on, to which they would have to walk by foot. This process would include in-depth interviews, reference checks and screeningsーwith the purpose of preventing threats of military combatants and terrorists.

Preference during this process is given to the most vulnerable population, of torture survivors, victims of violence, or families, like the one Rao encountered on Lesbos. If the family passed the background check and met the criteria of vulnerability to classify as a refugee under international law, they would be taken to the main camp on Lesbos, then to Athens, Greece. They would then await a referral to be resettled.

The man thanked Rao and then explained how his brother’s family had ended up in their situation. He had worked as a translator for the United States military for ten years, which made his family a target of attack by the Taliban, a Sunni Islamic terrorist group in Afghanistan.

He was relocated to Kentucky, but despite his best efforts, the government would not allow his brother’s family to join him; with the looming threat of death at the hands of the Taliban, they fled their home in Afghanistan.

Rao visited the next camp the following day but could not find the family. Weeks later, she was contacted by the same man she had spoken to over the phone in Greece, who wanted to inform her that he had finally made contact with his brother’s family, who had now reached the border at Macedonia. In December 2016, she was contacted by the man again. Rao then realized that she was the last person who had seen that family since they fled their homes, and had now become a part of the family’s journey.

I was standing on the shore watching and they swim out to the boat and they bring the boat in as far as they can. They’re waist deep in water. The babies come off the boat first, and all of a sudden, they’re looking at me and handing a baby to me

— Amy Rao, a board member of Human Rights Watch, a nonprofit organization

“I could guarantee you that they’re not in the U.S., which is where they should be. American lives were saved because their family member worked as a translator for our military, and there are so many stories like that. I can’t forget, and I will never forget,” she said.

In many of the camps like the ones the family would travel to, conditions are brutal and can potentially be fatal.

“These people are stuck in these camps indefinitely. They might be there for 10 years,” Rao said. “There’s barely enough food in the camps. It’s been a really tough winter. A lot of people froze to death this year.”

With basic needs such as dry clothes, food and water covered, volunteers are starting to look towards the long-term well-being of refugees in the camps.

“How do you open schools in these camps? How do you get these people work and earn a little money?” she said of the questions they began to ask. An important factor to note, Rao said, is the link between the aid一or lack thereof一that refugees receive and their vulnerability, especially for youth, to recruitment into extremist groups.

“If I am a 15-year-old child, with no hope of furthering my education and no hope of getting out of that camp, it would be very easy for someone to recruit me to a group like ISIS and Islamic extremism,” Rao said.

Some political rhetoric has encouraged the idea that letting refugees in will bring in terrorists. However, the risk of such groups being a threat only increases when refugee young adults are not given help and are left with with no other option but to join.

But the agenda to remove refugees is not politically unique to the United States. Following the United Kingdom’s February 2017 decision to withdraw the Dubs amendment, which had provided refuge to children who were victims of the European migrant crisis, counter-terrorism organization Quilliam found that these actions of limiting aid to refugees would increase the risk of youth recruitment into terrorist groups like ISIS.

Even for the families who survive the long boat ride, it can take years for a refugee family to finally be safely relocated in a developed country. In this time, they have no idea when they will be able to leave the camps and are faced with a lack of basic needs.

“If some group says we’ll take you, we’ll train you, we’ll give you an education, we’ll pay you, we’ll give you food, we’ll get you out of this bad situation, I don’t know what I would do. I would do whatever it took to get out,” Rao said.

From the fall of 2015 to today, the situation in Greece is quite different.

“When we started, it was emergencies. We were on standby for emergencies all the time. Now, everything is more under control. Now, we are filling gaps,” said Melinda McRostie, founder of the nonprofit organization Starfish Foundation. “One of the gaps is mobile telephones for the unaccompanied minors so that they can be in contact with people一family and friends.”

McRostie, who is a local restaurant owner in Lesbos, started Starfish when Lesbos began to experience an influx of refugees.

“Because we were on the front, it felt like a war zone for us. I hadn’t slept because we were having people arrive in the middle of the night. People were dying because their boats would sink. I’ve seen lots of deaths and people suffering,” McRostie said.

Before, she said, they could see as many as 70 to 80 boats per day. That number has now gone down to about one to two boats per week. As the volume and needs of incoming refugees changed, the focus and efforts of the many nonprofit organizations on the beaches also shifted.

Present in Greece in the refugee camps are independent volunteers, grassroots organizations, and larger organizations attempting to register refugees and remove them from the camps.

“The government is so embarrassing right now, because we should be stepping up and taking in these refugees, as Canada is, as Germany has done. These are people that could add to society, they are professional people, they are educated people. If we leave them there, their children, we will leave an entire generation of children,” Rao said of the Trump administration’s attitude towards refugees.

Contrary to the Obama administration’s practice of steadily increasing refugee quotas throughout the president’s second term, President Trump issued a temporary immigration and travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — within his first week in office. Somalia and Syria rank third and first respectively in number of displaced persons in 2015.

Nina Gee

“I think that the election clearly showed how little people understand the rigor of the resettlement process. It’s so hard if you’re a refugee. It’s even hard to go through all the security checks to get [to the United States] with all the different departments within the state department. People are already being extremely vetted,” said Rosa Shapiro Thompson, president of the Yale Refugee Project, a social initiative that works to integrate refugee newcomers into the New Haven, CT community.

Although Tran was resettled in the U.S. with her parents, not all families are able to stay together. Sayoni Maitra, a staff attorney at the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, said that she has encountered instances in which families are not all able to resettle together at the same time.

“Something I’ve noticed around my work is the challenges of family separation. Many of my clients who do have children, throughout the process of seeking asylum, many of them arrive here without their children because they couldn’t afford to bring them, and they hope to later apply to bring their children,” Maitra said.

Nearly 13,000 unaccompanied refugee minors have been resettled in the United States since 1980. These children are placed in licensed foster homes, though the programs prioritize reuniting the children with their parents or adult relatives in the US.

The focus of Maitra’s work is on legally aiding asylum-seeking individualsㅡthose who have already entered the United States or are at the border and seek protection, as they cannot return to their home country due to persecution or a fear of persecution.

This persecution must be based on the applicant’s race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion in order to be considered valid for asylee status.

“You can see that certain things are not there like gender, sexual orientation, age. We mostly, in that case, have to work with that ambiguous term ‘membership in a particular social group’ to make an argument of someone who’s afraid of being persecuted,” Maitra said.

A maximum of 10,000 asylees are admitted under these conditions into the US each year.

“I think the length of time asylum case take is not only hard in terms of being in limbo and not having status and not being sure, I think all these other challenges of making ends meet when you’re waiting in addition the trauma you already face,” she said.

While it may appear that resettling someplace safe is the end of a refugee family’s struggle, or being granted asylee status in an asylum-seeking family’s case, for the millions of refugee families around the world, it was, and is, just the beginning.

Despite the hardships they’ve faced, the plight of the refugee does not end upon resettlement. From there, refugees must learn to adjust to life in their brand new surroundings.

Organizations like ALLIES, an English language education provider which stands for the Alliance of Language Learners’ Integration, Education, and Success, are dedicated to improving knowledge of the English language for those who require English to be successful professionally and financially, as well as integrate into their communities.

“It can be very isolating as a newcomer to the United States, immigrants or refugees, if you don’t speak the language, that would be a barrier for you to just interact with people. People often report feeling isolated and lonely, and it’s intimidating to be in a new country and not speak the language,” Ilse Pollett, Program Coordinator for ALLIES, said.

But knowledge of the English language is only one aspect of a refugee’s journey: “It takes a lot more than an English class for people to become successful and to integrate successfully,” Pollett said.

Employment certainly is a large difficulty refugees face upon resettlement.

“Refugees face a lot of economic hardships. There’s money for the beginning for six months, but not even enough to get the family settled in. So, people really quickly have to look for work, which is hard given language barriers. It’s hard to get jobs that are as good as the jobs they had back home. The degree doesn’t transfer over,” Shapiro-Thompson said.

But beyond economic difficulties, social integration also is a barrier to successful integration.

“[There] is a problem of cultural divide and assimilation, especially when there’s a lot of anti-refugee and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Especially girls who wear a headscarf face discrimination in schools,” Shapiro-Thompson said.

In San Jose, the non-profit organization PRERNA works with families after they have reached the United States to help them adjust. After basic needsーsuch as housing, food, and clothesーare met, there are numerous criteria for full adjustment which often center around education and employment, as well as helping refugees become positive stakeholders in their communities through successful social integration.

“We focus on getting them the job, but also focusing on career pathways and helping them through several different programs of youth mentorship. We focus a lot on the youth, and we focus a lot on education,” Meena Sankaran, the founder of PRERNA, said.

Often times, the transition takes a long time as refugee families face numerous obstacles in attaining education, employment, financial sustainability. Sankaran’s goal for PRERNA is to ensure long-term success for all the families they work with.

“We want every child to be in school, every person in the family to speak English, the adults to be employed, and the youth to be in community college, if not go up to a university. We end up working with the families anywhere from one year, two years, four years, depending on the type of support they need,” she said.

One of the reasons education is emphasized so greatly is because of its potential to improve the lives of refugee children. If a child can learn English before or after entering the United States, their earning potential will increase, allowing them to amply support their families. This leaves these children, however, with a great burden to bear.

The United States, at the time when Tran’s family had just resettled, had aimed to resettle like demographics in certain areas. Tran’s family was resettled among a number of other Vietnamese refugee families. For a refugee child, growing up can be different that it would be for a child who has lived in one place their whole life and learned the native language.

“The thing that I saw with that type of community is that it ended up helping each other and ended up providing the support and capital needed to support the immigrant community to actually thrive,” she said.

Growing up, Tran’s community, while its members were not individually wealthy, supported each other with micro-loans to start businesses and purchase homes for their families.

“Most kids would not be expected to be the one who communicates for their parents when it comes to anything that required them to speak English, anything that was official,” she said.

No two refugee families are the same, even when they come from the same ethnicity and culture. I’ve worked with about five different new Afghani families that have come in within the last six months, and all of them, even though they’re Afghani families under the same status, which means that they come with undergraduate and Masters-educated families, there is still a lot of difference between the families

— Meena Sankaran, founder of PRERNA, a local refugee organization

But as an elementary school-aged child, these were the sort of tasks Tran performedーnot only, she said, for her own parents, but for members of her wider community who were in need of English in everyday reading, writing, or speaking tasks.

Despite this added responsibility, Tran thinks that her community growing up was beneficial and lessened the impact of her different childhood experience.

“As a child, if everyone around you is a certain way then you don’t think that your reality is all that different than other people’s realities,” she said.

While the language barrier plays a role in the daily lives of both youth and adults, respectively, perhaps more difficult to overcome are the deeply rooted cultural barriers and preconceptions held against refugees fueled by a variety of sources.

Often times these prejudices stem from stereotypes that all refugees are the same, which isn’t necessarily true.

“No two refugee families are the same, even when they come from the same ethnicity and culture. I’ve worked with about five different new Afghani families that have come in within the last six months, and all of them, even though they’re Afghani families under the same status, which means that they come with undergraduate and Masters-educated families, there is still a lot of difference between the families,” Sankaran said.

Although the cultural and social constructs have not completely been overcome, the state of California, the Bay Area, and Santa Clara County especially are some of the most welcoming areas to refugees.

California resettled 7,909 refugees in the 2016 fiscal year, the most of any state in the U.S. Currently, the Santa Clara County spends $5.5 million on immigration services and will receive funding for $3 million in legal assistance and outreach, backed by private funding. The City of San Jose is a “sanctuary city,” or a city which protects undocumented immigrants, refugees and asylees.

The term “refugee” can be both a label and a term that constructs unity in shared experiences.

“Although I was resettled here [in the United States] and never had to live in a refugee camp, nevertheless, I’ve had the experience of being displaced. My family came here basically penniless and had to start life from scratch,” Hosseini said.

Despite the circumstances of displacement and resettlement, the plight of the refugee of leaving one’s home is constant in all stories. Visiting the refugee camps recently caused Hosseini to self-reflect on how his own experiences related to the stories of the individuals he met.

“Although I would put myself on the very lucky end of the spectrum,” he said, “I share something in common with these people. There’s something about that experience that I understand.”

The experience of being a refugee has served as a point of inspiration for Hosseini’s writing.

“I think everyone who writes, writes from personal experience,” he said. “It’s inevitable that this very tectonic event in my own life, which was losing my country, and becoming refugees and resettling here in the United States, has informed my own writing.”

Refugees can overcome the realities of suffering and poverty and still find themselves labelled as needy or even greedy, the rhetorically manifested or they can become so integrated that the label is no longer one that dominates their everyday lives.

“People just don’t know, they hear that word and they have certain misconceptions. They picture refugees as dirty people or poor people or uneducated people,” Tran said.

“What people don’t realize is a refugee could be anybody [for whom] it’s no longer safe for them to be in their own country, and they have to flee their country. They’re giving up everything that they know to just try to find safety. That’s really the meaning of the word, it stems from ‘refuge’. They’re people looking for safety.”

If you are looking to get involved in aiding refugees, here are some organizations creating positive change in refugee lives, from basic aid to education and employment.

US resettlement and services, PRERNA, 

Refugee registration and aid, UNHCR,

General refugee aid, International Rescue Committee,

Humanitarian aid work in Greece, Starfish Foundation,

Grassroots project funding, Sea of Solidarity,

Refugee rights and legal aid, Human Rights Watch,

A shortened version of this piece was originally published on The Winged Post on Aug. 31, 2018.

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