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day226_bill

Photo: Alight
The former American Refugee Committee, now called Alight, focuses on “doing the doable.” Alight maintains that when things seem impossible, there is always something good that can be done.

For many years, I’ve been a fan of the American Refugee Committee, now called Alight. Since the nonprofit took the new name and began to focus on “doing the doable,” I’ve enjoyed periodic news about its Changemakers.

Here is the story of a teacher who wanted to understand things firsthand. I will just point out that the term “refugee” is ordinarily applied to those who come here officially, having been screened by our State Department and accepted in advance. Now that the US is accepting so few, those of us who work with migrants are seeing more climate “refugees” and economic “refugees” — some documented, some not. This is the story of a guy who wanted to help them.

“Howdy! My name is Bill Boegeman, and I’m a high school social studies teacher in Forest Lake, Minnesota. Some of my students are from Central America – refugees now living in the U.S., many of whom made the journey to the States alone.

“Their stories are amazing – spending hours in cramped semitrailer trucks and trunks of cars, hiding from the Federales and narcotraficantes as they trekked across the Mexican desert. It’s difficult for me – and my other students – to imagine what these young people have been through, what hardships they have already endured, and the complexities they’re faced with now.

“So I wanted to go see for myself … and to try to make a difference, one day at a time.

“I traveled with Alight to the Rio Grande Valley, a vast area encompassing the southern border of Texas and parts of Mexico. In some ways, it feels a little bit like two countries living in one, cultures blended and economies interconnected. And now, Mexican-American communities are coming together with some incredible changemakers – Catholic Sisters, who Alight has recently partnered with – to serve the new waves of families who are searching for a better life.

“We began our work at La Posada Providencia, a migrant shelter just outside of San Benito, Texas. It’s a landing spot for many migrants released from detention centers with nowhere to go.

“Five years ago, Ángel was one of those migrants.

“After immigrating from Honduras and five months in detention, Ángel spent three months at La Posada where he was provided with a bed, regular meals, and mentoring services. Following a brief stint in Indianapolis, he returned to the shelter as a volunteer. Fast forward a few months and Ángel was converted into a full-fledged employee — the house cocinero — a position he still holds today.

“In addition to his cooking duties, Ángel helps to organize the shelter’s mochilas – to-go bags provided to clients who are ready to move on to their next destination. These bags include non-perishable food items, personal care products, a change of clothes, and other items that will help them along this next stage of their journey. It was here that we saw an opportunity.

“Over a lunch that Ángel prepared, La Posada’s current residents were able to provide us with ideas of items that would be useful to migrants in their mochilas as they depart the shelter for their next destinations. We landed on two primary items that we could provide: Spanish-to-English dictionaries and chapstick. While seemingly unrelated, these two things would be helpful to them in their future journeys (in the case of the chapstick, particularly those headed north). They were also absent from the supply closet on the La Posada premises.

“I asked Ángel what made La Posada Providencia such a special place. ‘It’s more than a shelter,’ he said, ‘It’s a house, a home, a family.’ ”

More at Alight, here.

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0712-border

Photo: Henry Gass/Christian Science Monitor
Volunteers like Luis Guerrero, pictured above, reach out to migrants — after they are released from federal custody and their cases are proceeding — and help them to reunite with families around the country and get legal assistance.

At the end of 7th grade, after we had had a half year each of Spanish and French to get a taste, the Spanish teacher took me aside and begged me to take Spanish in 8th grade and not French. I spouted what my parents told me about French having more great literature, and the teacher was shocked at my ignorance. Still, I wasn’t one to go against my mother.

Today I think if only I could speak Spanish, maybe I could actually be some help as a volunteer at the border — like the people in this story.

The Christian Science Monitor writes, “At the U.S.-Mexico border, our reporter found an army of everyday citizens compelled to offer help where officials cannot.”

Henry Gass, the reporter, writes, “Luis Guerrero has been going to the central bus station here for six years now. He still hasn’t bought himself a ticket.

“It started when he saw a nun trying to help newly arrived migrants passing through the station and offered to translate for her. The migrants have kept coming, so he has kept making the ride to the station.

“Of course, migrants are crossing into this part of Texas in numbers not seen in over a decade. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has already apprehended more migrants in the Rio Grande Valley sector this fiscal year than any other year this century besides 2014. Mr. Guerrero has responded to this latest surge with the calm enthusiasm of a retired firefighter who rescued children from a submerged school bus three decades ago. …

“The zero tolerance policy is no more, but the flow of migrants – primarily families from the Northern Triangle of Central America – has only increased. News and government reports of migrant deaths, as well as ‘dangerous’ and ‘squalid’ conditions in government holding centers, have thrust the issues back into the national spotlight in recent weeks. …

“Immigration lawyers, local officials, and volunteers across the border [have] been feeling the strain.

“Bus stations have been a consistent area of need, and that is where Juanita Salazar Lamb found herself this week after driving down to McAllen from Benton County in northwest Arkansas. She had been following the news coverage of the border crisis, unsure of whom to believe – people who say the migrants need asylum, or people who say they’re exploiting loopholes in immigration law; people who say they’re being treated horribly, or people who say they’re being treated well. …

“Thirteen months ago [Joyce Hamilton] and four friends formed a group, Angry Tias and Abuelas, focused on helping migrants on international bridges and reuniting separated families. The group expanded to a core of eight regular volunteers, and six months ago got a fiscal sponsorship from an Austin-based nonprofit (so it can attract donors even though it’s not yet recognized as a tax-exempt organization).

“ ‘By August [2018] I just really, I didn’t feel like I had a center. I was just shaky a lot,’ she says of the toll her work has taken over the past year.

“As government policies have changed, the group has had to shift where it devotes resources. … In January the administration began implementing Migrant Protection Protocols, a policy also being challenged in court in which migrants may be returned to Mexico while their immigration case is proceeding.

“International bridges are now mostly empty, while shelters in Mexican border cities are overwhelmed with migrants. Ms. Hamilton’s group is now focused on helping at the bus stations and sending money and supplies to shelters in Mexico. …

“Things have slowed down recently in her hometown of Harlingen, Texas. When she arrived at the local bus station on Monday morning – a station so busy on some days this summer she couldn’t hear herself talk – there was only one Guatemalan girl. It was her 18th birthday, so she had been released from the Norma Linda child detention center nearby and dropped off there.

“The girl’s bus ticket – to Georgia, where she says her uncle lives – was for the next day, so Ms. Hamilton arranged for her to spend the night at Loaves & Fishes, a homeless shelter in Harlingen. The 18-year-old says she hopes to work in the U.S. and send back money to support her parents still living in rural Guatemala. After she had crossed the border into Arizona, she spent eight months in Norma Linda, an experience she had only a few complaints about.

“ ‘There were lots of rules,’ she said in Spanish, fidgeting with a bracelet she had made at Norma Linda bearing the names of her grandparents.

“ ‘I made a couple of friends,’ she added. ‘I’m going to miss them.’ ”

As a colleague at my last job used to say about migrants who had made the trek, “People who go through all that sound like the kind of people I would like to know.”

More at the Christian Science Monitor, here.

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good-chance-dome_calais

Photo: Good Chance Theatre
A group that was founded to dramatize the plight of refugees in Calais, France, is now performing internationally.

Theater can often bring out the empathetic and compassionate side of audience members and lead to positive change in the world. As Amelia Parenteau writes at American Theatre, a play called The Jungle that grew around a refugee camp in Calais, France, may be helping viewers to see asylum seekers as people like themselves — and motivating them to take action.

“Good Chance Theatre was started by two Brits, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, when, in 2015, they passed through Calais, France, on their way to Germany and they saw the makeshift refugee camp that had formed there.

“Many theatremakers might feel the need to share the refugees’ story with the world, but first Murphy and Robertson wanted folks in the camp to have ‘a platform to express themselves,’ explained Dina Mousawi, Good Chance’s creative producer.

“So they decided to construct a theatre there in the shape of a geodesic dome, which has since become Good Chance’s signature pop-up venue; they spent seven months there in total.

“Vincent Mangado, a Théâtre du Soleil company member who joined their effort, described that first dome as a place ‘where everything could be spoken, a place of peace, a nerve center of the jungle, where you can share stories or throw a party, not just a theatre.’

“Upon returning to the U.K., Murphy and Robertson were commissioned to write a play about their experience in Calais, which grew up into the international hit The Jungle (now at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco through May 19). They traveled around the U.K., leading workshops with migrants and asylum seekers to continue gathering material. And cast members: The Jungle’s ensemble comprises of actors of 11 different nationalities, including some people Murphy and Robertson met in Calais who had since emigrated to Britain.

“The action of The Jungle is set in an Afghan restaurant that was built in Calais, and is staged with such an immersive aesthetic that audience members feel as though they are fellow diners at the restaurant. Along with the café, makeshift mosques, churches, shops, and other restaurants were constructed in Calais, despite extremely limited resources (just two water spigots and two porta-potties).

“Mousawi joined Good Chance in September 2018, though she had been doing similar work for years both on her own and with Complicité. In fact, she led the first Good Chance workshop in the dome in Calais with 35 Sudanese men in Arabic.

“Raised in Iraq, Mousawi left during the war to move to England, but returned to the Middle East during the height of the conflict in Syria, feeling called to help by making theatre. There she worked with Syrian women to produce work telling their stories, which only strengthened her conviction that theatre is for everybody, and should be radically inclusive. …

“ ‘Theatre can act as a tool for so many things, and one of the ways we use it is to encourage integration in areas where there might be tension.’ …

“To those audiences moved by The Jungle, Mousawi recommends reaching out to migrants recently arrived in your local community to see what you can do to make them feel welcome. ‘That’s what Good Chance is all about,’ she said. ‘Making people feel welcome, not alienated.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: DW/Bern Jutrczenka
Angela Merkel, German chancellor, has welcomed people fleeing war.

Here’s another approach to finding jobs for migrants. This one involves a website started in Germany, where the nationwide employment rate is high.

Jona Kallgren writes at the Boston Globe, “A startup company in Berlin is trying to help integrate last year’s flood of migrants into the German workforce with a tailor-made online job market for new arrivals.

“The website Migrant Hire, was founded earlier this year by a mix of Germans and migrants, and operates with a staff of five volunteers out of a shared working space in a former industrial building in Berlin’s trendy Kreuzberg district.

“More than 8,000 migrants have registered on the website — a fraction of the 890,000 asylum-seekers who arrived in Germany last year but a good sign that some are serious about finding employment.

“The website helps migrants create resumes that match German standards, then connects the applicants to companies. It’s free for the migrants and relies on donors and volunteers.

“MigrantHire cofounder Hussein Shaker has channeled his own experience trying to find work as a migrant into helping others. Back in the Syrian city of Aleppo, he studied information technology, but when he came to Germany he couldn’t find any work in the IT sector. Instead he ended up working in a call center while learning German.

“When he was approached with the idea of MigrantHire by Remi Mekki, a Norwegian entrepreneur living in Berlin, he immediately quit his job and threw himself into the project.

“On a normal workday he and others help migrants write resumes, answer questions about German employment law and help migrants apply for jobs that companies have posted on the website.” More here.

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Among all the sad aspects of the refugee crisis, children in refugee camps going without any education — sometimes for years — has to be one of the saddest.

10 million under the age of 8 are displaced

Fortunately, there are occasional rays of light, such as adult refugees deciding to start their own school. And here is a story from Mashable about a partnership between the International Rescue Committee and the makers of Sesame Street.

Matt Petronzio writes, “A new partnership between Sesame Workshop, the brand’s educational nonprofit, and global humanitarian aid organization International Rescue Committee (IRC) will allow the two groups to develop, distribute, and test educational resources and programs designed with young refugees in mind. …

“The first phase is to develop educational multimedia content that can reach children living in displaced or resettled communities through mobile devices, radio, TV and printed materials in engaging, enjoyable ways.

” ‘We really set out to find a partner that complements our offerings, and I think the IRC is ideal,’ said Sherrie Westin, executive vice president of global impact and philanthropy at Sesame Workshop. …

“Sesame Workshop and the IRC will adapt existing Sesame products and content for regions where the two organizations already have a presence working with young children and their families. …

“The partnership is aimed at the children who make up half of the record 60 million people currently displaced around the world, specifically the one-third of that population under the age of eight. In addition to a lack of education, these children also often deal with toxic stress and trauma.

” ‘We’ve seen time and time again, in the context of conflict and crisis, that those very young children don’t have a safety net to support them,’ Sarah Smith, senior director for education at the IRC, told Mashable. …

“Most recently [Sesame] launched Zari, the first local Muppet in Afghanistan, a country where many young children lack access to education, especially girls.

“Zari’s gender was a deliberate choice to promote girls’ empowerment — an example of tailoring curricular goals to the needs of a particular country. (According to Westin, recent research showed that fathers in Afghanistan changed their minds about sending their daughters to school after watching Baghch-e-Simsim, the local language version of Sesame Street.)”

More at Mashable.

Image: Vicky Leta/Mashable

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A New York Times article that was widely shared yesterday detailed how eager many Canadians are to welcome refugees. Enthusiastic, sometimes a bit bossy, they are volunteering in droves to make a difference in the lives of anxious families who have been through the mill.

It reminded me of other welcome stories I’ve been collecting. Small towns, in particular, seem to feel they could benefit from welcoming refugees.

On Nagu, a remote island on the southwest tip of Finland, migrants have found open arms.

Giles Duley writes in the Guardian, “From the start, the people of Nagu made their guests feel welcome. A Facebook group was set up, activities suggested, volunteers came forward. ‘It was exciting,’ says Mona Hemmer, a bastion of Nagu life and one of the organisers of activities for the refugees. …

“Of course, for the refugees, being busy does not erase their past or the uncertainty of their future. … Many still find it hard to sleep, aware that until their asylum applications have been processed, they have not reached the end of their journey.

“However, the warm welcome of the Nagu people has made a difference. And despite their initial reservations, the islanders now feel that it is the refugees who have brought them something.”  More.

In this Al Jazeera story by Thomas Bruckner, refugees are reviving faded Italian villages.

“The village of Riace had seen its population drop from 2,500 to 400 since the 1990s, when people moved to northern Italy for better economic opportunities.

“Domenico Lucano, Mayor of Riace, saw the flow of refugees in Italy as an opportunity. ‘We have been welcoming refugees with open arms for the past 15 years. [They have] saved our village,’ Lucano explained.

“The resourceful mayor first acted on this opportunity in 1998, when a boat with 218 Kurdish refugees on their way to Greece got stranded on a beach in Riace. This is when Lucano first proposed that the refugees should stay in the village and take over the homes and apartments that had been left vacant by the migrating former residents of the town.

“The mayor helped to facilitate the integration by establishing a ‘refugees welcome’ project, which is now spreading through neighbouring towns.”

Here’s a PBS story by Jason M. Breslow about a small town in Germany that wants more population. “With Goslar’s population shrinking by around 2,000 people per year as young people flee to bigger cities and older residents die, [Mayor Oliver] Junk sees refugees as key to the town’s future.

“ ‘Europeans must welcome and integrate refugees, accepting that they are not a burden but a great opportunity,’ Junk wrote in an op-ed published last month in the policy journal Europe’s World.”

The mayor has also said, “Anyone who tells me Germany is full up, or that we can’t afford them, I say think of our past, and of the future. Of course we can afford them – we’re a rich country, and we have a duty to help those in need.’ ” More from PBS.

And here’s a story closer to home. Brian MacQuarrie writes at the Boston Globe about Rutland, Vermont, and its interest in refugees.

“Mayor Christopher Louras has unveiled a plan, developed in near-secrecy, to resettle 100 Syrian refugees who fled the onslaught of the Islamic State and are exiled in sprawling Jordanian camps. …

“Most residents appear ready to welcome the refugees, mindful of the harrowing images of Syrians desperately seeking refuge outside their ravaged country….

“ ‘The benefits, economically and culturally, that we will recognize is exactly what the community needs at this time,’ said Louras, the grandson of a Greek immigrant who fled the Ottoman Turks a century ago. ‘As much as I want to say it’s for compassionate reasons, I realize that there is not a vibrant, growing, successful community in the country right now that is not embracing new Americans.’ ” More at the Globe.

Photo: Giles Duley/UNCHR
Volunteers from Nagu, a small island in Finland, laugh with refugees during a New Year’s Eve concert put on by local musicians.

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In a recent Wired article, Sarah Zhang calls the humble tarp “an aid worker’s secret weapon.” I had no idea the amount of work that went into developing a reasonably priced tarpaulin that won’t fray or get too hot.

“Ask an aid worker,” writes Zhang, “and the paeans to tarpaulin come pouring out. Cheap, lightweight, and waterproof, ‘tarpaulin is the most common shelter material,’ says Joseph Ashmore, shelter consultant for the International Organization for Migration. Responders and survivors can use tarpaulin for roofs, fences, and flooring—but don’t limit your imagination to shelter. ‘I’ve seen people dry rice on it, in latrines, as bags, as trousers, as umbrellas,’ Ashmore adds.

“Not all tarpaulin is created equal, though. The Red Cross catalog’s tarpaulin is the crème de la crème of plastic sheeting. … These obsessively engineered 4×6 meter plastic sheets last years, and it all goes back to one French … .

“Patrick Oger was a purchasing officer for Doctors Without Borders when he first got the tarpaulin assignment in 1993. …

“Working mostly alone — while still doing his job as a purchasing officer — Oger completed the specifications for tarpaulins in three years. Since 1996, the Red Cross, UNHCR, Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF, and Oxfam have given out millions of tarps manufactured to those specs. Factories in China, Korea, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, and Kenya churn out the tarpaulin to use all over the world. And they’re cheap, at just $15 a pop in the Red Cross’s catalog. ‘We’ve really made a good product. It is saving money. It is saving lives,’ says Oger.”

Read here how Oger befriended and learned from an engineer at the Danish company where tarps were previously sourced (a company that charged a high price because it had patented the eyelets) and how he kept making technical improvements and testing them.

I like that Oger is still inventing. I’ll never make a blanket judgment about purchasing officers again.

Photo: Reuters/Corbis
Tarps are unloaded for distribution for internally displaced people in Mubimbi, South Kivu, DRC, on March 4, 2013. 

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