Voices from the Field – IRC Blog

International Rescue Committee (IRC) Refugee, Staff & Volunteer Blog

Archive for June, 2008

1975: The Largest Refugee Resettlement Effort in American History [IRC at 75]

Posted by Kate Sands Adams on 27 June, 2008

Vietnamese Refugee children IRC photo
                                                                                        Photo: Robert P. DeVecchi/The IRC
As we observe our 75th anniversary this year, International Rescue Committee president George Rupp is blogging about one moment from our rich history each month.

On April 30, 1975, the army of North Vietnam rolled into Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. The day, celebrated in Vietnam today as Reunification Day, marked the end of a long, bloody, and divisive war—and of the IRC’s work in South Vietnam.The IRC first became involved in this ribbon of land along the South China Sea in 1954, following the defeat of the French colonial forces and partition of the country into North Vietnam and South Vietnam. For the next 21 years, the IRC worked, first, to aid refugees fleeing south from North Vietnam and later, after American entry into the war, to aid displaced South Vietnamese and to offer them health, vocational, and educational services.Now, the North Vietnamese victory forced a massive flight of tens of thousands of Indochinese refugees. Desperate South Vietnamese climbed the walls of the American embassy in Saigon pleading for help. Over a hundred thousand succeeded in reaching American ships off the coast.

From the beginning of the crisis, in the United States and in refugee camps in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Malaysia, the IRC would make one of its longest and deepest commitments to work on behalf of refugees from Indochina.

In the U. S., the IRC took a lead role in the largest refugee resettlement effort the country has ever seen. This led to a dramatic burst of growth in the IRC’s U.S. resettlement programs.

The IRC set up processing operations at four U.S. military bases that had become refugee camps in California, Arkansas, Florida and Pennsylvania. Thirty full-time IRC resettlement staff worked in these camps, joined by scores of volunteers. Top priority was given to finding Americans to “sponsor” the refugees, which meant providing short-term housing, and help finding a job and getting acclimated to the local culture.

One of those new IRC staff members was 45-year-old Robert P. DeVecchi, who was assigned to the processing center at Fort Chafee, Arkansas. The experience proved so powerful that DeVecchi never left the IRC, going on to lead us from 1985 to 1997, when he became president emeritus. A number of other current and retired IRC staff members first joined the organization after being moved to help Vietnamese refugees.

By the end of 1975, the U.S. government had closed its processing centers—but the IRC had by then opened 16 regional resettlement offices around the country. There, IRC caseworkers found housing and jobs for the refugees, provided education and skills training, and helped them integrate into the social, cultural, and economic life of a new environment. This effort became the core of the IRC’s current national refugee resettlement program.

During 1975 alone, the IRC helped more than 18,000 refugees, almost all of them Vietnamese, begin new lives in the U.S.

During the 20 years after the fall of Saigon, some two million people poured out of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. By 1992, more than a million had been admitted to the U.S. The IRC had helped some 120,000 refugees put down new roots in America. One of these refugees, Dang Nguyen, told the New York Times in 1976, “I have a steady job, regular raises, a nice place to live, the children work hard, my wife and I are well, we have grandchildren, and next month there will be a big event in our family: We will all get our citizenship papers!”

Posted in Asia, history, refugees, UnitedStates | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt Donate to IRC Iraqi Kids’ Programs [Photos]

Posted by The IRC on 25 June, 2008

Angelina Jolie during a visit to Pakistan in her role as UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador.
Angelina Jolie with kids during a visit to Pakistan in her role as UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador. Photo: Courtesy UNHCR
Just in: Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt will donate $1 million for children impacted by the Iraq crisis, including $200,000 to support International Rescue Committee education programs in southern Iraq.

“These educational support programs for children of conflict are the best way to help them heal,” said Angelina Jolie in announcing the donation.

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in Costa Rica
Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt (seen here with with Colombian refugees in Costa Rica). Photo: UNHCR

“We hope to encourage others to give to these great organizations,” Brad Pitt added. 

You can read the full story and find out how to help here.

Posted in children, education, emergencies, howtohelp, MiddleEast, photos | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Afghanistan: Creating a village from scratch [Photo Share]

Posted by Wynne Boelt on 25 June, 2008

Children by water taps in Sheikh Misri Afghanistan IRC photo
Photo: Aaron Rippenkroeger/The IRC
Aaron Rippenkroeger, International Rescue Committee program officer for Asia & Caucasus, snapped this picture while visiting IRC programs in Afghanistan earlier this year. Below Aaron describes the photo and more:

“I took this photo while visiting the village Sheikh Misri in Nangarhar Province in eastern Afghanistan.  This village has been newly created by the Government of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation to assist Afghan refugees who are returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan or Iran after living abroad, some for more than 20 years, but no longer have a plot of land or home to which they can return. 

The area where the village now exists was carved up into hundreds of plots that are awarded to landless returnees who apply.  An incredible challenge for those who move there is that this village is being created from scratch in a place where no one has lived before and resources are scarce.  The IRC and other NGOs are working with the government to try to make the area more hospitable but there is still a long way to go.

The children in this photo were hanging around these IRC water pumps during my visit.  It was January and the temperatures and weather conditions were harsh.  Nonetheless, they seemed to be enjoying themselves, and our presence, as they filled jerrycans with water from the pumps to take home to their newly constructed shelters nearby.  Some of them were returning from a newly constructed school in the village.  Their joy and warmth, amidst such challenging surroundings, is a shining example of the resilience of the Afghan people and why, despite all the difficulties facing Afghanistan today, we must remain optimistic and do all we can to support this country’s recovery from a long and terrible conflict.”

Aaron adds that Afghamistan is “such an incredibly photogenic place, as are the people.”

Posted in Asia, children, photos, refugees | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

“Rape is a tool of war”

Posted by The IRC on 24 June, 2008

Congo courtesy Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone
Photo: Democratic Republic of Congo, courtesy Kevin Sites hotzone.yahoo.com
The International Rescue Committee has released a statement hailing a U.N. Security Council resolution that affirms that sexual violence against women and girls in conflict zones can be a war crime.

“It is gratifying to see that rape and other forms of violence against women have finally been identified by the Security Council as the appalling tools of war that they are,” said Anne Richard, the IRC’s vice president for Government Relations and Advocacy.

You can read the full statement here and learn how the IRC is assisting rape survivors in the Democratic Republic of Congo and other conflict zones here.

Posted in news, war, women | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Myanmar Aid Worker Diary: Outstretched Hands

Posted by The IRC on 23 June, 2008

Cyclone Nargis Yangon IRC loads supplies
Photos: The IRC
Eric James The IRCEric James is a coordinator of the IRC’s Emergency Response Team. He recently arrived in Myanmar to oversee IRC aid programs for cyclone survivors.  He shares these impressions of his first days in Yangon.

Yangon is a well-laid out city, although most buildings are worn and covered with mold.  Unlike many others I’ve been to in this line of work, there are relatively few security forces and I’ve seen far more monks here than Kalashnikovs.  I heard somewhere that 80% of the trees in Yangon were destroyed by Cyclone Nargis, which devastated large swaths of Myanmar in early May.  Walking on some of Yangon’s streets, it looks like King Kong ran through with a giant weed-whacker in each hand.  Many that were knocked down, took power-lines, road signs and the occasional wrought-iron fence with them.  
 
I just arrived here in Myanmar to oversee IRC’s six-week old aid programs for cyclone survivors, so I’ve not had a chance to survey the hardest hit areas yet. But even walking between the office in Yangon and the place where I’m staying, I am quickly approached by homeless children, hands outstretched, begging for help.  They speak little English and let out mostly grunts and moans.  One boy, maybe 12, can’t speak at all.  Each time I see him, he holds out a begging bowl and points to his mouth.  “Did you eat tonight,” I asked a few days ago, seeing clearly that he hadn’t? I give him 1,000 kyat, not even a dollar – but enough to buy some food.  Now he recognizes me and smiles, giving me a thumbs up.       
 
The other day I was walking on a street, stepping over broken sidewalk tiles and weaving between throngs of people when a monk begins to walk along side me.  Shaved head and wearing an orange toga-like robe, he’s probably about my age.  Glancing over his shoulder, he slyly strikes up a conversation.  Although he’s difficult for me to understand, we have a conversation starting with how long I’ve been here, where I’m from and what I’m doing here.  He tells me that according to local lore, a family with three sons would have their careers mapped out at birth: one son would be a farmer, the second would be a monk and the third would be a solider.  I guessed my new friend was a number two son.  He goes on to tell me that he’s been to the Delta twice to help people and that he’s very happy that I’m here to do the same.  He invites me to a temple but I realize that I would be late to meet the rest of the IRC team for a planning meeting, so I gently decline.  We depart, shaking hands.
 
The real work is out in the Irrawaddy Delta.  begging bowl Cyclone Nargis Myanmar IRC photoHowever, ongoing bureaucracy and restricted access for foreign aid workers make it hard to find out conditions and needs of many people. Getting supplies to them becomes less than straightforward.  Still, our team and our local partner have managed to reach close to 25,000 people with medicines as well as common household items like blankets, buckets and lanterns – materials that are critical in emergencies. We’re also providing plastic sheeting, which is especially important because it provides shelter from the tropical climate and can also be used for harvesting rainwater. 

Access to drinkable water is also a major problem because so many water sources were destroyed or contaminated.  Traditionally, chest-high ceramic jugs were used to hold water but the storm turned them into broken shards.  Even massive cement water tanks were carried away by the 15 foot storm surge and were deposited far from where they originally provided communities with water.  Ponds were used as reservoirs for drinking water but these are now polluted with seawater and dead bodies. I hear from our relief teams that people remain in shock and mourn the dead and missing.  It doesn’t help that corpses remain blown all across the Delta.  Our staff who have travelled to many impacted towns recount how bodies remain and have turned to near-skeletons exposed to the elements.   In a way, it’s a blessing that it is the monsoon season.  The rains are providing clean drinking and bathing water and are managing to keep water-borne diseases in check.    
 
Mosquitoes are another big problem.  In any year, many thousands of people in Myanmar get malaria in the evening and dengue during the day (17,000 last year contracted dengue hemorrhagic fever).  The storm killed many of the mosquito breeding grounds but they replenish themselves after about a month; and a month has long passed.  The variety that transmits malaria in the Irrawaddy is unfortunately able to breed in the brackish water.  Mosquito bed nets are among the items that we’re delivering to survivors.

Providing these essential goods remains a key activity for us, but it is no easy task.  To reach the people in the most remote parts of the western Delta, IRC relief teams travel with the Myanmar Red Cross along narrow rivers by boats laden with supplies.  Several days ago, two of our 30 foot boats set out from the town of Labutta south through the Delta to reach the village of Thin Gan Gyi.  Almost at the drop off point, ocean waves entered the estuary making the journey treacherous.  But they made it to the village and once there, the people warmly welcomed the assistance. 

Food continues to be in short supply.  While we’re not focusing on food deliveries, we did find ourselves distributing donated Russian food rations last week.  The villagers had never seen food like that before – in sealed plastic bags without labels.  Members of the IRC team soon found themselves giving an impromptu training session on how to eat the strange food.  All went well eventually.  Obviously the rations offer immediate relief.  With the storm’s vast destruction of rice paddies and markets in the Delta, food shortages may be a big problem for survivors in the long-term.

Next week, I’m hoping to travel to Ngapudaw, the western-most township in the Irrawaddy Delta and one of the worst-hit by the cyclone. We’re about to launch training programs there for community members on purifying water and building latrines.  The trainings and distribution of equipment and building materials should go along way in improving health conditions for the survivors.

To learn more and help visit theIRC.org/myanmar

Posted in Asia, emergencies, health, photos | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »