Celebrating World Refugee Day by Becoming a U.S. Citizen

20 06 2009

June 20 is World Refugee Day. 42 million people worldwide are refugees. Angelina Jolie serves as UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees) Goodwill Ambassador. She and Brad Pitt have donated $1 million to help Pakistani refugees displaced because of war. Angelina says that the number of Pakistani refugees is jumping at a really high rate…as much as 100,000 people a day…and 2 million Pakistanis are now refugees.

Austin, Texas (where I live) takes in about 500 – 600 refugees per month; the most challenging thing is helping them find work. Here’s an article that is currently online and will appear in Sunday’s Austin American-Statesman newspaper about 21 refugees who became U.S. citizens today in Austin.

Refugees who fled horrors of war, famine now call Austin home.

Jeremy Schwartz
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Sunday, June 21, 2009

They’ve fled war, famine, genocide and concentration camps. But in an intimate ceremony Saturday at the Bullock Texas State History Museum, 21 refugees from 11 countries took an important step on their roads to a new life: They became U.S. citizens.

The naturalization ceremony took place on World Refugee Day and marked the second consecutive year that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has commemorated the day in Austin with a citizenship ceremony for refugees.

“They’ve gone through so much,” said Mario Ortiz, the San Antonio district director for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. “So it’s only right that as an agency and as a country we recognize the contributions they will make to this country.”

For Amir Causevic, a 34-year-old who left his hometown in Bosnia-Herzegovina when war broke out in the early 1990s, Saturday’s ceremony was the culmination of nearly two decades of struggle.

“This is the biggest day in my life so far,” said Causevic, who lives in Hutto with his wife and son and works as an installer for Time Warner Cable. “You have so many bad memories of your country that you want to start your life over again.”

John Mohinga and Wife (with family) become Citizens in Austin 6/20/09 - Credit: KUT's Erika Aguilar

John Mohinga and Wife (with family) become Citizens in Austin 6/20/09 - Credit: KUT's Erika Aguilar

John Mohinga, a 52-year-old from Congo, urged his fellow newly anointed citizens to take advantage of their second chance.

“Here you can live in peace and see your children go to school and get degrees and so on,” he told the crowd during the ceremony. “Here, you can be whatever you want to be.”

Mohinga, who works as a security guard and is the assistant pastor at North Austin Christian Church, fled Congo during a civil war that killed about 5 million of his countrymen more than a decade ago. He and his wife were forced to leave, he said, because she was an ethnic Tutsi originally from Rwanda, putting her on the wrong side of local militias.

The couple and their children were rescued by Red Cross workers who delivered them to United Nations forces and ultimately to a refugee camp in Cameroon. They came to the United States in 2000.

“I want to thank the great people of Texas for this peaceful welcome,” Mohinga said.

After the 21 refugees — all of them Austin-area residents originally from places such as Sudan, Afghanistan, El Salvador and Cambodia — took their oath of citizenship, immigration officials handed out certificates. The new Americans held them as if they might break or fly away and posed for pictures with smiling family members.

“Thank you for inspiring us,” Ortiz told them. “Thank you for humbling us.”

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Somaly Mam: One of the World’s 100 Most Influential People and a Real Hero

5 05 2009

She was raped and tortured for five years in a horrendous brothel. Her parents and then her grandmother had disappeared. She was left to fend for herself. A “grandfather” (really a stranger) said he’d help. He raped her at age 10 or 12, made her be his personal slave, and then sold her at age 14 into sexual slavery in Cambodia. She escaped in 1993 and returned to help others living through the same nightmare. Somaly Mam is a true and courageous hero(ine).

Somaly Mam - Credit: Kris Connor - Getty

Somaly Mam - Credit: Kris Connor - Getty

In 1996 she founded a nonprofit organization called AFESIP (Agir pour les Femmes en Situation Précaire, which is French for Acting for Women in Distressing Circumstances) to help law enforcement rescue trafficked women and children from brothels and bring them back into society. One of every 40 Cambodian girls is sold into sexual slavery; some are as young as five years old.

So far, she has helped more than 4,000 women escape a life of sexual slavery. Somaly has suffered enormously for the stand she has taken and the work she has done. She has received death threats and assaults, had her house burned down, and endured the horrific kidnapping, drugging, and raping of her 14-year-old daughter in 2006. She courageously continues the work.

She details her experience in the September 2008-released book The Road of Lost Innocence. She offers vision and leadership to the Somaly Mam Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to ending slavery.

In November 2008 she was the first recipient of the Roland Berger Human Dignity Award “in recognition of her fight for a world without slavery” from the new human rights and Munich-based Roland Berger Foundation. The 1 million euro ($1.269 million) she received to continue her work is almost exactly the amount awarded to recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize. She has won several other prestigious awards.

Somaly Mam was named this week one of the world’s 100 most influential people by TIME magazine and was lauded with the others named tonight at the TIME 100 Gala in New York. Angelina Jolie, who with her partner Brad Pitt adopted their son Maddox from Cambodia, wrote the TIME article about Somaly Mam. She is an Oscar-winning actress, goodwill ambassador for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, and co-chair of the Jolie-Pitt Foundation.

Somaly Mam suffered tremendously in the first part of her life. She not only lifted herself up, but so many others with her decision to help those who lived the horrors she did. She has made a tremendous impact in the lives of thousands of trafficked young women and has given a face and voice to human trafficking throughout the world.

Stand up and applaud. This woman is a true hero.

Here are Somaly Mam and Somaly Mam Foundation board member and actress Susan Sarandon on the Tyra Banks show.