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Humanitarian Relief and the American Way

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By Jonathan Mitchell, Senior Vice President for International Programs and Operations for CARE.

The migration of 60,000 unaccompanied children to the United States from Central America this year has been rightly dubbed a humanitarian crisis by observers across the political spectrum. It’s not the first time a surge in migrants has overwhelmed the capacity of the United States to respond. Perhaps the most famous example in recent memory was the so-called Mariel Boatlift from Cuba, which saw more than 120,000 refugees arriving in the United States between April and September 1980.

Watching the news about the developments on the United States’ southern border reminds me of my first encounter with a refugee crisis 23 years ago. I was flying to the northeast of Kenya to assess how the global humanitarian organization CARE might be able to help Somalis fleeing their country’s civil war. From the air I saw a trail of slowly moving people all the way to the horizon in the direction of Somalia. When our plane landed, I discovered that the people were mostly women carrying malnourished children for dozens, sometimes hundreds of miles across a barren landscape to avoid the violence and starvation into which their home towns had collapsed.

The refugee camp CARE helped to open in Dadaab, Kenya in 1991 was designed to shelter 90,000 people until the crisis in Somalia could be resolved. 23 years later it shelters more than 350,000 Somalis, some of whom have been there since its first weeks. It doesn’t appear on maps, but it’s actually Kenya’s fourth largest city and the world’s largest refugee camp. To this day, the population ebbs and flows in rhythm with conflicts and instability in Somalia.

I’ve responded to many crises throughout my career, but what I witnessed in Dadaab has stayed with me. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t an outsider flying in to help strangers. I grew up in Kenya. Like many Americans feel today, I felt then that my country was in crisis.

When refugees cannot go home and cannot legally integrate into the country of their temporary asylum, resettlement to a third country is sometimes the only solution – the only means for these victims of circumstances beyond their control to start over. Wealthy nations, including the United States have agreed to take accept a limited number of refugees each year. In 2013, the U.S. accepted more than 70,000 refugees.

Since moving to Atlanta in 2011 to work in CARE’s headquarters, I’ve been impressed and moved by the city’s embrace of its refugees. The metro area has one of the highest concentrations of refugees in the country. For many of them, it’s the first time in their lives they’ve been offered a chance to live a secure, stable life. Since moving to Atlanta I’ve also been able to stay involved with refugees who have arrived here through serving on the Board of Refugee Family Services — an Atlanta-based group that with others helps refugee families become productive members of our community.

Refugee resettlement is not without challenges, but the benefits of embracing refugees from global conflicts are clear. Refugees are a legal, skilled, highly-motivated workforce. 80 percent of the refugees in Georgia are employed within six months of arriving in the United States. They come here as ordinary, humble, grateful people, who far more often than not, embrace their new country with zeal. They attend universities, buy homes, raise children and, like every immigrant group in the United States, give back to their new home country the diverse fruits of their culture and history.

The best way to help refugees is to stop the conflicts that cause people to flee for their lives in the first place. But today, when there are more refugees from world conflicts than at any point since the end of World War II, it’s important that governments and individuals alike respect and embrace our collective legal and moral obligation protect refugees. This includes refraining from premature and involuntary returns, and increasing our commitment to providing resettlement, and supporting organizations like Refugee Family Services that help refugees restart their lives. August 19 is World Humanitarian Day. Let’s honor it by recommitting ourselves to its principles every day.

Jonathan Mitchell is Senior Vice President for International Programs and Operations for CARE. Headquartered in Atlanta, CARE is a leading humanitarian organization fighting global poverty. CARE places special focus on working alongside poor girls and women because, equipped with the proper resources, they have the power to lift whole families and entire communities out of poverty. To learn more, visit www.care.org.

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