The UN human rights agency held the 60th anniversary of its convention of refugees in Washington this month, where delegations of former refugees, including Cambodians, and policymakers met to encourage governments to continue to shelter refugees worldwide.
The Refugee Congress included stories from those who fled their home countries and made good in their host nations, including Alejandro Mayorkas, director of the US Citizen and Immigration Services.
Mayorkas, who fled Cuba in 1960 with his parents and his sister, said at the congress he had seen “first hand the extraordinary work of UNHCR.” But Mayorkas said he was concerned with the US budget crisis, an increase in funds for refugee assistance was doubtful.
Also on hand was Alek Wek, a refugee from Sudan who is now a British super model and an activist for refugees.
“We struggled throughout the civil war, which became worse and worse,” she told the congress. “People were disappearing, people were getting killed, and nobody would take responsibility for it.” There was, she said, “no law and no safety whatsoever; you are a prisoner in your own home.”
Fear continued to haunt her even after she fled Sudan, she said. She would have nightmares, waking in a sweat, only to realize that, “it is OK now, that nobody is going to attack you.”
“It didn’t go away straight away,” she said. “It took some time to finally realize that, you know, it is going to be my new home.”
Wek said her experiences taught her that refugees contribute to the societies that take them in. “They are doctors, lawyers, teachers, business owners, helping support businesses and existing projects for education or the arts,” she said. “It is just endless.”
Former refugees at the congress said they wanted to share in the freedoms they were given.
“It’s great to be here in the US,” said Basmt Ahmed, who fled the Darfur region of Sudan in 2009. “And it is great to have freedom and dignity. I have opportunities to practice many different things that I couldn’t practice back home. But the point is, there’s no place like home.”
He was expecting US citizenship soon, he said. But he didn’t want to be an American for its own sake, he said, “but to make a difference in my country.”
Former Cambodians at the congress said they too wanted to help new waves of refugees from other countries.
Tauch Sokhom, a former soldier of the Lon Nol regime, fled a marine base in today’s Preah Sihanouk province in 1975. He made it to Portland, Oregon, and was made a US citizen in 1982.
“When I first arrived in the US, I couldn’t help [any one],” he said. “I couldn’t speak English. I lost my way countless times on the buses in Portland. Now at my association, we have bus training for newly arrived refugees, so that they won’t lose their way like I did.”