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The Armchair Refugee Rescue Operation, Phase 1

So you wake up one day, after a full night's sleep, and you're feeling good. You sip some coffee, you read the paper. Maybe a...




So you wake up one day, after a full night's sleep, and you're feeling good. You sip some coffee, you read the paper. Maybe a morning dove chirps from your windowsill. Today's the day, you think. Today, I'll get a refugee out of Burma and into the United States.

So what do you do? Assuming you're under the age of 88, your first step probably involves Google. You search for "refugee resettlement" or "how to resettle refugee in U.S." or "help refugee" or something. Which is exactly what I did, on a day quite like the one described above (minus the dove). Here's what I got: Links to the UNHCR, which is the internationally recognized body that handles refugee resettlement, and the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a division of the Health and Human Services Department.

Next, I found the innocuously named Refugee Resettlement Watch, which is actually a rather horrifying and xenophobic organization whose mission appears to be reducing the number of refugees (especially Muslim ones) who receive asylum in the United States. (Unless you're Tom Tancredo, you're going to want to steer way clear of this one.)

For now, the ORR seems to be my best bet for a first venture, but the website is confusing, covered with sprawling lists of services, programs, and funding and grant info. It's not clear where to start, so I find a number and decide to give them a ring. An ORR representative takes my call. I tell the agent the sort of information I'm looking for, and what I'm trying to do. My cause seems pretty simple to me, and I say so: "I'm looking for information on how I can help a Burmese refugee resettle in the United States. What can I do to help a particular individual emigrate? And is there someone qualified who would be willing to go over how the process works with me?"

"I've never heard of anyone doing that before," the representative at the ORR said. "Maybe you should try the UNHCR." Indeed.

It turns out that the ORR isn't actively involved in moving refugees into the United States. They provide information and services to refugees who are already here, but aren't responsible for getting them here in the first place. That, it turns out, is left to 10 smaller NGOs and faith groups responsible for organizing the refugee's passage after the UNHCR has registered them as a refugee in their host country. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I call the UNHCR's office in Washington, but get no answer. The other phone number available on their website is for the agency's headquarters. In Switzerland. I call them a little before noon, around 5 p.m. Swiss time, and a man tells me it's too close to the end of the day and that I should call back at 9 a.m. their time. "Okay, thanks," I say.

I pull up an email Samy sent me with a list of aid groups his friend said had helped him get resettled. The top of the list included the International Refugee Committee and the American Refugee Committee. I call the IRC and my call gets bounced around between agents. They're very nice when they hear my case, and tell me they'll be in touch (which indeed they will) with more information. When I call the ARC, they tell me that they're not responsible for arranging resettlement; they work in the field and provide aid to refugees still in camps.

This is all a little strange, I think, as I'm waiting for 4 a.m. to roll around so I can call the UNHCR in Geneva. I have spoken with people at five different organizations, and no one has even offered to explain to me how the process works. Straight answers have been very hard to come by, and there's almost no decent information on the topic online.

At 4 a.m., I call the UNHCR in Geneva. They answer in French; I give them my spiel in English.

"We mostly handle policy affairs here," says the man on the other end of the line. "We don't do resettlement for individual cases. Have you tried the New York office?"

"I didn't see a number for a New York office," I say.

"Would you like it?"

"Um, okay."

They give me the number, I thank them, and they hang up. I look at the clock. I realize I've just stayed up until 4:30 in the morning to get a phone number to an office building that's probably less than a mile from my house. I force a laugh, and go to bed.






























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