Who is a refugee? Refugees are people who have been forced to leave their homeland and are unable to return because of past persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.
Refugee Children Most of my career as a Social Worker has been spent working with unaccompanied refugee children. These are children who are under 18 years of age and have been separated from their parents because of war, death or other tragic event and are now outside of their country of origin. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva, Switzerland is the agency which cares for these children globally. When these children are first found in the countries of first asylum, efforts are made to locate and reunify them with their parents. If this is unsuccessful, efforts are then made to find caregivers for them in the country of first asylum. If this solution will not provide the child with the stability and security which the child needs to thrive, resettlement to a third country is considered. U.S. Resettlement The UNHCR first conducts a "Best Interest Assessment" for each child to determine what course of action is in the child's best interest. If resettlement is found to be the only solution, the child is interviewed by countries who are interested in accepting him or her. The United States is one of the developed countries which resettles many unaccompanied refugee children. The Joint Voluntary Agency (JVA) and the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) are two of the agencies which prepare the child for the "transplanting." These agencies coordinate the movements of the child with resettlement agencies in the U.S. The two largest of these agencies are the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) and the United States Catholic Conference (USCC). Both of these programs recruit and license foster families to care for these children in the U.S. The Minnesota affiliate of LIRS is Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota (LSS). I worked with the Unaccompanied Minors Program at LSS for 12 years. A large majority of the kids who we placed with foster families are now successful working adults raising their own families. There are many dramatic success stories. International Social Work In May of 1999, the war in Kosovo was one month old. Kosovar Albanian refugees were fleeing by the thousands into Albania, one of the poorest European countries. Non-governmental organizations (NGO's) were streaming into Albania just as fast to provide humanitarian relief. One of these is the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), based in Geneva and Washington, D.C. They specialize in assisting the most vulnerable refugees by providing them with individualized case management services. The email I received from my former supervisor at LSS that May opened the doors to International Social Work for me. I accepted a position in Tirana, Albania, supervising 20 Albanian Social Workers who were providing social services to the Kosovar Albanians. For more information about my experiences there, see the Albanian Chronicles below. Two months after returning from Albania, I received another email asking my interest in a position in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Northern Kenya, providing Best Interest Assessments for the Sudanese unaccompanied minors there, more popularly known as the "Lost Boys." Again, I jumped at this chance to see a continent of which I had only dreamed, and to be a part of the effort to bring relief and a better future to the Sudanese children who had been at Kakuma Camp since 1992. For more information about my experiences here, see the Kenyan Khronicles below.
Children living in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Northern Kenya
Sudanese children in Kakuma
The first group of Sudanese refugee minors with US resettlement acceptance letters in hand.
Kosovar Albanian children in Divjaka collective center reciting from memory.
Kakuma Best Interest Assessment interview staff composed of office clerk, interpreters and interviewers.