New Anti-Immigrant Bill is an Affront to Our Core Values

 NJFON Executive Director Rob Rutland-Brown urges you to take action against the anti-family and anti-refugee bill before Congress

National Justice for Our Neighbors strongly opposes the “Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy” (RAISE) Act, introduced by Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Perdue (R-GA) and championed by the Trump Administration. This anti-family and anti-refugee bill would dismantle our nation’s immigration system based on supporting family unification and would greatly reduce refugee admissions, instead favoring a “merit-based” points system based on the applicant’s ability to speak English and benefit the U.S. economy.

Like so many other proposals that have been floated in recent months, the justification for this bill—that it would increase wages and protect American jobs—relies not on facts but on myths meant to make us fear immigrants. For example, last year the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine produced a 500+ page report in which the lead researcher concluded that immigration had “little to no negative effects on overall wages and employment of native-born workers in the longer term.”

More importantly, this bill is an affront to the core values of JFON: promoting family unity and defending the most vulnerable.  We are called to serve those who are desperately seeking safety, refuge, and family.

Another relevant text, also not cited by those introducing the bill, the Bible, reminds us, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:40)

Here are some components of the bill that demonstrate why we vehemently oppose it:

  • Reduces legal immigration channels by 50-70 percent, with an 85 percent cut to family-based immigration.
  • Permanently caps refugee admissions at 50,000 per year, the lowest resettlement goal in U.S. history, during the largest global refugee crisis in world history.
  • Eliminates the ability of U.S. citizens to sponsor their brothers and sisters, and creates an impossible process for them to sponsor their parents for five-year visas, during which time the parents would not be able to work and the child would have to cover all expenses and health insurance costs.
  • Stops green card holders from sponsoring their children over the age of 18.
  • Leaves approximately four million people, who have been promised a visa and are waiting in line for it to become available, without any opportunity to reunite with their family members.
  • Essentially only permits individuals who have certain education levels, work history, English-language ability, or high-paying job offers to enter the United States.

The Interfaith Immigration Coalition, of which National JFON is a member, has drafted this sign-on letter that we encourage all faith leaders, churches, and JFONs to sign. Also, we urge you to call your Senators and Representative today at 202-224-3121.

Sample Script: I’m your constituent from [CITY/TOWN], and I am strongly OPPOSED to Senators Cotton and Perdue’s RAISE Act. This bill would permanently cut refugee resettlement numbers to historic lows, make family reunification inaccessible, and essentially only permit individuals who have certain education levels, employment history, and English-language ability to enter the United States. I urge you to reject this bill and do everything in your power to see that it does NOT become law.”

Thank you for your help.

Making an Impact

JFON Impact Litigation creates far-reaching change in the lives of immigrants

Each year, the JFON network of attorneys change, protect, and even save the lives of thousands of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. They do this one client at a time, slogging through the miles of paperwork, filings, and court appearances for each case.

But what if you—through your client’s case—could change, protect, or save the life of not only one individual, but hundreds, even thousands of people?

Shane Ellison

Charles “Shane” Ellison, NJFON consulting attorney and legal director for Justice for Our Neighbors Nebraska, is no stranger to high-profile cases of national importance; last year, he authored and filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief before the U.S. Supreme Court.

He’s proud that JFON continues to engage in meaningful work of impact litigation.

“When you are able to positively change policy—and in some instances, create law—though an individual case, you can help countless people with similar cases who come after that original client,” he explains. “The potential for making an impact on the lives of immigrants through this type of litigation is extremely exciting.”

Remberto Aguinada-Lopez was in a detention center, his asylum request denied, when Shane first came across his case.

Those seeking asylum in the U.S. must prove persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit had ruled that family ties could not be included in the “particular social group” category; therefore, people fearing torture and death from gangs in El Salvador due solely to a familial association were not eligible for asylum.

Remberto had been a student at a technical school. He was not a gang member, but his cousin was. Rival gangs, as a means to intimidate this cousin, repeatedly beat, shot at, and threatened Remberto. These same gang members would eventually shoot and kill the cousin outside of Remberto’s mother’s house.

The long history of murderous despots in this world tells us that this is nothing new. Whether they battle over a country, a village, or a territory of several city blocks, violent thugs do not restrict their slaughter to other combatants.  Frequently they go after family members to “send a message” or just because they can. Such is life in El Salvador and in many other violence-ravaged countries and failed states in the world.

But the Eighth Court had rejected Remberto’s claim. Remberto, his hopes shattered, began to steel  himself for a return to his homeland when JFON, the Center for New Americans at the University of Minnesota Law School, and the law firm of Wichmer & Groneck teamed up to take his case. Together, they filed an emergency stay of removal and a petition for rehearing.

“Our odds of winning were not great,” admits Shane. “JFON had not represented him in the earlier proceedings; we were jumping in after he had lost at every previous level.”

Ultimately, the Eighth Circuit reversed its first decision and reaffirmed that persecution due to family ties is sufficient reason to make a person eligible for asylum.  Family ties joined the “particular social group” along with race, religion, nationality, and political opinion categories for asylum seekers.

A undocumented immigrant is placed in handcuffs for his plane trip back to his birthplace. Photo: International Business Times

However, before Shane and his team could celebrate this astonishing victory, they had to deal with a fresh calamity. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS)  had unlawfully deported Remberto back to El Salvador.

“It was an extraordinarily reckless action,” Shane says. “The Eighth Circuit had explicitly ordered DHS to keep him here while the court weighed our petition. But DHS deported him anyway.”

While Shane’s team scrambled to get Remberto back to the U.S., Remberto was in hiding in a distant relative’s house in El Salvador, confining himself to one room for weeks. Every day, every hour he remained there he was in grave danger.

The judge who had issued the original stay ordered the DHS to bring Remberto back as soon as possible. They were forced to return him on a chartered jet.

“He knew he was coming back to the U.S. to go to jail—and yes, detention centers are jails,”—yet still he preferred jail to remaining in El Salvador,” says Shane.

The deliberate violation of the court’s order had one fortuitous consequence for Remberto that DHS had not foreseen. Remberto, as a guest of the U.S. government, had entered the country lawfully on that chartered flight.  He was now eligible to seek an adjustment of status through his U.S. citizen spouse.

“This is how you make lemonade out of lemons,” declares Shane with a grin.

Shane’s team secured Remberto’s release from detention and reopened his removal proceedings. He is now reunited with his wife and pursuing his green card application. He remains profoundly grateful to Shane and the herculean efforts of his entire legal team, acknowledging that every day of his life is an unexpected gift.

“Literally,” Shane says, “his life was saved.”

We agree that someone saved this young man’s life.  But doesn’t the credit belong to Shane himself?

Shane shakes his head.  “No, I was part of an excellent legal team. I had great support from the JFON network of staff, volunteers, and donors. I can’t take credit,” he explains earnestly, “for something I didn’t do alone. “

There will be other Rembertos. Other Felipes, Carmens, Myats, Mustafas, and Gabriels. The names may change. The countries of origin may change.

But those who are targets of horrific violence perpetuated by gangs due to their family relationships now have a chance to seek safety here in the United States.

That will not change.

From now on, when judges within the Eighth Circuit weigh asylum cases, they will be required to consider family ties as a legitimate reason for seeking asylum.  That is a direct result of the game-changing impact litigation of Remberto’s legal team.

“Yes, it’s a good feeling,” acknowledges Shane, smiling broadly. “Trust me, there’s nothing like it in the world.”




JFON West Michigan alone in leading “Know Your Rights” Programs at Detention Center

Necesito a alquien: I need someone

By Katrina Pradelski, Esq., JFON West Michigan Staff Attorney

I walk in, take a deep breath, and say, “me llamo Katrina, y trabajo para la Justicia para Nuestros Vecinos como abogada. No trabajo para el gobierno. Necesito a alguien para traducir.”

I’ve just introduced myself, assured them I don’t work for the government, and stated I need someone to translate.

Twice a month, this is what Tuesdays look like for me as I present Know Your Rights programs for the detained immigrants in the Calhoun County Correctional Facility in Battle Creek, Michigan.

A father of three faces deportation and separation from his children. Photo courtesy of UM News Service.

The immigrants here are in various stages of the deportation process, and many are not from Michigan; they were brought in on buses from the border, and have no idea that they’re only three hours away from Canada.

The presentations I offer consist of information on how to navigate the court system, what their rights are in the court process, and what remedies they may be eligible for. The information I provide helps guide them in the right direction, without taking the immigrant on for full representation.

Currently, JFON West Michigan is the only agency that does these presentations at Battle Creek. Without us, the only sources of information detained immigrants have are the government, a small law library (all in English, mind you), other inmates, or, if they are lucky, family on the outside who can hire an attorney.

They need someone on their side. Someone to explain this biased system and our laws, just like I need someone to explain their language for me. They need someone to commiserate with them about being treated like criminals, even though they only wanted safety and fled for their lives. Someone to tell them how long they can be detained after they are ordered to be deported. Someone to assure them that being here doesn’t make them a bad person, a bad spouse, or a bad parent.

Right now, that someone is JFON.

Knowledge is Power

JFON attorneys lead expanded “Know Your Rights” workshops

Photo courtesy of Ava Benach.

You kiss your daughter goodbye and send her off to school. You wish her luck on her spelling test, and tell her you can’t wait to hear all about it later that evening.

But you won’t see her later. She’ll come home to an empty house and not know where you are.

Agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) knocked on your door just as you were leaving for work. They searched your house and now you are being detained.

What do you do now? What happens to your daughter?

 Do you know your rights?

At Know Your Rights workshops, immigrants—whatever their immigration status—can learn their rights as residents in this country, prepare for the possibility of a raid, and create a safety plan for their family.

These informational sessions are not a new thing, but the sense of urgency and the number of communities clamoring for them feels different from previous years. Hateful campaign rhetoric, multiple executive orders, subsequent cases filed to combat them, and the inundation of fake news on social media have all contributed to create an atmosphere of confusion, worry, and fear.

JFON attorneys across the country have responded to this heightened demand by leading more workshops, not only in their home churches, but in other houses of worship, schools, libraries and community centers.

This card was designed to be presented to the ICE agent, while the at-risk immigrant stays silent. Determined silence reduces the chance of altercations, blunders, and attempts at intimidation. Source: Immigrant Legal Resource Center.

If knowledge is power, it is also a weapon, and it is the best defense our immigrant communities have against the Trump administration’s new enforcement priorities. Some of these new priorities give sweeping power to local officials, many of whom do not have a full understanding of immigration law. Armed with knowledge, our communities can make informed choices regarding their interactions with ICE agents and local police officers and can best protect their rights at home, in their car, on the street or in their workplace.

Know Your Rights workshops can help, says TJ Mills, NJFON consulting attorney and site attorney for New York Justice for Our Neighbors, “assuage the concerns about the Trump administration’s executive order to deport undocumented immigrants without regard to number of years they have lived in the country or whether they have criminal records.”

Some undocumented immigrants may feel safe from the threat of deportation because they are misinformed or unaware of new and aggressive immigration enforcement policies. Source: Immigrant Defense Project.

Being prepared for the worst-case scenario

“Safety planning” has become an integral part of all the Know Your Rights workshops led by JFON attorneys, who help immigrants in danger of deportation and separation from their family compile the documents they will need if they are suddenly detained by ICE. These documents need to be kept in a secure place, one known to other trusted friends or family members. They include:

  • Caregiver’s Authorization Affidavit—so the person taking care of your child has authority to make school-related and medical decisions.
  • Special Power of Attorney—for the person who will be making long-term decisions for your child’s well-being.
  • Limited Power of Attorney—for the person who will be handling your financial assets.

Planning for the possibility of being forced to leave your family—even just thinking about it—takes courage. It’s confusing and scary, and it’s a task best not attempted alone.  JFON attorneys can walk their at-risk immigrant clients through the planning process, explaining every step along the way, and providing them some ease and assurance that, even if the worst happens, they and their family will be better equipped to deal with it.

“They are very grateful for our help,“ says Dominique Poirier, NJFON consulting attorney and legal director for Just Neighbors, our JFON site in Northern Virginia. “From what I’ve seen, people leave the workshops actually feeling encouraged and hopeful.”

“We have never been more proud,” adds Melissa Bowe, program and advocacy manager for NJFON, “to serve our immigrant family members, neighbors and larger community in teaching about our constitutional protections and other best practices under American immigration law.”

Travel Ban/ Refugee Ban 2.0

“This order limits access to our nation by the most vulnerable people in the world—those we are called to serve.  It does not make our country safer, and it most certainly does not follow the Biblical mandate to love thy neighbor.”

 Rob Rutland-Brown, Executive Director for National Justice for Our Neighbors.

We met these two ladies at a February rally against the ban in Washington, D.C.

Despite nationwide opposition and multiple legal losses, the Trump administration introduced an Executive Order on Monday, March 6, that continues to bar travelers from six predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States for 90 days. It also suspends refugee resettlement for 120 days, and drastically reduces the number of refugees the United States welcomes—from 110,000 to 50,000.

Unlike the previous version, the travel ban portion of this new order will not be implemented immediately.  As our friends at the National Immigration Law Center point out, “this is no doubt an effort to limit the protests at airports across the country we saw within hours of the original ban. But we will not be deterred.”

These orders continue to be devastating for travelers who are detained and threatened with deportation in our airports, for our community members who are waiting to be reunited with their family members, and for refugees overseas who need to be resettled to be safe from violence and persecution.

National Justice for Our Neighbors joins the chorus of dissent against this new executive order, and encourages everyone to denounce it to their elected leaders.

You can declare your support for immigrants and refugees by signing National Immigration Law Center’s petition to oppose Trump’s new Muslim Exclusion ban.



The America we love

The America we must defend 

“This is a normal work day for you, yes?” Zamir asked, looking around the chaotic waiting area at Washington Dulles airport, where hundreds of protesters were gathered with signs, and lawyers sat on the floor with cellphones and laptops at the ready.

Zamir is a U.S. lawful permanent resident (LPR or Green Card holder). Having served our government abroad for years in a dangerous and vital capacity, he now calls Maryland home.

“All these lawyers…they are being paid?”

“No, we’re all volunteers,” replied Angela Edman, site attorney for DC-MD JFON. Having extensive experience serving refugees and asylum seekers, Angela had driven to Dulles early on Sunday morning to assist in any way she could. And there she had met Zamir, her newest client.

“We’re here to help you.”

Zamir was silent, but his face mirrored puzzlement and disbelief.

“But, why?”

“Because I believe the president’s orders are wrong,” Angela told him. “This is not the America I love. And we want to show you that you are welcome here.”

The scene at Washington Dulles Airport when travelers being detained were finally released.

Just then, as if on cue, the waiting room erupted in cheers as a group of travelers straggled through the doors. There were balloons, flowers, American flags and robust cries of “welcome home!”

It had been a terrible day for Zamir. His wife, also an LPR, and his baby daughter, a U.S. citizen, were in their home country, visiting a gravely ill family member. Now they were stuck there and could not get back to Maryland.

Zamir was sick with worry, but a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.

“Wow,” he muttered, shaking his head in wonder and gratitude. “People actually do want us here.”

What can I do?
Rising Together to Defeat the Ban

“I am glad I was able to go and help by providing legal information and explanations of the constantly changing situation. But more so, I am glad I was able to provide comfort to immigrants who were confused and scared about what would happen to their family members abroad who have green cards or U.S. visas and may not be able to return.

The sheer number of people who showed up this weekend–not just the lawyers, but the huge group of regular citizens who wanted to support and welcome these people–they all helped restore some of my faith in humanity.”

 -Angela Edman, site attorney for DC-MD JFON, at Washington Dulles International Airport.

National Justice for Our Neighbors is thankful to immigration attorneys—heroes and heroines like Angela–who are on the front lines zealously defending immigrants and refugees under attack by President Trump’s latest Executive Order. 

Volunteer New York JFON Attorney and American Friends’ Service Committee’s Supervising Attorney Alexandra Goncalves-Pena gathers with other immigration attorneys at Newark International Airport. Photo Courtesy of Buzzfeed

The third and most recent immigration-focused Executive Order by President Trump, signed Friday, January 27th, targets refugees as well as those traveling from seven predominantly Muslim countries.  National Justice for Our Neighbors is strongly opposed to this action because it shuts the door on the world’s most vulnerable people.

This order includes an unprecedented travel ban in that it excludes entry into our country based on where someone was born.  The order applies to Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Libya, Sudan, and Yemen.  The ban splits families apart, prevents many students in America from continuing their education, and threatens the jobs of people who need to travel for work.  In 2016, the JFON network served 175 refugees and asylees from the seven banned countries.  Notably, while the ban purports to protect Americans, the total number of Americans killed on U.S. soil by citizens of those countries since 1975 is zero.

The Executive Order suspends America’s refugee program for 120 days, which will effectively grind refugee resettlement here to a halt.  This is because many of the requirements of refugees, such as security screenings and medical exams, are time-limited and will expire by the time the ban is lifted.   The order reduces the number of refugees we will accept from 110,000 to 50,000 and bans all refugees from Syria, reneging on our nation’s pledge to the world to provide refuge to these most imperiled people.

Another troubling element of the Executive Order is the provision which allows states to have a more active role in banning the acceptance of refugees.  We have seen many governors over the past year seek to shut the door on refugees, and this order grants them more authority to do just that.

The administration action’s force our immigrant neighbors further into the shadows and cruelly endanger the lives of those fleeing violence. These actions also threaten our identity and legacy as a country. It is more important now than ever to educate ourselves and our communities, and take action in any way we can. Here’s how you can help.

  • Learn More and Share Information about the Latest Executive Order

Advocates from Refugee Council USA have put together the FAQ Tool attached below on what is currently known about the latest Executive Order. Please note the disclaimer at the top of the document that it “is not legal advice but instead provides the best answers that we can provide at this time. It is subject to change as additional guidance is released from the U.S. Government.”

Refugee Center Online (RCO) has prepared webpages in English, Amharic, Arabic, Chinese, French, Karen, Kurdish, Nepali, Russian, Spanish, Turkish and Vietnamese to help explain to refugees how the Executive Order will affect them. Please distribute widely!

  • Call Elected Officials

Elected officials must understand the broad support for welcoming refugees and other newcomers. Please call your local, state, and national leaders — tell them where you’re from, why you care about refugees, and urge them to support the U.S. refugee resettlement program. Click here for more information including a sample call script from our friends at Refugee Council USA.

  • Collect Stories

We are all hearing stories of people around the country and around the world who are directly affected by the Executive Order. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society developed this form to collect and share these stories to illustrate the widespread devastation of Trumps’ policy. These stories can include:

  • People detained at ports of entry
  • Refugees who were expecting to come to the U.S. (in the “pipeline”)
  • U.S. residents who were expecting their family members to join them in the U.S.
  • Communities and congregations who were expecting to welcome refugees (i.e. furnishing apartments, collecting donations, etc.)

By filling out the form, you are granting permission for these stories to be told publicly.  No identifying information will be used. Photos are encouraged. Please contact with any questions.

  • Host a Vigil or Press Event

We urge you to check out Church World Service’s resources regarding hosting VIGILS & PRESS EVENTS opposing this announcement and the immigration announcements that happened on Friday. Let us know if you decide to host an event and please send us photos!

  • Sign A Petition

Sign THIS PETITION from that opposes the latest Executive Order and already has more than 37,000 signatures within 24 hours.

Thank you for all the ways you are helping us lift a message of inclusivity, compassion and justice.

  • Donate to our 20 by ’20 Campaign!

If we learned anything these past few days, it is that the law, the courts, and lawyers are crucial in this fight to protect and defend our immigrant, refugee, and asylee neighbors. We know that without attorneys, our most vulnerable and marginalized neighbors don’t stand a chance. In response, NJFON is introducing our…

20 by ’20 Campaign!

We currently have 15 JFON sites across the country.

Our goal is to increase that number to 20 sites by 2020.

Please consider donating $20.20 TODAY! 


Still Standing with our Immigrant Neighbors

NJFON responds to President Trump’s Executive Orders

National Justice for Our Neighbors vehemently opposes President Trump’s two enforcement-focused Executive Orders announced on Wednesday, January 25, 2017.  These announcements are grounded in fear, not in fact.  They call for actions that are expensive, unnecessary, and antithetical to JFON’s values of compassion and dignity for all individuals.

As people of faith, we are called upon to seek mercy, do justice, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Times change; governments change; yet these commands remain unchanged. JFON will continue to stand with our immigrant brothers and sisters. We will fight for them, and alongside them.

The two Executive Orders focus on border security and interior enforcement.  While we are still learning their ramifications and reach, key points include:

  • Construct a southern border wall
  • Boost border patrol forces and increase the number of immigration enforcement officers who carry out deportations
  • End “catch and release,” in essence guaranteeing that immigrants and asylum-seekers are continuously detained and denied freedom, with no regard to humanitarian concerns
  • Cut off federal funding to sanctuary cities and counties, which have chosen to not cooperate with ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in favor of protecting their residents
  • Prioritize deportation of certain immigrants (this encompasses not only “criminals” but a range of other categories, including those who have been charged with a crime but not convicted)

“We strongly denounce President Trump’s widespread attack yesterday on immigrants and refugees, announced through two executive orders,” states NJFON Executive Director Rob Rutland-Brown. “These enforcement-focused actions do not reflect the values which JFON upholds, including promoting family unity, protecting access to our justice system, and defending vulnerable populations.  Now—more than ever before—is the time to open our arms and our hearts to immigrants.”

We expect more executive orders to be announced soon, including an assault on our nation’s refugee program.  We will keep you informed of these actions and provide as many specific ways to engage as possible.  In the meantime, thank you for your compassion, your advocacy, and for standing with us and our immigrant neighbors.

Stand with Us

Speak for those who cannot speak;
seek justice for all those on the verge of destruction.
Speak up, judge righteously,
and defend the rights of the afflicted and oppressed.  

Proverbs 31:8-9

The election of the new president-elect has created much fear, confusion and uncertainty in communities all across the nation. Will the young dreamers lose DACA? What obstacles will Muslim immigrants face? Will there be a “deportation force” roaming through our cities and towns, tracking down millions of hardworking undocumented immigrants to deport them? Will that wall be built?

Like many of you, we lift our eyes to the road ahead of us, and find it impossibly bleak.

How much bleaker—and how much more terrifying—that road looks for immigrants. They are our clients, our neighbors, and, in many cases, our friends and family. Will they take our dad from us? Will I still be allowed to work?  Are my children no longer able to come live with me? Am I safe here?

It remains to be seen how the rhetoric of Trump’s campaign will be put into practice as legislative, budgetary and other constraints come into play. There is also the hope that President Trump will be more unifying than candidate Trump, as our election process invites contrasts and creates divides.

But mostly, we find comfort in being faithful to our mission of providing vital legal aid to our most vulnerable immigrant neighbors. We know that our ministry is more crucial today than at any time in our history. We vow to daily prove to our immigrant brothers and sisters—by thought, word and deed–that we value them, we welcome them, and that we love them.

We will keep fighting for immigration policies that are just and compassionate and against those grounded in bigotry and intolerance.  We will lift up our voices in our churches and our communities and share stories of the immigrants we have come to know and admire. We will continue to stand with refugees and those who seek safe haven in our country.  We will continue to tirelessly represent immigrants so they can, in fact, work here lawfully, be able to live together with their families, and remain safely and permanently in the United States.

The new president-elect made many promises on his road to the White House. Here’s our promise to you: we aren’t quitting, we aren’t backing down, and we are not going away.

Here we stand. Here we stay. Join us.

JFON clinic Aurora


Forced from Home: What would you leave behind?

Interactive exhibit offers perspective on refugee experience

“You can choose five things to take with you,” Melanie tells us. “You have 30 seconds. One…,” she begins, “two…three…”

Item board
What will you choose to bring with you? What will you be forced to leave behind?

Some of us start grabbing items in a panic. Others take the more pragmatic approach. Money and passport, of course. Food, water, medicine. But what about shoes?  Is there no room for our precious family photos? Our dog is like a child to us—how can you ask us to leave him behind?

We are at the Doctors without Borders’ Forced from Home Interactive Exhibit on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The exhibit has already toured New York, Boston and Pittsburgh, and is now in Philadelphia until Nov. 11.

Melanie is tasked with guiding us today. We are a group of high school students, members of a local church, and two office workers on their lunch break.  The closest people we have to refugees are a couple of tourists from Oregon. Nevertheless, the exhibit is designed to replicate the experience of refugees, asylum-seekers and displaced persons—in a convenient one-hour tour.

We perch precariously on the side of a rib—a rigid inflatable boat—and try to imagine it packed with two, three, four times as many people. How does a boat like this not capsize in dangerous seas?

We pass through to the tent that houses the health clinic.

This mobile health clinic is prepared for cholera victims,
This tent is also a mobile health clinic and is prepared to receive cholera victims.

“Ewww,” says one young girl when she realizes why the “cholera bed” has a hole in the middle.  The bucket shower and squatting toilet elicit similar shudders.  We move into our new home—a cramped tent we share with another family. There isn’t a lot of protection from the elements. There is a near-constant danger of fire from the primitive cook stove. We are told we could be here for months, years, even decades.

At every stop of our tour, we are forced to give up one of our precious items. It’s all pretend, of course, and yet we seem to agonize over each choice. One woman cheats, holding on to her last two possessions until she is caught and forced to give up her cell phone.  At the end, another woman shows off the money she held onto—proud of making the wise and practical choice.

Melanie shakes her head. “You should have chosen jewelry, ” she tells her bluntly. “What good is money from South Sudan?”

All of the guides at the exhibit have been in the field at one of the more than 60 countries Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) serves. The doctors, nurses, and other professionals come from all over the world as well. Dr. Ahmed Abdalzarag, a neurosurgeon from Iraq, joined MSF in 2011, when he was himself a refugee living in Libya.

Dr Ahmed Abdalzarag, refugee and neurosurgeon.
To read more of Dr. Ahmed Abdalzarag’s remarkable story, please go here.

“I’ve been on the move for 25 years,” he tells us. “When I was a refugee, I wished someone would talk for me.  I feel now that I am the voice of the voiceless.”

“I’m here to tell you that nobody wants to leave home,” he continues, “They love their cities, their neighborhoods. They love speaking their own language. The people who are fleeing their home countries are running because their home countries aren’t safe. They are fleeing for their lives.

Dr. Abdalzarag is called away to lead another tour just as our guide Melanie joins us again. She’s licking a large ice cream cone, and obviously enjoying it immensely. She smiles a bit sheepishly.

“I don’t often get to have ice cream,” she confesses in her beautiful French accent. “Even if you can find it, you can’t trust that it’s okay to eat.”

Melanie works on the administrative side of things. She has just returned from Haiti. It was, she acknowledges, a very difficult mission. In the course of her six years with MSF she has been on a lot of difficult missions.

“At the end of each one, you think, ‘no way I’m going through that again,’” she explains, “And then, after a few weeks, you say, ‘actually, I am going back.’”

Melanie finishes her ice cream cone and wipes her hands clean with a paper napkin. “We want to be out of a job,” she says. “I want to be unemployed. But when I see the children of Haiti, of Central Africa, of South Sudan,  I know I am so far from being unemployed.”

We sit for a moment in silence in the thin shadow of the Washington Monument. It’s a beautiful fall day in the city. To our right, the alabaster dome of the U.S. Capitol gleams in the afternoon sun. Hundreds of important women and men work there, making decisions—or not making decisions—that affect millions of the people Melanie and Dr. Abdalzarag work so hard to save.

“I don’t think I could do anything else right now,” she admits with a sigh. “You feel so useful. You don’t get that feeling very often in life, do you?”


The world now has more refugees and displaced persons than at any time since World War II.  Refugees resettled in the U.S. urgently need our support.

Congress is proposing funding bills for Fiscal Year 2017 that would flatline refugee resettlement funding at 2016 levels, just as our country begins welcoming 110,000 refugees this month—35,000 more refugees than planned for in last year’s budget. 

 Please join our partners in urging our mayors to request more funding for refugee resettlement.