Thursday, June 19, 2008

World Refugee Day - June 20

Today, June 20 is World Refugee Day. UNHCR says that from Australia through ancient Rome to the Americas, people around the globe will take part in the most ambitious and spectacular World Refugee Day (WRD) celebrations ever over the coming week. With "Protection" as this year's global theme, UNHCR and its partners, including governments, donors, non-governmental organizations, Angelina Jolie and other Goodwill Ambassadors and refugees themselves, will stage a wide range of activities, including light shows, photography exhibitions, film festivals, lectures, panel discussions, food bazaars, fashion shows, concerts and sports competitions. You can read more about what is going on around the world, spotlighting the plight of refugees here. Two days ago, in Damascus, acclaimed Iraqi oud (lute) player Naseer Shamma raised more than USD 24,000 for UNHCR's Iraqi refugee programme with a concert at the Damascus Opera House. They sure can use the money. It has been reported that since the beginning of 2007, the falling value of the US dollar has led to a USD 6 million dollar loss of support for the UNHCR programme in Syria. There is a funding shortfall of USD 61 million for the entire Iraq operation, covering Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq. I know there are many competing issues that require our support and attention these days. But if you like to help on this one, check out UNHCR. For USG-affiliated Iraqi refugees, check out The List Project, and The List Kids. This seems like a fitting day to also call attention to the work performed by Foreign Service Officer, Crystal Kaplan, recently announced as one of the finalists to the 2008 Service to America Medals. Her achievement: "Planned and led the U.S. and international community to resettle more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees from the refugee camps they have been living in for nearly two decades." The following is an excerpt of the nomination narrative posted online. You can read the entire text here.

As a Political Officer in the U.S. Embassy Kathmandu, Crystal Kaplan began to research the Bhutanese refugee population in 2003. She traveled to the camps and interviewed the families living there. She began to understand the strife that these individuals faced on a daily basis. Food was in short supply. There was a rise in teenage pregnancy and violence. School-age children were unable to complete their homework after dark due to the lack of electricity. She also recognized the potential danger posed by allowing these refugees to languish in camps indefinitely. With no hope for the future, young refugees in the camps were ripe for Maoist or other terrorist group recruitment.

Kaplan did her best to advance short-term, immediate relief for camp residents. She advocated for continued U.S. funding for food, healthcare and other basic humanitarian relief. She monitored the delivery of humanitarian assistance funded by the U.S. Department of State. She also secured additional funds for high school scholarships for Bhutanese refugees who otherwise would not be able to go to school. Kaplan demonstrated her ability to find innovative solutions by establishing a public-private partnership between the Rotary Clubs of her hometown in San Clemente, California, and Kathmandu to provide funding for pedal-powered generators to provide light to the individual huts.

She worked with a coalition of six other governments to agree on a common policy and intensely lobby the government of Nepal to allow the refugees to resettle in other countries. Thanks in part to strong relationships she had built, the government of Nepal – though initially reluctant – finally agreed. Refugees are being resettled in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway. On February 27, 2008, the first Bhutanese refugee arrived in the United States, and more than 200 followed in the next two months alone. This accomplishment was so extraordinary that the United Nations is working to adapt this multilateral model to resolve other protracted refugee situations around the world.

Due to her exemplary work with the Bhutanese refugees, Kaplan is now known as one of the world’s leading experts on refugee relief issues and solutions. She was appointed the U.S. Department of State Refugee Coordinator for Jerusalem in recognition of the important role humanitarian assistance to 4.5 million Palestinian refugees in the region will play in supporting long-term prospects for peace.

Crystal Kaplan’s work has yielded practical benefits for our country. She has helped to save U.S. tax dollars that will no longer be needed to maintain the Bhutanese refugee camps. She also helped avert the radicalization of this group which was vulnerable to terrorist recruitment. Her greatest achievement, however, has been giving a voice to the voiceless and helping thousands of people restore their lives and reclaim their futures.

Another finalist for the National Security and International Affairs Medal is Mary Kate Friedrich, a Civil Service employee of the State Department, serving as a Special Advisor to the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs for her work in leading the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, a major public/private effort to enhance the economic, social and political status of Afghan women. The Service to America Medal award was created in 2002 by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization committed to recruiting and retaining excellence in the federal civil service. The Partnership for Public Service will name the 2008 Federal Employee of the Year and recipients of the Service to America Medal at a Washington, D.C. gala on September 16. Congratulations to you both! And thank you for doing us proud!

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