U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon offers encouragement for refugee families in L.A.
By Gary Walker
During a rare trip to West Los Angeles last week, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the story of a 6-year-old boy from Southeast Asia whose family fled their homeland during the Korean War.
“The United Nations recognized that there were millions of displaced persons during and after the war that were fleeing their countries. They provided everything for resettlement,” Ki-moon told refugee families from Syria, Iran, El Salvador, Bosnia and Iraq during an Annenberg Foundation-sponsored event in Century City.
“They provided food, clothing, shelter. Everything.”
That refugee boy was Ki-moon, who in telling the story of his own humble beginnings sought to inspire resilience among refugee families resettled in Los Angeles — their children in particular.
“Life can be difficult sometimes, but be courageous and brave. Please do not lose hope,” he said.
The Aug. 10 gathering at the Annenberg Space for Photography, co-organized by the United Nations Association, was a back to school event that included gifts of bright blue backpacks for refugee students.
The museum’s current exhibit, titled “Refugee,” documents current refugee crises around the globe and remains on display through Sunday, Aug. 21.
Some 65 million people around the world are currently displaced refugees.
“That’s the largest number since the end of World War II. The situation has been elevated to a global issue,” said Ki-moon, who is convening a summit on the crisis next month with President Barack Obama.
The refugee crisis isn’t just a global issue. If California were a country, it would be the world’s fourth largest in terms of accommodating refugees, he said.
International Rescue Committee Executive Director Martin Zogg said recent anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric has impacted the work of rescue and resettlement organizations, but not so much in California.
“It has been more difficult in some parts of the country. Fortunately, Southern California is the most welcoming place for refugees — possibly in the entire world. And that’s demonstrated by how well our communities embrace refugees and how well refugees have thrived in Southern California,” Zogg said. “Many have established businesses, almost all are working, and their children are in school.”
Juliet Ansumana and her daughter, who arrived from Sierra Leone in 2008, are among those success stories. They lived in West Los Angeles for a few years before settling in Koreatown.
Adapting to the mild L.A. climate was one of Ansumana’s biggest challenges; for her 16-year-old daughter it was losing contact with her friends back home.
“It was hard to socialize at first. I was bullied by people a lot,” Margarette Aoyoh said. “But now I’m getting through it and I’m making friends.”
As a journalist in her native land, Ansumana frequently reported on torture and violence against women — topics that angered Sierra Leone government officials.
“They really didn’t like that,” she said.
Safety fears after clashes with the government prompted her to flee with her daughter.
Rep. Ted Lieu (D- Torrance), whose parents brought him to the U.S. when he was 6 years old, can identify with newcomers to the United States.
“Living in a place that’s different from where you were born has special resonance with me. My parents had a choice [to stay in their native land], but refugees — because of war, natural disasters or famine — do not. They need to leave their homeland, and nations that have the capacity to take them in should,” Lieu said. “This is what humanity is all about, and it’s also consistent with America’s principles. We were founded as a nation by people fleeing persecution.”
One of six immigrants serving in Congress, Lieu said he is troubled by calls from across the aisle to ban refugees from coming to America.
“I thought it was enormously discriminatory and profoundly stupid, and I pushed back on it and we were able to successfully defeat it,” Lieu said.
Despite political rhetoric about refugees having easy access to the U.S., Zogg said the reality is quite the opposite.
“They go through an exacting, laborious process that can often last more than two years. They are mostly women, children, girls and families,” he said.
While on active duty with the U.S. Air Force in 1996, Lieu was involved in the evacuation of more than 2,000 Kurdish fighters who had helped U.S. forces battle Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War. They were airlifted out of northern Iraq and taken to Guam, with some eventually resettled in the U.S.
While visiting Iraqi Kurdistan a few years ago, Lieu was approached by a young government staffer.
“He said, ‘I was a child on one of those planes that landed in Guam. You saved my life and my family’s lives,’” Lieu recalled. “He resettled in the United States, went to college and returned to his country. It was an amazing story.”
Margarette, meanwhile, is taking Ki-moon’s advice to heart and looks forward to graduating from high school in 2018.
“I plan to be a medical examiner,” she said proudly in the sing-song patter of native Southern California teenagers.