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The Armchair Refugee Rescue Operation, Phase 2 The Armchair Refugee Rescue Operation, Phase 2
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The Armchair Refugee Rescue Operation, Phase 2

by Brian Merchant

June 24, 2010


I think it’s time
to face a few facts. When I began this endeavor a few months ago, I had little concept of what the moving a refugee out of Burma would actually entail. But that was sort of the point. I assumed it would be difficult and time consuming, and I had some vague notion of what I thought I’d encounter. It turns out, I was completely naive.

Let me outline my expectations, abstract as they were: Get on the phone. Do some serious research and investigative work. Make contacts and allies in the appropriate agencies. Keep up with Samy. Cooperate, pool information, and stay abreast of current events in the refugee camps in Thailand.

That’s essentially what has happened. But that’s also where the plan drops off precipitously.

What I hazily anticipated coming next looked something like this: Work hard. Make more calls, maybe. Find out who helps refugees on the ground in Thailand and Burma. Keep working hard. File some paperwork or something. Work with a government agency, maybe. Raise some money to help pay for whatever fees or costs the process might require. Get Samy on track to emigrate. After months, maybe even a year, triumph. Meet Samy at the airport, and firmly shake his hand.

In hindsight, I realize I had this ridiculous, optimistic assumption that there was surely a clear-cut way forward that would result in Samy living in the United States. Maybe I would write a book. Samy and I would be friends. Maybe we'd even do the talk show circuit.

Now, for the record, I didn’t seriously consider the latter. The point is, idealism and naivete struck me with a misguided attitude from the onset, with the belief that if I had enough good intent and fortitude, I could make this happen.

But now, after talking to various aid groups and human rights lawyers and agents at the U.N. and spokespeople at the U.S. embassy and Samy and the I.R.C. and reps at the State Department and so on and so forth, it has become quite clear that there is nothing resembling a clear path forward. There’s no outlined procedure for dealing with cases like this, no precedent for advocating for a specific refugee here in the United States. This isn't Canada; there’s no blueprint.

Obviously, I wasn’t expecting for the task to be easy or uncomplicated—I certainly anticipated the way to be mired with bureaucratic complexities, and I was up for enduring frustrations and setbacks. But I also expected to find some more direct course of action, other than donating cash to the general cause (which, don’t get me wrong, is a very worthy cause). You know, something I could do.

During a number of my talks with the various players in the resettlement process, the other party, sensing my frustration, would sometimes say that I’m helping just by writing on the topic. That this story needs to be told. I’ve heard that a few times, and I appreciate the sentiment, and I do think that it’s true—but it’s certainly not getting Samy out of Burma. And that’s what matters at the end of the day. This isn’t about me.

Which is why it’s time to dig in, with renewed vigor. And I have some ideas. Samy's getting arrested sent me back to the drawing board. It’s time to get aggressive, to really start prying and pushing and see what kind of opportunities can be opened up. It’s time to get creative—and to leave the empty assumptions behind.

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