Johns Hopkins Magazine -- April 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine

APRIL 1997



Worldwide, there are now more people in flight from bombing, snipers, land mines, starvation, rape, and persecution than at any time in history. For two SAIS instructors, today's refugee crisis is deeply personal.

P U B L I C    P O L I C Y    A N D    I N T E R N A T I O N A L    A F F A I R S

Desperately Seeking
Safe Haven

By Dale Keiger
Illustration by Craig Terkowitz

ON AN UNSEASONABLY WARM DAY in February, Le Xuan Khoa and Judith Mayotte address a class at Hopkins's Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). The course is Refugees and Humanitarian Action--Crises and Prevention. Some of the discussion is dry, a charting of the various actors in any given refugee crisis: the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the Red Cross, the country of first asylum, outside military forces... The conversation turns livelier when Khoa, Mayotte, and their students begin relating personal experiences. The 18 or so students are a polyglot group, of various ages and accents. Some of the them have spent time in hotspots like Cambodia. For Khoa and Mayotte, refugee issues are deeply personal.

In April 1975, Khoa was a university professor in Saigon. Two days before North Vietnamese Army tanks rolled into the city and crashed through the fence of the American embassy compound, he and his family escaped Vietnam with their lives and little else. Now, as president and executive director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC) in Washington, D.C., he assists that region's refugees, which until recently still numbered in the tens of thousands, in their transition from being refugees to productive American citizens.

Mayotte, his partner in the course, is a former nun who consults for the U.S. State Department on refugee issues. She too speaks from direct experience. She spent years working with refugees in Cambodia, Sudan, Pakistan, Eritrea, Mozambique, Malauii, Hong Kong, Tanzania, Thailand, Vietnam, and Ethiopia. She has slipped into war zones with rebel troops, dodged artillery shells, watched people die from land mines, starvation, and disease, and paid an enormous personal price for her advocacy and intervention. She has seen firsthand one of the saddest of all truths: Cultures take centuries to build, but only a few years to destroy.

From the trenches: Judith Mayotte, a former nun, has slipped into war zones with rebel troops, dodged artillery shells, and watched people die from landmines, starvation, and disease. Le Xuan Khoa and his family escaped from Vietnam with their lives--and little else.
MAYOTTE AND KHOA'S COURSE apprises students of the present worldwide refugee situation, which is appalling. There are more people now in flight from warfare and civil collapse than at any time in history. A census of the displaced is inherently imprecise--imagine counting people on the move in a nation as chaotic as Zaire--but Khoa estimates that 17 to 20 million people now are refugees. Even more, 25 to 40 million, are internally displaced persons, IDPs in relief work parlance. An IDP is someone who has not crossed a national border and thus is not a refugee, according to the official United Nations definition, but who nevertheless has fled home to escape violence and turmoil. Mayotte estimates that one out of every 115-120 people on earth is displaced.

If you want to know where to find them, consult a current atlas of warfare. They are in Bosnia, having escaped that country's vicious civil war. Sudan, fleeing another civil war. Chechnya-- more war. Rwanda. Zaire. Afghanistan. Iraq. All in search of a haven from bombing, artillery, snipers, land mines, starvation, rape, and persecution.

They are products of the vicious nature of contemporary warfare. Until World War II, battles usually were restricted to battlefields, and civilian casualties, even in a conflict as massive and widespread as the First World War, were comparatively minimal. But in a typical war in 1997, says Mayotte, over 90 percent of all casualties will be civilian--often women, children, and the elderly or infirm. And these civilian casualties are no longer people mistakenly caught in crossfires or errant shelling. They are now targets, deliberately killed, abused, and terrorized for political and territorial gain. In Cambodia, there is a saying, "You will know the Cambodian of the future, for he or she has but one leg."

"I have clandestinely gone into rebel-held areas in southern Sudan," Mayotte says. "I have held children in my arms who I knew would die in a few hours. I have been in areas where there are no surviving children under age 5. Where there are no cattle. Where midwives lack razor blades for cutting umbilical cords. All because the Sudanese government in the north has decided to starve the population in the south. And the rebels would do the same thing if it suited their purposes."

People displaced within a country at war are constantly vulnerable to attack, disease, and hunger. When they flee across borders, it is often to inhospitable regions of countries that may be no more stable than their homelands, or that are poor and cannot handle a sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of desperately needy and fearful refugees. In 1985, "Site 2" became the fourth largest city in Thailand when 180,000 Cambodian refugees were settled there in a barbed wire enclosure. The 7.8 square miles set aside for them had few trees and no ground water. The Thai government meant for the camp to serve as an evacuation site for a year or less. Five years later, the camp was still there, and had one of the highest birth rates in the world.

The degree of disorder in some regions beggars the imagination. Robert Kaplan, writing in The Atlantic Monthly, described the recent situation in the West African country of Sierra Leone: "...roughly 400,000 Sierra Leonians are internally displaced, 280,000 more have fled to neighboring Guinea, and another 100,000 have fled to Liberia, even as 400,000 Liberians have fled to Sierra Leone. The third largest city in Sierra Leone, Gondama, is a displaced-persons camp."

Welcome to the aftermath of colonialism and the Cold War. When Western colonial powers granted independence to their former possessions, they created nation-states that made no inherent sense. Especially in Africa, but also elsewhere like Iraq and Indonesia, borders and countries were created for political convenience, contrary to ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and indigenous political realities. When a country lacks some powerful form of cohesion--be it ethnic, tribal, cultural, linguistic--it can fall prey to the cynical manipulation of dictators, warlords, and religious or political zealots. Slobodan Milosevic can exploit old anxieties of Serbs regarding their Bosnian Muslim neighbors. Hutu extremists in Rwanda can incite a population to genocide.

When the violence breaks out, it does so among people who are heavily armed. The Cold War was a violent affair in places like Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, and Cambodia, where contending superpowers supported warring factions with massive shipments of armaments. The Cold War is over, but the guns remain, as does the global arms business. If a Somalian warlord wants to make mischief, he has little trouble equipping his troops with not only AK-47s, but rockets, artillery, and armored vehicles. When the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, the mujahadeen did not surrender their weapons. They turned them on each other in a civil war that has been as brutal for Afghan civilians as the Soviet invasion.

The result has been an epic disaster for much of the world's population, and an unrelenting international problem. How do you help these people? Where do they go? Who feeds, clothes, and nurses them? What do you do about, say, the Palestinians, who have been refugees for so long that some young adults have lived their whole lives in camps? Finally--and to Khoa and Mayotte this is the central question--how do you prevent the strife that creates new massive dislocations?

KHOA ADDRESSES THESE ISSUES from SEARAC's modest offices near DuPont Circle in D.C. As executive director, he oversees fact-finding, the creation of programs to aid refugees from Southeast Asia, and promotion of public policies that prevent the creation of new refugee situations. In 1995, two decades after the end of the Vietnam war, 40,000 Vietnamese and Laotian refugees still lived in camps, mostly in Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. By this June, most or all should be resettled or repatriated. The camps have been a long coda to the Vietnam war.

Born and raised in Hanoi, Khoa was educated there and at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he studied Oriental philosophy. He had moved in 1953 to what became South Vietnam when the country divided, and in 1965 he joined the faculty of the University of Saigon. Four years later, he became deputy minister of education in the South Vietnamese government. He campaigned for programs to enable Vietnamese students to study abroad, and for draft exemptions for teachers, who were being killed in the war at an alarming rate. The military government rejected his ideas for sending students out of the country. So, in his words, he decided "to bring the brains in," and initiated a visiting-professor program at the university. He also decided Vietnamese schools needed good translations of American textbooks.

To that end, he approached the Vietnamese-American Association (VAA) and persuaded it in 1970 to start a press, with him as director. He couldn't know at the time that the friendships he developed would save him five years later. In April 1975, when the military situation in the south deteriorated, he told his American friends, "Everywhere you go, I will be with you. You cannot leave me here."

He recalls, "I was really scared." He told his wife to pack what she could in suitcases. He forbade his children from leaving the house or talking on the telephone. He knew that if an evacuation order came, they would have little time to gather themselves and get out.

They had an hour. On April 28, Khoa called his wife and said, "I'll be home in 10 minutes. Then we go." He raced home from the VAA offices, loaded his family and suitcases in the car, and sped to the evacuation point. He had been told that each person would be allowed so many kilos of luggage, and his wife had packed as many bags as she could within that limit. But when it came time to board the plane, they were told that each could bring only one bag. Khoa grabbed the biggest one, assuming his wife would have put their most valuable possessions in it.

"We stayed in Guam a few days," he recalls. "When I opened the suitcase, I found just toilet paper, whatever, things people need when they travel." His rare books, his research notes, his dissertation--all were in a smaller suitcase left behind. Khoa never recovered them. "Just thinking of that, I am still sad," he says, 22 years later.

By June 1975, Khoa and his family had made it to Kensington, Maryland, where they lived with a family that sponsored them. He says, "I told my family, 'Forget everything you had. Forget your house, forget your air-conditioning, forget your car. And don't be disappointed if I must begin with manual jobs.' I wanted to give a lesson to my children: This is how we start in the U.S." Concerned that all his education could close him out of a job he might need, he composed three rsums, each portraying different levels of schooling and experience. His first employment was in a 7-Eleven.

He didn't spend long ringing up corn chips and sodas. In a week, he received an offer to be a research associate at a consulting firm. Ever since, he's spent his professional life working on refugee issues. "Two things I learned in this country," he says. "True democracy and volunteerism."

In 1991, the U.N. sent a delegation to Vietnam to assess the status of Vietnamese who had fled the country as refugees, only to be forcibly repatriated, not resettled in a third country. Khoa was part of the delegation.

"When the plane landed in Hanoi and I followed people out, suddenly I saw a few soldiers with the flat North Vietnamese Army helmets and red stars, and I stepped back [in momentary fright], accidentally hitting one of my colleagues," he recalls. "It was very emotional." Frightened that he might be detained, he would not venture out alone, instead staying with the delegation wherever it went. In Hanoi, he did manage to see his older brother for the first time in 38 years. "When I saw him he was dying. Only four weeks after returning to the U.S., I got a cable that he had died."

Khoa has since been back to Vietnam seven more times. He no longer worries about problems with the authorities. The Vietnamese government is too busy trying to modernize its economy and normalize relations with the West to worry about old scores. "I can come back to Vietnam to visit," he says, "but I think not to live." He has nine grandchildren now, all of them in the U.S. His life and his work are in the States. He looks at his hands on the tabletop before him and says, "I know I am fortunate."

JUDY MAYOTTE IS FORTUNATE, TOO--fortunate to be alive. When she answers the door of her Washington apartment, her slacks are pinned neatly just below her right knee, where her leg ends. She came very close to giving literally life and limb for the refugee cause.

Mayotte has not led an everyday sort of life. She is a recovered polio victim. For 10 years, she was a nun, one of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is a teaching order, and she worked in the inner cities of Los Angeles, Phoenix, Milwaukee, Kansas City, and other communities. "That was my introduction to people on the margins of society," she says.

Vatican II led her to reassess her religious life, and she left the order. She taught juvenile delinquents for a while, and earned a doctorate at Marquette University. She married Jack Mayotte; they were together only three years before he died of cancer. She spent time as a television producer, first for WTTW, a PBS station in Chicago, and then for Turner Broadcasting. But she found herself drawn, inexplicably, she says, to refugee work. She simply realized one day that she wanted to venture overseas and work with the displaced: "It's something I can't really explain. It was just in my heart and my gut. I just didn't question it."

She applied for and received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to write a book about refugees. In 1989, at age 51, she embarked on two years of living alone in Eritrea, Sudan, Pakistan, Thailand, and Cambodia. Her book, Disposable People? The Plight of Refugees (Orbis Books), was published in 1992. She began working with groups like the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, and the International Rescue Committee. She testified before Congress, appeared on public radio and television.

In September 1993, she traveled to southern Sudan on behalf of Refugees International. She was gathering information on Operation Lifeline Sudan, whose 27 organizations, including UNICEF, were trying to feed 1.5 million people a day, all of them refugees created by Sudan's three-decade civil war. In tow was a film crew from a public television series, Visionaries. While in a village named Ayod, the crew decided to film an aerial supply drop.

On the videotape of the program, you see aide workers laying out a large white X in an open field, marking the target for the drop. As the cargo plane comes into view, a worker explains that the Russian pilots will come in low, north-to-south, and drop mostly bags of grain. There is footage of a worker instructing the pilots by radio, followed by another shot of the plane, this time flying in low to the ground.

Suddenly, you hear someone exclaim fucking hell! and the cameraman begins to run. For reasons that have never been explained, the plane came in not north-to-south, but east-to-west, and dropped its cargo on top of the workers. In the video, it's clear from the wildly gyrating image that the cameraman, Paul Van Ness, is running for his life. Then he stops, and on the soundtrack you hear a holler. Someone has been hit. The next image is of a woman lying on the ground in agony. It's Judith Mayotte.

Maybe, because of polio, she couldn't run as fast as her colleagues. More likely, she was simply the victim of horrible luck. A 200-pound bag of grain, dropping at an estimated 120 miles per hour, had struck her, pulverizing her leg. That she is still alive she credits to some good luck: in Ayod that day was a relief doctor, Bernadette Kumar, who saved her life. On the airlift out, Mayotte nearly bled to death; at one point, Kumar could no longer find a pulse. In Nairobi, a doctor working with 25-year-old technology rebuilt Mayotte's femur. Physicians at the Mayo Clinic, where Mayotte ended up after being evacuated from Africa, were amazed by the Kenyan's work. He had saved her upper leg, but the lower leg was a wreck. Mayo physicians presented her with what she calls a non-choice: one, possibly two years of reconstructive surgery that might not work, or amputation of her leg below the knee.

She sighs in her Washington apartment. "The accident stopped me from doing what I absolutely loved doing. I miss being overseas in the camps more than I can say. But I can't run from artillery shells anymore."

AT SAIS, GRACE GOODELL, director of the social change and development program, says that the refugee course was, in part, a response to student demand. "The refugee field is being reduced to number-crunching and issues of international law," she says. "Our students are convinced, as I am, that you have to put people back in the picture."

Mayotte and Khoa embody that mission. Their syllabus reads, "...the most important consideration to keep constantly before us is that refugees are people one by one: capable, caring, ordinary people like you and me--mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, engineers, doctors, farmers, teachers, homemakers--except their lives have been turned upside down and their roots torn asunder." During 13 weeks, the course discusses the current situation, the specific needs of women and children, the mechanics of assistance, the role of NGOs, U.S. admissions policy, and prevention. "The purpose of the course," Khoa says, "is to see how to rethink refugee problems."

Which is what the international community must do, say Mayotte and Khoa. The basic U.N. definition of a refugee was written 46 years ago. Though amended in 1967, it's still out of date. Written for the situation in post-war Europe, it defines a refugee as someone who has fled to another country to escape violence or persecution and who cannot, for the moment, return out of fear for his or her safety. By that definition, the 25 to 40 million internally displaced persons are not refugees, since they remain in their home countries. And definitions matter. Governments make foreign policy decisions based on how they define a situation. If you qualify as a refugee, you may get assistance. If you don't qualify, you may get ignored. Says Khoa, "We need to reshape our concept of assistance programs to reflect the new nature of the problem. If you stick to the classical definitions, you leave millions stranded in subhuman conditions."

No era has ever had to grapple with such incredible numbers of refugees. Hundreds of thousands of people can move with stunning swiftness. One day, a remote corner of your country is empty; the next day, 300,000 ragged, hungry people have camped there, desperately trying to survive. When rebellious Kurds fled the wrath of Iraq's Saddam Hussein in the aftermath of the 1991 Persian Gulf war, the line of people escaping to the north was 60 miles long.

Khoa explains that host countries are often unwilling hosts. Near the end of last year, for example, thousands of Hutu refugees fled Rwanda for Zaire. Not only did Zaire not have the resources to provide assistance, it had a rebellious Hutu minority of its own that seized upon the situation to begin fighting Zairian troops. In 1979, Hong Kong and other Southeast Asia nations agreed to automatically accept boat people from Vietnam, under the assumption that the influx would taper off after a few years and the refugees would be resettled elsewhere. Ten years later, boat people were still arriving and joining those who had come in 1979 and had yet to be placed in a third country. So the host nations began screening refugees, instituting what they euphemistically called "orderly repatriation programs"--forced return to Vietnam.

Even wealthy nations hesitate to take on large numbers of refugees for resettlement. "Refugees are always viewed sympathetically by people," Khoa says. "Especially by American people, who have a tradition of refugees and immigrants. But the problem is, people question that tradition when refugee populations grow to such numbers. No one wants to accept these people anymore." Resettlement programs engender resentment, he points out; people insecure about their own futures see refugees as a threat to jobs. Says Khoa, "You are generous when you are comfortable. When people have their own problems, they are less sympathetic." As an example, Khoa notes that when Germany reunited, it found that the former East Germany included 40,000 Vietnamese "guest workers." Germany, feeling economic strain as it tried to incorporate the ramshackle East German economy, soon wanted the Viets to go home.

Internally displaced persons present a unique challenge. They have not crossed the border out of their country. How do other nations and NGOs go in and help them without violating sovereignty? This has been a constant problem in Bosnia, where Bosnian Serbs have held up--and in some cases shot at--aid convoys trying to help displaced Bosnian Muslims. Some countries have multiple refugee problems, making life even more difficult for relief agencies. Mayotte cites Sudan as an example. Aid workers were assisting Ethiopian refugees in north Sudan. They also wanted to help IDPs in south Sudan who had fled the civil war. The government in the north was fighting rebels in the south and did not want IDPs there to receive assistance. If the relief agencies went in to help in the south anyway, would the government consider that a violation of its sovereignty and halt relief operations in the north? Mayotte says the relief agencies went into the south anyway, sometimes clandestinely, exposing themselves to considerable risk.

The international community has had several years now to observe how bad refugee situations can be. Khoa and Mayotte believe that the only durable solution is to prevent the conflicts that displace populations. Says Khoa, "We need to deal more actively with the root causes, rather than ad hoc solutions." Adds Mayotte, "Conflict is part of life. How do you prevent conflict from tipping over into violence?"

One thing the international community must do, she believes, is be more attentive to what aide workers in NGOs tell them is happening in the world's trouble spots. "They're out there in the villages," she says. "They know what's going on. You've got to get your ear to the ground." She also says that foreign service personnel need better training in recognizing the warning signs that a country may be veering toward collapse.

When nations like the U.S. spot a developing crisis, she says, they must be more aggressive about intervention. Diplomatic intervention comes first, she says, followed by sanctions. NGOs can play an important role, because they can act as disinterested mediators and messengers, helping to resolve simmering disputes before they turn into warfare. But, Mayotte adds, the U.S. must back its diplomatic positions with the threat of armed intervention, and if necessary follow through with force. She finds it incomprehensible that international peacekeeping troops in Bosnia will not arrest Bosnian Serbs indicted for war crimes. She's critical of U.S. hesitance to commit troops for peacekeeping missions. She attributes that reluctance to the "Somalia Syndrome." After U.S. Army Rangers were killed in a firefight in Somalia, the U.S. government became ever more reluctant to send troops to places like Bosnia or Rwanda. "There's the idea that we don't want one American soldier to get hurt," she says. "To me, that's ludicrous. People sign up for the Army knowing that they will be exposed to risks. Humanitarian workers put themselves on the line every day. They run from artillery shelling, they trip land mines, but somehow their lives don't count as much as that of a soldier."

She continues, "We've got to deal with preventive action, and to make prevention a cornerstone of our foreign policy. If we don't, we're going to have one refugee crisis after another."

She and Khoa hope that their SAIS course will train people who someday can influence refugee policy. She says, "The people who come to a course like this are the future." SAIS is a professional school, and it's obvious from discussions in class that some of the students are eyeing jobs with refugee relief agencies.

Khoa continues to work for Southeast Asian refugees as director of SEARAC. Mayotte has been special advisor to the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. Both epitomize a statement by Carel Sternberg, who twice fled persecution by the Gestapo: "The refugee condition, once experienced, does not wash off."

Says Mayotte, "I have walked in so many war zones and so many refugee situations. I hope never again to see someone freshly blown up by a land mine. What I have seen...there has to be a way for that not to happen."

Dale Keiger is the magazine's senior writer.