This is a story about human decency. About a woman, Carol Skyrm, born in Idaho into a modest, middle-class family — her father a professor, her mother a piano teacher — who has devoted her life to what the Buddhists call “right action.” She made her living as a fund raiser for organizations such as the American University in Cairo and the International Center for Transitional Justice. When she retired a few years ago, she amped up her volunteer work, serving on the Board of RIF Asylum Support, based in Queens, and becoming a “navigator” for refugees and asylum seekers, numbering more than 40,000 within our borders. In Ulster County alone, there are over one thousand refugees from Afghanistan, and two notable organizations helping them resettle: New Paltz for Refugees and the Ulster Immigrant Defense Network in Kingston. Both welcome volunteers.
Full disclosure, Carol is a friend, and every once in a while, I ask how her volunteer navigating work is going. She had put up a photo on her Facebook page with this caption:
“I’d like to introduce you to Fraban K from Mali. I’ve been Fraban’s navigator from RIF through the difficult process of finding a pro bono lawyer, dealing with New York City without English or knowing anyone when he arrived, avoiding COVID, and more.”
The selfie she took of the two of them during a recent outdoor rendezvous was so touching, I had to call her. Heads together looking into a camera, there was an evident attachment, even love, I had not expected. It is quite common for asylees and refugees to disappear into their new lives once they have documentation — Fraban received his asylum in August, 2021 — their way of moving on. So, something was different about the connection Carol and Fraban had found in each other; it’s evident in the photo.
“Unlike other refugees I’ve helped, Fraban wanted me to be in touch with him every day, either by text or voice. It felt uncomfortable at first, but I thought to myself, this man has lost everything, I have to do it. And he’s helping me with my French!”
Fraban’s story is so horrendous I can hardly repeat it here; Jihadists, ethnic strife, a country divided by France, the colonial power, into North and South, raids on villages, rape, kidnapping. With his MA degree, Fraban was working for an NGO in the middle of the country, helping to educate women, when he was targeted by Jihadists, who don’t think much of educating women; he had to flee. There was a period of many months when his wife and children disappeared, but they are now safe, living with relatives in a neighboring country, and he hopes to bring them to America soon.
Following World War II, and the Jewish Holocaust, most nations in the world agreed to offer asylum to victims of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a social group or political opinion. Recently, gay men from Uganda and Tunisia have been seeking asylum help from RIF. Carol is helping one of them.
The work never ends.
There are many ways to volunteer. If you are interested, contact these organizations directly:
RIF Asylum Support: https://www.rifnyc.org/
New Paltz for Refugees: https://www.newpaltz4refugees.org/volunteer.html
Immigrant Defense Network: https://ulsterimmigrantdefensenetwork.org/
Note: In the United States, the major difference between refugees and asylees is the location of the person at the time of application. Refugees are usually outside of the United States when they are screened for resettlement, whereas asylum seekers submit their applications while they are physically present in the United States or at a U.S. port of entry. Refugees and asylees also differ in admissions process used and agencies responsible for reviewing their application.
Carol Bergman, a journalist based in New Paltz, NY, compiled and edited “Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories” with a foreword by John le Carré.