Jackie Bong Wright

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Dr. Nguyen Van Hanh, America’s Refugee Czar

By Jackie Bong-Wright

Third Anniversary Heading ORR

To mark his third year in Washington, Dr. Nguyen Van Hanh decided this year to go to the polls to vote instead of voting by mail. Sitting on a folding chair on the sidewalk at the Eden Shopping Mall, Dr. Hanh filled out a form to vote in Virginia instead of voting absentee in California, his home state. He was responding to a voter registration drive spearheaded every spring for the last five years by the Vietnamese-American Voters’ Association (VAVA).
From his chair at the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) at l’Enfant Plaza in Washington, Dr. Hanh oversees a budget this year of $447.6 million for services for refugees accepted by the United States. Since the Refugee Act of 1980 was passed by Congress, this great humanitarian program has resettled two and a half million refugees from all over the world. In August 2001, President George W. Bush appointed Dr. Hanh to head ORR, an agency that is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
With such a large portfolio, Dr. Hanh is a sort of refugee “czar”. He travels the country to visit state and local officials, voluntary agencies (VOLAGs), service-providers, self-help organizations, and the refugee communities themselves. He explains policies, hears complaints, and solves problems.

Annual Consultations

To broaden his reach, Dr. Hanh has initiated an annual three-day National Refugee Program Consultation in Washington for refugee groups as well as the local institutions that receive ORR funds. This year, nearly 600 people participated, including partners such as the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, the Department of Homeland Security’s Citizenship and Migration Service (formerly INS), the Departments of Justice, Education, Labor, and Agriculture, the Administration on Aging, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. ORR also sought new partners – private enterprises, such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and faith-based and community-based organizations. These also provide services to newcomers to the U.S. Two new programs — the Unaccompanied Alien Program and the Program in Human Trafficking — also attended.
In 2002, Dr. Hanh said that the Refugee Program had the ability and responsibility to rescue thousands from persecution and misery from around the world. This year’s Consultation objectives were to learn more about how refugee organizations welcomed and assisted new arrivals. ORR staff and their affiliates have conducted nationwide training and technical assistance to prepare for up to 50,000 funded admissions, as provided for in the Presidential Determination for FY 2004. These are to include Somali Bantu and Liberians from Africa, Hmong from Thailand, Vietnamese stranded for over ten years in the Philippines, new victims of trafficking, including children, who have been granted asylum, and smaller populations of Meshketian Turks from Russia, Burmese from Thailand, Bhutanese from Nepal, and Sudanese from Syria.

Achievement and Challenge

To devise new ways to integrate the new refugee clientele at this year’s Consultation, ORR adopted the theme “Achievement and Challenge.” Nearly 40 workshop sessions addressed health, employment, housing, literacy, and integration issues, especially for the elderly and youth.
One of the challenges was to help clients navigate the health care system by addressing the barriers newcomers face due to low English proficiency, providers’ lack of cultural sensitivity, and lack of health education materials in languages refugees can understand. The Office of Minority Health (OMH) is attempting to provide guidelines for implementing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and offering interpreting services for limited-proficiency-speaking individuals; developing standards of practice for cultural competency; and developing continuing medical education training modules on cultural competency for physicians. A national health database for refugees, providers and communities focusing on health resources is being developed for the public to use.
Another challenge for providers was how to help refugees become self-sufficient by getting them more jobs, but also better-paying jobs in terms of salaries and health benefits. ORR’s new economic development initiatives introduced Individual Development Accounts (IDA) and Micro-enterprise Development. IDA matched savings of eligible refugees trying to acquire assets – homes, autos, computers, and post-secondary education. An individual can save up to $2,000 and a family up to $4,000 by having their own monies matched by ORR funds. IDA is in its fifth year.
The Micro-enterprise Development Program targets participants who lack credit and access to commercial bank loans. They can borrow from ORR grants small amounts for start-up capital for micro-businesses. Since 1991, this program has given thousands of refugee clients access to loans – a real achievement.
Information on new funding sources such as the Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (FBCI) at the Department of Health and Human Services creates a level playing field for grassroots organizations that wish to access the Compassion Capital Fund and Capacity Building Grants. These grants provide computer and technical training, language and cultural literacy instruction, youth sports programs, elderly health programs, and citizenship classes – another success story.
Providing services for victims of human trafficking – estimated at over 20,000 per year in the U.S. – presents some inherent difficulties. Such victims, minors included, are hidden from view, afraid of law enforcement and government; therefore, only a few hundred of them are identified and rescued. ORR’s “Anytime, Anywhere” grants fund the “Rescue and Restore” Campaign for health and social service providers as well as law enforcement agencies in their efforts to identify and assist these victims.
Another component of the Campaign is the development of informational materials, including fact sheets, educational brochures, posters and training for these organizations, as well as a toll-free hotline to help victims. This is a new challenge ORR is trying to meet.

Contributions to American Society

As a former refugee from Vietnam himself, Dr. Hanh has worked closely with refugees on the local and national scene. Under his leadership, ORR’s refugee-serving agencies have helped smooth the integration process for a diverse array of refugees from different parts of the world into mainstream communities. Community acceptance and understanding of the cultures, backgrounds and aspirations of the refugees, potential new Americans, is a long-term societal development and a two-way street. ORR serves as a bridge between the parties.
Success stories among refugees show how much they contribute to the United States and must be a source of satisfaction for Dr. Hanh and his colleagues and partners. Dr. Hanh’s own case and that of thousands of successful refugees are the symbols of enrichment in American society.