Why IRAP? (again)

by ursavoice

Andrew Contreiras & Erik Johnson
J.D. Candidates 2015, UCI Law

    I am a 1L. So is Erik. We each lived very different lives before UCI Law. Erik was an actor. That’s right—an actor. I was a student, twice. Without belaboring the point, it is a fact in this world that Erik has had some very compelling experiences. My reasons for exuberantly diving into IRAP (the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Program)—the background of my passions for refugee assistance—are no deeper than a book. (It’s a very deep book. Read it.) Here is something of an overview, that does not give it justice.

There is a man, alive today, named Valentino Deng. Last I heard, he lives in Atlanta, Georgia. This is downright incredible in its own right because Valentino is from Marial Bai, in southern Sudan, which, after years of persecution from the north is now its own country of South Sudan. When Valentino was a boy, the murahaleen (an Arab militia) descended on Marial Bai. They burned people’s huts in the night. They shot guns wildly as children, women, and men fled to—nowhere. In Marial Bai the geography does not lend itself to fleeing. Valentino fled—to Ethiopia, to Kenya, to Egypt. He was a “lost boy.” He was a refugee. His travels crossed countries, through open landscapes, and in each scene a fellow traveler died of hunger, attack or exhaustion. The perseverance lying behind a refugee who now stands inside the United States of America, or who gets so far as to apply for a visa, speaks to a degree of human strength we might all have, but are lucky enough to not have tested. Here is an excerpt from What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng by Dave Eggers, a small selection of the words that describe one of Valentino’s treks from one danger to another, and implanted in me a need to work with refugees:

“When helicopter gunships would come our way, we were told to hide in trees, in the brush, but with the Antonovs the only stated rule was to remove or hide anything that might reflect the sun. Mirrors, glass, anything that could catch the light, all were banned. But those items were long gone, and few boys, of course, had had anything like that in the first place. So we walked, not imagining that we would be made a target. We were hundreds of near-naked boys, all unarmed and most under twelve years old. Why would this plane take interest in us? But the plane returned a few minutes later, and soon after, there was a whistle. Dut screamed to us that we needed to run but did not tell us where. We ran in a hundred different directions and two boys chose the wrong direction. They ran for the shelter of a large tree and this is where the bomb struck.”

Erik did not just read the story. He tells of having told the story: In 2002, I worked on a show with Cornerstone Theater in Los Angeles. The show was a series of theater pieces, and portrayed the journeys to America of five diverse immigrant groups. One such story: In the late 1970s the father of one of the Cambodian families was being hunted by the Khmer Rouge. He hid at the top of a palm tree and watched the soldiers passing below. The soldiers’ helmets made them look like deadly beetles swarming the jungle floor below. The soldiers would stop occasionally to fire into the tops of the palm trees. Then they would continue on. He was more fortunate than others who were hiding in the tops of trees nearby. Over time, he collected as many of his family members as he could and made it to a ship to begin an arduous journey to the United States. When Erik asked the Cambodian father if he was angry about what happened to his home, his family, he said he was not angry, he was just confused and sad.

Every group had a similar story. There may have been different aggressors, different countries, or different times, but they all took flight from their homes to a new land with new customs and a new language. At the end of the Cornerstone show, I had helped to tell incredible stories of immigrants’ journeys, but I felt powerless to help further. Theater, at its core, is a tool for social change. Through storytelling, artists educate the public in the hopes it will motivate others to act. In the end, I motivated myself to come to law school.

There is no shortage of these stories. There are even more stories of those still far away—from the dead who never made it to safety to the alive waiting for permanent safety. They may be from Sudan or Cambodia. At UCI, through IRAP, we work with Iraqi refugees. The situations are different but the plight of the refugee’s are the same: fleeing persecution, leaving everything they know, to seek a decent life.

Early in the Iraq War, families like the Kachadoorian family drove into American checkpoints. They did not know it was dangerous. When vehicles approached checkpoints, American Marines, as they were trained to do, would shout warnings, in English, to stop and turn around, and then would shoot. The policy quickly changed, but not before family members, like some in the Kachadoorian family, died in their cars confused. The Kachadoorians who survived live in the United States. They are refugees. They, like all the people in these stories, came to the United States not to find great wealth and a big life, but for respite. They came not angry, but with relief. The Marine who shot at the Kachadoorians’ car tracked down the family to atone. Speaking of his meeting with the family, he said: “letting me into their home and feeding me and meeting with me — the whole thing was [as] if they were saying, ‘We forgive you, and we understand.'” Iraq is one of today’s primary sites of crises for the displaced. With IRAP, we can turn around the lives of the displaced. We can bring them from homelessness in the Middle East to the shared opportunity of the United States of America.

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