Pictured Above: Ngun Par, Andrew Oh, and Helen Sgouros having a discussion with former IRC President George Rupp
By Uma Ribeiro
On March 27th, Hammond junior class SGA president Ngun Par was part of a discussion with former president of the International Rescue Committee (from 2002-2013) and current visiting scholar and adjunct professor at Columbia University, George Rupp, through a Zoom video call. Par, who escaped the Burmese military and immigrated to the United States as a refugee, has personal experience with the International Rescue Committee (IRC). The organization helped her family immigrate to the United States in November 2007.
Par is one of the Executive Directors of the English Kids to Kids and Bridging Cultures (EK2KBC) program. She, as well as volunteer Andrew Oh and mentor and EK2KBC co-founder Helen Sgouros, had the opportunity to ask Rupp questions about his personal experiences which led to his work helping refugees. They discussed their personal experiences as well. Given the current situation in Myanmar, in which the military is brutally killing peaceful protesters following the sudden military coup, the discussion Par, Oh, and Sgouros had with Rupp is more relevant than ever.
The three of them discussed Rupp’s time working as president of the IRC (which is a partner of EK2KBC) in an interview that was just over an hour long. The two highly-accomplished high school students and mentor Helen Sgouros engaged in a lively discussion with George Rupp. Outlined below are the contents of the conversation:
Personal Journeys and Background
Q: What piqued your interest with refugee resettlement or refugees in general. Did your parents’ background influence your interest?
The three students and Rupp found that despite their generational difference, they found many similarities in their personal experiences.
AO: “For me, a lot of it was because of my parents background… they were immigrants, they came to America when they were young. My grandparents had jobs in their own countries… my grandfather, he was a math teacher, and my grandmother had a doctor’s degree in China, but when they came over, they just had to restart; I think that… the amount of hard work and determination to keep a family together like that is just so awe-inspiring for me, and that’s mainly why I was interested in the immigrant [and] refugee story as well, because it’s a similar predicament… they’re coming from political issues as well. I want to sympathize and empathize with the refugees and help make their journey easier.”
NP: “What piqued my interest with refugee resettlement is that I’m a refugee myself… I did come here in 2007 with my mom and my older sister. We came from Myanmar escaping the Burmese military. That has a huge impact on why I’m so interested in helping.”
“My mom was the head nurse and worked at the hospital in Shan State, Myanmar. During that time, there was a war going on and rebels were trying to fight against the Burmese military because [the military] had taken over the government and were trying to convert everybody to their ways. They were trying to erase all ethnic groups… [except for the Burmese]… so, my mom would help the soldiers that were fighting against the Burmese military… When the Burmese military heard of this, they wanted to arrest her. She was able to get a tip, and she took me, my older sister, and the little money she had, and we ran away from Burma…”
HS: “I’ve thought about it through the years, like really what affected my interest, what pushed me to keep going. I mentioned the English Kids to Kids & Bridging Cultures program, and it’s been going on for nine years now, and with this year in particular, with our summer program, we couldn’t really continue it, so we did the grant instead, and Ngun was part of that because she is now in charge of it. We’re trying to keep high schoolers to keep going, to continue the program and find different ways to keep finding and helping different people in different areas, and so we contacted you, Professor Rupp, to find a way to raise money and funds to help some of the kids in the refugee program…so I guess my focus is to always continue helping in different areas, and I guess the root of that is probably my mom, and my dad, and their story… I see how much I have now and what my family’s done to get here, and it’s an incredible story, and I think all stories are like that. People are made of stories and I constantly want to learn other people’s stories.”
GR: “We actually have very similar stories. My parents were both immigrants… my father decided in 1930, when he was 19 years old, that there wasn’t much future in the part of Germany that he was from… so he borrowed 100 dollars and he came to the United States, and so he landed right in the [Great] Depression, and swept floors… his first job was sweeping floors in the grocery store, but then he worked long… He only had what we would call a high school education, but he just kept whacking away.”
“My mother came over in 1937… you could almost say she was a refugee. I mean, she did want to get out of her [country], Hitler was rising, but it was also that she had met my father when he came back to Germany the first time to visit… My father hadn’t seen his family from 1930-1936, so he went [back] over… and on the way back and [visited his roommate’s family] who is now my uncle… my mother’s brother… and then he met my mother, and my mother decided if he could get her a job she would come over [to the United States] and they wound up getting married and stayed here for the rest of the time.”
Rupp also spoke about how growing up, the closest friends of his family were part of the immigrant community. This, as well as his connection to the German immigrant community, was part of what influenced his interest in helping refugees. He was intrigued by the international aspect of the IRC and was interested in the resettlement program.
“We’re all human:” Why We Should All Accept Refugees
Q: Why should people accept refugees?
GR: “I think we all agree that it’s been the core of what the United States has been about, and it’s just unacceptable that we don’t recognize this responsibility. Now it’s also true that accepting refugees has been an enormous bloom to American society and the American economy and American intellectual innovations and patents and all the rest of it, so it’s not as if it’s all selfless welcoming of outsiders. It used to be that we welcomed everybody, and the fact that that’s no longer the case is tragic… There’s far more contributions to the overall society and economy than there are subtractions from [refugees]… We certainly should [also] accept those who are most needy… I think it’s very important that we keep on trying to get that message out.”
AO: “[Refugees] are people too. A lot of them don’t necessarily want to come to America. The only reason that they’re coming out of their home is because they’re forced to [due to] war or other political problems… They should be accepted because we should understand that there’s nowhere else for them to go. We need to build a place [where they] can feel accepted… a place where they can feel comfortable being and also allow them to have the time to… make their own transition from their cultures and their country to mixing it with how they would live in America.”
NP: “Most refugees really don’t want to leave their countries… but because of persecution and the government, they [often] have to, so we should be able to accept [that], we should be able to give them equal opportunity to do what they want. It’s not their fault that they have to run away. The least we could do is try to give them some place they can call home, some place they can resettle [and] restart their lives because, you know, they have children or they have loved ones that they want to do good for, that they need to take care of also, including themselves, so we should definitely accept refugees.”
HS: “I think the thing that people really don’t realize is perspective is everything. Here in the US, I think in a lot of places we understand each other and feel empathetic when certain events happen [like] when there [was] a climate… catastrophe in Texas, people lost power and everyone was… empathetic, and if we applied that empathy [we have towards certain issues] towards refugees, then I think people would understand.”
Sgouros, referencing the Texas snow storms which took over the state a couple months ago, mentioned how those in Texas who had to evacuate their homes and who were displaced did not want to leave their homes, and how if we “…applied that kind of logic to what’s going on with some of the refugees… some people would be a little more empathetic to what’s happening to them. At the core of it, we need to take away these labels… at the center of it we’re all human.”
Rupp then added on, “…I would underscore taking away the labels… the distinctions between refugees and immigrants and displaced people are all… having to do with technical and legalistic distinctions, and I think those also, in the best of worlds, would depart, and we would become a society that was open to people who, for good reasons, wanted to land here…We could embrace and welcome those people.”
Empathy and Education
Q: What has helped you connect or empathize with the refugee struggle?
AO: “A lot of my support for refugees comes from working with the kids. I went to the [EK2K] summer camp [to] help them learn English, and I went to that every summer since I was in elementary school, and I saw, honestly, just kids having fun. It was a great empathizing moment just for them and their families.”
Oh continued that despite language barriers, he “…saw the genuine happiness they had just playing around…[and] it clicked that these refugees are just like me [and] there is nothing that separates me from them.”
NP: “Most of the kids [in the EK2K program] were struggling with English. They were just learning the language and when I first came to America, I was fortunate enough to already know a bit of English… I didn’t start off with zero, I did know my basics, but nevertheless I was still put in ESOL up until 2nd grade. Sometimes I still do struggle with my English, but with that [experience], I was able to help the kids in EK2K more. I was able to understand their frustration with trying to understand what [a] word meant or how to correctly form a sentence or what grammar really is, and through EK2K it helped me too. Helen actually game me a lot of… chapter books to read, and it was just so nice for me to finally connect with someone and I think the kids also really felt more connected having somebody, a volunteer, who is on the same page as them or who actually understood how they were feeling and where they were coming from.”
GR: “I have lots of experiences with refugees, and I can’t honestly claim any one of them that jumps out as the one that frames my whole reactions. In some ways it does go back to my growing up among all immigrants. When I was maybe 11 or 12, one of my friends said to me ‘why does your father talk so funny?’ and I remember thinking ‘what do you mean?’ My father had a very strong German accent when he spoke English, and I just hadn’t really thought about that, and since then, I really paid more attention to accents than most people in the world, so now when I hear a German immigrant or a German current citizen speak English, I can tell where in Germany they’re from by the accent they have when they speak English… I tell that story about my father’s accent because there are lots of similar stories I could tell about other refugees I have met in this country.”
To that, Oh added, “That’s why I think the education about refugees and their stories is… very important and I think we should spread it a lot more, so that if someone hears your father’s accent, or [there] is a similar situation to that, they’ll understand why he has that accent and will be more accepting. The education side of that is very important.”
“Hammond High School is a very diverse school and it was nice going to a school where I could feel connected, where I didn’t feel like so much of an outcast. But when I was younger, a lot of my classmates didn’t really understand what a refugee was. They didn’t know anything aside from America, and often I would get bullied [with] stereotypes… and I feel like the education system [doesn’t teach] about what is outside [the United States]… we should be taught a little more about refugees and other countries and people from all around the world so that we don’t have a mindset of stereotypes. That can be very very harmful,” Par added on, to which Sgouros mentioned the recent rise of hate crimes towards the Asian American community.
Oh, whose grandparents are Korean and Chinese, mentioned his fear regarding the safety of his family members, stating, “The fact that they could be assaulted on the street is just… heartbreaking for me.”
Sgouros added on, “I think some of the problems that Asian-Americans go through have often felt and been invisible for a long time, and it’s only now that… it’s [coming to] light. But even a lot of these crimes are not being categorized as ‘hate crimes,’ so it’s that feeling again of invisibility that is really really hard to deal with.”
Resources: Learn More and Take Action
For more about the International Rescue Committee (IRC), what they do, and how you can get involved with the organization, click here.