Letter on Andijon Refugees in the US

by Nathan Hamm on 8/11/2006

I received this the other day. It has been slightly edited to remove details possibly identifying certain refugees. — Nathan

August 8, 2006

To Whom It May Concern:

I am writing this letter to communicate the general state of the Andijan refugees in the U.S. and propose ways to help them cope with new realities. I have been living in the United States for many years although I am originally from Uzbekistan and I have had the social opportunity to meet with many of the Uzbek refugees in the United States. Please understand that I very much appreciate the important efforts of United States’ government efforts and the humanitarian resettlement agencies to help these refugees and bring them safety.

The key to understanding this particular group of refugees is a well-known but not fully appreciated fact that they did not expect or imagined leaving Uzbekistan the morning of their flight. Unlike most refugees they did not flee as families. It was not a decision that comes as a resolution to a conflict or a dangerous situation, which was brewing over some time. They are note escaping a country that doesn’t want them, like many ethnic and religious refugees. Resettlement was something forced upon them by circumstances.

Recently a group of 12 Andijan refugees went back to Uzbekistan. Those who remain are seriously considering going back as well. It is very hard for them. Homesick and separated from their children (as young as 2-3 year olds) and families they are willing to take the risks of returning.

The refugees in the US are aware that they can file for family reunification but almost nobody has done so. There are two possible explanations.

1. They understand that reunification is a lengthy bureaucratic process and its successful outcome very much depends on the Uzbek government, which holds their family members hostage. Local Uzbek authorities regularly visit and check on the refugees’ family members in Andijan, making sure they are still there. Besides the challenge of getting out of Uzbekistan, any travel requires a certain amount of money, which the refugees lack. Currently, they are repaying their own debt covering costs of tickets to the U.S.

2. The reunification process is fairly long. One woman’s three young children with their grandmother crossed into Kyrgyzstan and registered with the UNHCR last September. The woman is in the US and they are still not together.

3. They are experiencing cultural and to some extent financial difficulties. Many of the refugees got jobs and make enough money to live but they do understand that it is not enough to support families. Currently they share apartments and live in groups of 4 to 6 people. I visited groups in [southwest city], [east coast city] and [eastern city]. They live in low-income houses in some rough neighborhoods with the exception of [southwest city]. I don’t think the refugees picture living there with their families. The group in [east coast city] is particularly unhappy. It is easier to endure hardship in your own environment where you are at least a member of a community and feel like you belong.

As an example, refugees in [midwest city] had their apartment paid only for the 3 months and received 150 dollars a month for the first three months. They arrived in February. After 3 months they were expected to be employed and pay for everything themselves. Which they actually did. Three women I know are sharing a 750 dollar apartment, they found a job claning rooms in a hotel for $7 per hour and made 280 a week. Their health insurance coverage through the resettlement agencies will finish this month and they are expected to be covered by their employers but the jobs they have do not include benefits.

Another motivating factor for returning is the fact that only immediate family members can try to locate and visit prisoners in Uzbek jails. So, some of the refugees have no way of finding out where their husbands and sons are and feel a moral obligation and need to return and search for them. Perhaps, Red Cross can help in addressing this particular issue.

In terms of refugee support in general, it certainly can and should be improved. The refugees have limited English, no resources and no driving licenses. When they are resettled in places where it is essential to drive, they are undermined from the beginning unless there is a system in place to overcome these challenges.

Although the refugees are offered English classes, it is not an intensive language program. Also, some Uzbek refugee women felt uncomfortable taking English classes because it required traveling and the classes were held together with men.

Regarding the role of the Uzbek government.
I am not aware of any direct pressure from the Uzbek government in forms of threats. My impression is that it is done through family members by assuring the refugees (who are missing their families and home badly) that they can come back and nobody will touch them. Apparently recently the Uzbek government released several men, who had been captured and detained in connection with the events in Andijan. Among them is the son of the Andijan rebellion alleged leader Kabul Parpiev.

I spoke with [redacted] sisters-in-law before they went back to Uzbekistan. At the time, they told me then that the oldest sister-in-law’s husband was released from prison and was asking her to come back with their children and that everything would be fine. I did not expect that they all would go back, although all of the sisters were miserable, missing their children and wanting to go back.

The refugees feeling homesick and at times desperate, are vulnerable to pressure and manipulation. More refugees plan returning to Uzbekistan encouraged by the experiences of the first group of returnees. Some will follow because of fear of staying behind alone or peer pressure.

The Uzbek government is certainly facilitating the process of getting the refugees back and has all the incentives to entice them to return and not touch the returnees, so that more will follow. As long as there are refugees in countries out of the Uzbek government’s reach, the Andijan case is open and so is a possibility of some kind of international trial (however remote) with witnesses to testify. It is very possible that the Uzbek government will announce some kind of amnesty for people implicated and involved in the events in Andijan on September 1st Independence day to encourage refugees to return.

Recommendations:

1. Expedite the family reunification process and organize family reunification workshop
Although aware of their right to petition for their immediate relatives to join them in the US, the refugees do not fully understand this process. It would be beneficial to organize family reunification workshops with immigration lawyers and other Uzbek refugees who went through this process and can share their experiences. It has to be somebody who was separated from his/her family and then was able to reunite with his/her family in the U.S. The person can answer specific questions about the process in the US and what it was like for the family in Uzbekistan.

2. Counseling/reaching out
Having been traumatized by the tragic events of May 13th in Andijan, separated from their families, with their family members killed, missing or imprisoned, out of their element the Uzbek refugees represent a vulnerable group. They need help and support. I am not sure what the best forum to address this need would be as they may not be comfortable with the counseling as such. They are for the most part reserved people. Still they need to feel that they not alone and that there is a venue for them to express worries and concerns and find help in addressing the issues that are troubling them. It would be good if the resettlement agencies did another round of outreach to check in on all the Uzbek refugees. The Uzbek government is inviting them back and they need to feel that the US government wants them to stay.

3. More should be done to integrate the refugees into local communities through churches, mosques, universities and community centers. For example, identify a group of university students who can meet with the refugees regularly to practice English, take them to local cultural events and places. Perhaps, identify volunteers through churches who can help the refugees learn to drive, organize home hospitality visits etc. Engage local communities in exploring ways to assist refugees to adjust and get involved.

4. Relocation assistance. If some of the refugees are feeling trapped and alien where they are, relocation assistance should be offered. Immigration patterns show people gravitating to places where there is a community that shares their background. It will be easier for the Uzbek refugees to cope in places with an Uzbek or ex-Soviet community and a well-developed public transportation system such as New York City.

It is important to insure that the decision to return is a well-informed and well-understood decision made by every refugee individually free of manipulation and peer pressure.

Thank you for your attention,

Anonymous


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This post was written by...

– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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