Interview with Mr. John Stauffer, president of the America Team for displaced Eritreans.
The following is an excerpt of accumulated questions sent by interested Eritreans at various times to the editorial section of the America Team to be answered by Mr. John Stauffer, president of the America Team for Displaced Eritreans. Mr. John Stauffer, 70, is an American who since 2004 has been working continuously to help asylum-seeking Eritreans get refuge and assist them in living a stable life wherever they are relocated. Mr. Stauffer is a retiree after 38 years of honorable work in U.S. industry, and has after retirement dedicated all his time working day and night to help Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers with advocacy and covering pertinent expenses often with his own resources. No wonder, today, many Eritreans call him the “father indeed of Eritreans in need.” Direct to the questions:
For a while now, many people in different parts of the world have been talking about your team and your outstanding role as a president of the America Team in helping Eritreans in need.
First and foremost, can you please tell us about yourself? How did you get to know about Eritrea?
Well, my interest and knowledge about Eritrea began in 1966 when I was assigned there by the U.S. Peace Corps to be a teacher of science and English in the B.G. Lorenzo Tazaz Junior Secondary School (middle school) in Adi Kayeh in Akele Guzai state. (Mr. Tazaz was the Eritrean who wrote the speech famously delivered by Emperor Haile Selassie to the League of Nations in 1936.)
There, I became friends with many Eritreans and learned about the culture and a good bit about the language. I traveled to different parts of Eritrea, and taught school there for two years, along with two other Peace Corps volunteers. In teaching English, I utilized the phonetic GE-EZ alphabet to help students learn the proper pronunciation of English words. (There were incorrect pronunciations taught previously by non-native English speakers that needed to be addressed!) The fight for independence had started several years earlier, and rebel fighters in the area were known as “shifta” (ሸፍታ). I returned to the United States in July, 1968, and embarked on a 38-year career in industrial marketing.
(Photo: John as a Peace Corp in Adi Keyih)
What situation persuaded you to dedicate yourself to Eritrea and Eritreans?
In 2003, I heard from some former students who had moved to North America and were successful here – they had called just to say hello. One mentioned that a former student still in Asmara wanted to hear from me. Long story short, I invited him to the US and at that time learned of the horrible abuse put upon the Eritrean populace and upon the country itself. Soon, I learned of the gross injustice and mistreatment of much of the population, and vowed that something had to be done about it, rather than just sitting on my hands.
When and why was the America Team formed? Who are the founders? And how is it structured?
Initially two Eritreans (Berhane and Tekle) and three Americans got together and formed the America Team for Freedom for Eritrea, an informal organization whose objective was to be politically active and to create awareness of the problems facing Eritrea and to foster unity and harmony among the various opposition groups. For this purpose we established a website called FreeEritrea.org, and we made numerous visits to think tanks and US government people in order to inform them about the situation with respect to the governance of Eritrea. We took the opportunity to explain how the people of Eritrea were enduring abuse both politically and economically and also through physical mistreatment.
Eventually we decided that we should pay attention to refugees who had fled Eritrea, and sent a team member to assess the refugee situation in Shimelba Camp in Ethiopia. We provided some financial help, clothing and medicine. Based on our team member's assessment, we worked hard to create awareness about the refugee situation in the camps and soon established college scholarships for Eritrean refugees living in camps in Ethiopia. Through that effort we started 34 scholarships for students to study primarily nursing in Addis Ababa. After three years of study, they graduated in September, 2012. At the same time, gradually, we began assisting refugees brought to the United States by the US Department of State through advocacy and material support in acute situations of need for things like clothing, advocacy and cash assistance. Our team is pleased about its scholarship decision, especially because it apparently prompted the Ethiopian govern-ment to proceed in granting scholarships to hundreds of Eritrean refugees in the following years, which up till then had been considered but not implemented.
In early 2010 we decided to work exclusively on humanitarian issues around the refugees, and gave up our political activities. We enlisted six Eritreans living in the United States to serve on a board of directors, and we incorporated as a Pennsylvania nonprofit, effective April 1, 2010. We then registered with the IRS as a 501(c)(3) public charity. As such, we are able to offer tax deduction to Americans who choose to donate funds to our efforts.
Is the America Team affiliated with any American or Eritrean political organizations?
Initially, before incorporating as a nonprofit with humanitarian objectives, we were loosely affiliated with ENSF. Since incorporating in 2010, we have had no connection with any political organization.
What was the reason for your team to change its name from “The America Team for Freedom for Eritrea” to “The America Team for Displaced Eritreans”?
The original name had reference to our political objectives and activities. This was inconsistent with our revised objectives of assisting refugees and asylum seekers from Eritrea, thus we changed our name to The America Team for Displaced Eritreans, which of course refers to our humanitarian efforts. We renamed and re-designed our web site as EritreanRefugees.org.
How successful are you in handling Eritrean refugee affairs these days?
For the most part we are successful in achieving objectives in particular cases involving Eritrean refugees. This ranges from assisting individuals and families facing all sorts of problems in the United States; coming to the aid of asylum seekers in the United States; and helping get resources and assistance to Eritreans in acute situations of danger or need in various countries. The area that is most challenging is that of refugees kidnapped from Eritrea and from the Sudan, and trafficked to Egypt where they are sold to renegade Egyptian Bedouins who detain, torture and extort the refugees.
The challenges here are basically how to stop the kidnapping; and how to get the Egyptian government to take action to stop the abuse of the refugees, which occurs primarily in the Sinai, for the most part in proximity to the border with Israel. We have been successful in getting aid to refugees that have been picked up in the Sinai and jailed there by Egyptian authorities. We have also been helping activists in Egypt to greatly elevate awareness of this problem among various governments, NGOs, media from several countries and Egyptian authorities. Our team was among the first to inform many about the Sinai tragedy, by writing articles about the torture in Sinai and producing a DVD in 2010 with accounts by eyewitness Eritrean victims.
What type of support do you give to refugees and/or asylum seekers? Do you have targeted countries that the America Team operates in?
In the United States we are registered to operate in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Indiana and Colorado. That is to say, we have a person on the ground in those states, and are registered to solicit donations and to operate in those states. For other states, we provide support by responding to requests for aid such as advocacy with local resettlement agencies and authorities, and provision of cash assistance in certain cases, as funds permit. For refugees in the United States, support that we provide can include coverage of rent or a utility bill for a month, for example, in an acute need; working with a local resettlement agency affiliate where there may be a communication problem; and providing guidance when a refugee does not know where to turn when there is a particular need.
We are sometimes approached, usually by an immigration attorney, in order to provide expert testimony for a hearing where an asylum seeker is being heard about his or her case. We have done this in about a dozen US cases, and so far have won them all.
The other country where we are primarily active is Ethiopia, where we have a volunteer refugee agent assisting in various types of cases, ranging from medical needs to facilitating communication with agencies such as UNHCR and ARRA. We also have an agent and members in Israel, where there is an acute problem facing acceptance of about 35,000 Eritrean refugees.
In other countries, we assist via phone calls and e-mails whereby we provide guidance and assistance for refugees in need. We are in frequent contact with an agent in North Sinai, who deals with refugees affected by the criminal trafficking, torture and extortion. We also help by getting assistance and sometimes providing cash assistance, for refugees in acute situations of danger or need in various countries, including Sudan, Uganda, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Ukraine, Slovakia, Thailand and Israel, among others.
In a broader sense, we have worked extensively to create awareness of the overall problem with the mistreatment of Eritreans and in particular the torture and abuse and extortion of refugees in the Sinai. Toward this end, we have had discussions with US congressional staff members that are involved with African issues, and have provided extensive input and encouragement to journalists, including some who are with notable news services such as CNN International and The Wall Street Journal.
Back to you. Many Eritreans are aware that your personal support to needy Eritreans goes even far beyond what many humanitarian organizations do. Eritreans who happen to be Individual beneficiaries of your support in many parts of the world widely talk about your benevolence and humanitarian charity.
Can you tell us some of the countries that you were involved in to support Eritreans in terms of asylum seeking, fulfilling their material and financial needs etc..?
Well, the various are countries listed above. Here are some recent examples:
- We heard from a volunteer who was helping a young Eritrean woman who had been trafficked to Thailand and was presently in jail. The volunteer did not know what to do. We first directed her to the local UNHCR office to arrange for the girl’s evaluation to be classed as a refugee. The girl did not speak nor read English so we provided translations to Tigrinya of UNHCR instructions and of notes from the volunteer to the refugee. The refugee was subsequently classified as a bona fide refugee, and furthermore was referred to Canada for resettlement. We just learned that she has moved to Canada already.
- We heard from a refugee who was hospitalized in the Ukraine, and in dire need of an expensive antibiotic for an infection in his spine. In working with local organizations there, we successfully sent funds in order to purchase the needed medication, which was then delivered promptly to the doctor treating this fellow.
- We assisted a group of four refugees in the Ukraine, who had not been accorded asylum there, and who had attempted to move to Slovakia.
- We had been involved assisting with the case of the Eritrean football team who had defected to Uganda in early December, 2012; recently, we assisted in their being moved to a new safe place, where they would not be bothered by Eritrean regime supporters, who had been embarrassed by the fact that an athletic team had chosen to flee their country.
- In recent months, we have helped three different families in the process of having the spouse and children join the refugee father in the United States, from Sudan and Ethiopia.
- We assisted in getting critical medication – an IV antibiotic – to an Eritrean asylum seeker in Ukraine.
- We recently helped a refugee who had made it to Israel, and was jailed there, following his release by human traffickers in Sinai, who had tortured him until a total ransom of US$40,000 had been paid. He needed medical attention, and advocacy for release from prison, based on the facts that he had been tortured and forced to do slave labor.
Why is it that the America Team does not publicize all the accomplishments performed by you, its members and other affiliates?
We work primarily behind the scenes, and do not publicize most of what we do. For one thing, doing so just takes up time which can better be devoted to actually assisting the refugees. We have to be very careful about not revealing any information that could possibly lead to jeopardizing the safety of the individual or family that we are helping, because such specific information could be used against the refugee by the sinister Eritrean regime which historically has punished refugees and asylum seekers that have been identified, by harassing or jailing family members that are in Eritrea. We occasionally publish articles about some of the things that are going or that we have participated with, but again these are devoid of specific references.
We do publish information which we are hopeful is of use to volunteers, professionals and refugees alike, in the resettlement process, in particular. For example, on our website at EritreanRefugees.org, we have available our Tigrinya-English Picture Dictionary in PDF format. We also have other various informational files designed to help in the resettlement and adjustment process. On our website, we include reference materials that can be helpful to volunteers and professionals alike, including immigration attorneys, prosecutors and judges, in understanding the Eritrean refugee situation. We also include news about Eritrea itself.
Also, we do not see bragging about our accomplishments as an honorable activity! We have observed that organizations that go out of their way to talk about their accomplishments can consequently come under fire for presumably seeking recognition more than actually doing good – which can turn out to be a hindrance.
What internationally known organizations does your Team work with?
From time to time, we interface with various international organizations when we have a common interest or activity. Examples of these organizations are UNHCR, IOM, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, EveryOne Group, ICER, the Coalition for Organ-failure Solutions, etc. We have also worked with numerous entities such as the US Department of State, the US Office of Refugee Resettlement, ARRA, Church World Service, HIAS, New Generation Foundation for Human Rights, and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.
We know that the US government allocates a substantial amount of funds to financially assist organizations that deal with refugee affairs. Is your Team a beneficiary of that?
The America Team has received no government funding. The type of work we do that involves financial expenditures is spread quite widely, ranging from assistance to resettled refugees to asylum seekers in undeveloped countries. As such, our activities do not fit the usual models which are subject to receipt of funding from government entities.
Last year, 34 Eritrean refugees graduated with college degrees and diplomas in the medical field. The tuition fees and living expenses were covered by your team.
Who helped you with the finance and what was the role of the Ethiopian government in facilitating this activity?
The funding of the scholarships was a combination of donations from America Team board members, various individuals, and one church. The Ethiopian government, through the Administration for Refugees and Returnees (ARRA) provided essential assistance in this program. They helped ensure that the students received what was due them, and assisted with the reception and distribution of funds from the America Team. Also, ARRA assisted at graduation time by providing an excellent reception for all the graduates.
What is the status of these graduate professionals currently?
A few of the graduates have moved to Juba in South Sudan, to pursue work in nursing, and one to Khartoum for pharmacy work. A few others have obtained jobs in Addis Ababa, and two are continuing studies in Alamaya University. Two have resettled to United States, and will be working in Phoenix, Arizona, in nursing. But most of the graduates have returned to their camps, unable to find immediate work in the city, because of an excess of qualified personnel in Ethiopia seeking jobs there.
You know that Eritreans are leaving their country due to mistaken policy of their government. Many of them are victims of human trafficking, ending up being tortured, killed or enslaved and never make it to their countries of destination. You don’t see countries ready to host such an influx of refugees. What do you think is the ultimate solution for this paradox?
There has been some significant adjustment and acceptance of Eritrean refugees who enter other countries. Ethiopia for example has accommodated over 60,000 Eritreans who have fled their home country, and have gradually increased the opportunities available for these refugees. And Ethiopia should be commended and thanked for their humanitarian response to the refugee crisis, particularly since they have taken over 5,000 Eritrean refugees from the prisons of Egypt. There are other significant situations that still have a long way to go in accommodating Eritrean refugees in need, complying with international law as it applies to refugees and asylum seekers. In particular, Israel, which has about 35,000 Eritreans within its borders seeking asylum, really needs to reform its immigration policy and adjudication of asylum seekers who make it into their country.
Some Western countries, in particular the United States, Canada, Sweden, Norway, and Australia have been kind enough to receive Eritrean refugees for resettlement. Still, this accounts for only a small fraction of all of the Eritrean refugees in many countries, living under marginal conditions or worse, often without meaningful work, study, income or hope.
The only really durable solution for Eritreans will be established when, and only when, these folks will be able to return safely to Eritrea, and to pick up where they left off, that is, pursuing life's activities and responsibilities as they once knew them before the hand of abuse and selfishness and rapacity struck them down and led them to fleeing their very own government.
What are your future plans to enhance the activities of your team? What is your evaluation of the current humanitarian situation in Eritrea? We are now winding up our interview with you, is there any message you would like to pass to our readers.
We have limited resources and personnel and often our work is a matter of responding to acute situations of danger and need that are brought to our attention – this without going out and soliciting situations where we might participate. Information and truth is such a powerful tool that we do choose to spend a good bit of time and effort making people aware of the situation facing many, many Eritreans around the world. Of course we seek to do this in a way that may have an impact, and make a difference.
Regarding the current situation within Eritrea, we have no reliable way of knowing exactly what is going on or where things stand, except through what people who have fled the country tell us. It seems that despite flashes of care and humanity and opposition within the country, including within the top ranks of the Eritrean military, the hand of the dictator and those who inure personal gain from de facto policy there seem to continually maintain control. We can only hope and pray that reason will prevail with some who are in control, and of course with many of the large number in the diaspora who seem to be convinced that there is nothing wrong with the regime. Of course, we know that many regime supporters in fact behave that way because of the usual leverage and reign of terror visited by the regime on family members who are still in Eritrea.
In the diaspora, it is important that those who recognize the oppression and abuse going on with the Eritrean people, be sure that the young people who are growing up in the Western world do not overlook the injustice and the inhumanity – that they pick up the torch and continue the fight against tyranny, abuse and oppression, so that we will see one day a better and happier world for those who wish to live a peaceful and decent life, with hope and opportunity for all, within the sovereign nation of Eritrea. And that there is a day when peace and healing and reconstruction can be done out of wish and desire, when people act out of care and not out of fear.
Thank you for your concern and for conducting this interview. Good night and good luck.
Thank you, Mr. Stauffer. You really are a great man and dependable friend of the Eritrean people.
(Photo: John with Friend)
May 11, 2013