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Refugees' Helping Hand

Author-advocate serves cause of displaced Cambodians and others

THE world's refugee population is estimated at nearly 20 million. More are added daily by conflicts in the Balkans, Tajikistan, and elsewhere. Events move fast, but for the people whose lives have been interrupted by war and economic devastation, time often comes to a standstill. All the daily rhythms that had helped sustain them are gone.

The interruption can go on for years, even decades.

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The people caught in the grim time machine of refugee camps have been on Judy Mayotte's mind since 1985, when she began working with Cambodian refugees who had settled in New York. She was then a member of the Maryknoll Sisters, an American Roman Catholic order dedicated to serving the poor abroad, and her goal was to join one of the order's overseas missions.

That goal underwent some transformation. Poor health kept her in the United States. But her interest in refugees grew. She left the order in 1986 and deepened her research into the conditions endured by refugees.

She soon settled on the way she could best help them. As she puts it, "Not going overseas had made me realize how important the education and advocacy role is right here." She had experience both as an educator and a television producer (she won an Emmy for the TV series "Portrait of America," produced by Ted Turner's WTBS). She knew how to organize complex information into a form the public could grasp. In 1989, she won a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to research the lives

and histories of long-term refugees.

For the next two years, Ms. Mayotte spent nearly all her time in the Cambodian refugee camps on the Thai border, in the tent cities of displaced Afghans in northern Pakistan, and in the southern Sudan, where thousands of Eritreans fled during Ethiopia's civil war.

Mayotte soon came to know the refugees as people, not statistics. Through the help of the International Rescue Committee (its head, Robert DeVecchi, asked IRC overseas staffers to aid Mayotte in any way they could), she quickly got a grasp of life in the camps. In nearly all cases, people welcomed her, often inviting her into their tent "homes" to share a meal or a time-honored tradition, such as an Eritrean coffee ceremony.

Did she have any special way of establishing rapport? "I think I can draw out from people what's best in them because I believe in them," she said in a Monitor interview here.

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Last year Mayotte's book, "Disposable People? The Plight of Refugees" (Orbis Books), was published. But the book is only one facet of her current work. She gives dozens of talks each month and has testified before congressional committees and other public bodies ("I love it," she says). She also is starting a program to teach schoolchildren about the problems facing refugees.

The classroom effort will be teamed with a new television series Mayotte hopes to launch. Curriculum materials will spin off from the series. Her message for young children, she says, is the same one she give adults: We must take responsibility for one another. "We can't focus just on us," Mayotte urges. "The world is so interdependent that we have to think of others' well-being in terms of our own best interests."

Americans' response to this message is generally positive, she says. "When people are made aware, they want to do something." While that "something" now may be a private donation to a refugee agency, public response also has to move toward the policymaking arena, she says.

Others in the refugee-aid field hope Mayotte's work will have a big impact. "Judy has a wonderful ability to capture the human beings she sat with and ate with," says Virginia Hamilton, assistant director of the US Committee for Refugees, an advocacy group based in Washington. "She not only gives historical record and research to the refugee problem, but a personal face, too - which is so often missing." That should connect with the public, says Ms. Hamilton, and it makes Mayotte's work particularly suit ed to the classroom.

For all the goodwill she has found, Mayotte worries that "compassion fatigue" may harden people to the needs of refugees, especially as the media "discovers" new crises in places like Sudan and Mozambique. She appreciates the impact of TV coverage in illustrating urgent needs, but laments that often the needs are publicized very late in the game, as in Somalia and Bosnia.

The peoples whose stories are told in Mayotte's book have experienced the full cycle of civil war, exodus, sojourn in another country, and return. Returning, Mayotte notes, can be nearly as grueling as flight. Cambodia's peace process teeters as the Khmer Rouge thwarts the United Nations plan; warring factions in Afghanistan have virtually partitioned the country. Eritrea is a little more hopeful, though the country's independence and viability is far from settled. "The Eritreans have the will and the te nacity, if they can get the resources," says Mayotte.

The world is at a "threshold," in her view, where nations can choose to strengthen the UN mechanisms for anticipating and responding to the conflicts that generate great flows of displaced people. The alternative is to allow the stories told in Mayotte's book to be retold time and again.

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