Taking The Plight Of Refugees To The White House

May 2, 2014
Originally published on May 3, 2014 5:04 am

Families of the more than 200 Nigerian school girls who were abducted by the Islamism militant group Boko Haram are demanding the government do more, after reports that the girls may have been sold as brides for marriage.

It’s a situation that points to the particular vulnerabilities women face in conflict zones and as refugees.

That’s part of the message Yar Ayuel will bring to President Obama when she meets him and the First Lady on Saturday. Ayuel is one of only 89 girls who came to the U.S. with the 3,500 “Lost Boys” of Sudan.

She went on to get an MBA and now works for a nonprofit and has a family of her own. She’s going to the White House Correspondents Dinner, along with Sasha Chanoff, founder and executive director of RefugePoint, an organization that works to protect the most vulnerable refugees.

Just before setting off for Washington, Ayuel and Chanoff joined Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss the message they’re taking to the White House.


  • Yar Ayuel, one of 89 girls who came to the U.S. with the 3,500 Lost Boys of Sudan.
  • Sasha Chanoff, founder and executive director of RefugePoint, an organization that works to protect the most vulnerable refugees. He tweets @SashaChanoff.
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Police in Nigeria are asking parents to give them pictures of their daughters who are in a group of school girls kidnapped and feared sold into marriage; 230 are still missing. Our next guest wants President Obama to do more for them and women in dangerous countries, and she's going to tell him so this weekend.

Yar Ayuel was one of 89 girls who came to the U.S. with the 3,500 Lost Boys of Sudan. She's since gotten her MBA and started a family, but she's going to the White House Correspondents Dinner and has been chosen to speak with the president as a guest of Sasha Chanoff, founder and executive director of RefugePoint. They work with refugees.

When they came to our studios earlier this week, Yar told us more about what she wants to say.

YAR AYUEL: I grew up in a war-torn country, and many women get attacked and raped. And that's my message to the president of the United States to provide protection.

YOUNG: Well, in fact, we mentioned this horror story in Nigeria. Your own sisters faced the threat of kidnapping from a refugee camp, a different case, but still you're familiar with this. What happened there?

AYUEL: When I found out that I have two younger sisters whom I never knew or thought they were dead.

YOUNG: This is after you fled.

AYUEL: Yeah, after I came to the U.S. So I was very desperate to bring them over to the U.S., but I didn't know where to go or who to turn to, so one time I sent Sasha an email, a desperate email, and call them as well, and I said, Sasha, I need your help.

YOUNG: Because your desperation was because you'd heard that people were coming to get your sisters.


YOUNG: Yeah. And what would they do with them? They had fled to a refugee camp outside South Sudan. What were you hearing was going to happen to them?

AYUEL: My sister would have gone back to South Sudan, get married.

YOUNG: Been forced into marriage.


YOUNG: So, Sasha, you get this impassioned plea, help, I have two younger sisters in a refugee camp and I'm hearing that people are coming to kidnap them and take them back to South Sudan for forced marriage. That sounds like needle in a haystack time. What do you do?

SASHA CHANOFF: Well, so to back up briefly, Yar found out that her two sisters, who are 12 and 15 years old, were alive and in Kakuma Refugee Camp, but they were orphaned there. And she heard that kidnappers were coming to steal them and sell them into marriage against their will in South Sudan. This happens to many girls and young women in refugee situations.

When she called, at that point, the girls were still relatively safe, but then there was an attack against them, and at that point I contacted a friend in Kakuma who worked for the International Organization for Migration, and in collaboration with the U.N. Refugee Agency, we evacuated the girls down to Nairobi, in Kenya, and then we worked the U.S. Embassy to relocate them to the U.S. where they reunited with Yar in 2007.

YOUNG: So, Yar, you had a chance to meet these baby sisters, you know, 12 and 15 that you didn't know before. What's that been like?

AYUEL: I was very grateful, very fortunate to know Sasha, very thankful.

YOUNG: Yeah, I'm sure you can't help but think of the families whose daughters are missing in Nigeria.

AYUEL: My heart goes out to these families, because I was once worried about my sisters' safety and many friends that I'd left back in the refugees' camp. So I will be thinking of them.

YOUNG: Yeah.

CHANOFF: This is also, Robin, happening in South Sudan. War has broken out since December last year. Over a million people are displaced inside South Sudan. Over a quarter of a million have fled to neighboring countries. This is now a renewed conflict, and in this, we are seeing many girls who are at increased risk.

YOUNG: Let's talk a little bit about South Sudan. Terrible reports last week that rebels massacred hundreds of people after taking over a town on the other side. Reuters reporting that a pro-government mob killed dozens in an attack near a U.N. base. Just slaughter, we're hearing about slaughter.

CHANOFF: This was a political conflict that has now hardened along ethnic lines, primarily between the two main tribes of the country the Dinka and the Nuer. But yes, we're seeing catastrophic conflict in front of us, and the danger now is that there is a significant decline in food security. So there are 3.7 million people at severe risk of starvation. There is an inability to preposition food supplies due to this insecurity, and they're missing the planting season.

YOUNG: Yeah.

CHANOFF: So what this means is there's going to be a famine and it might be a famine of greater magnitude than what we saw in Ethiopia in the mid-'80s.

YOUNG: So, a terrible situation brewing in South Sudan, but Yar, your thoughts about that. There was a moment of hope. You know, South Sudan was given its independence and now brutality again.

AYUEL: It just brings all the childhood memories back, and we lost loved ones. I lost nine family members. The killing, the rape, the brutality, and so many horrible things that were done in the past, now we are reliving them by going against each other. I am angry, but I don't have a hate in my heart, because we are connected one way or another.

It's OK to be angry, but working together, building peace, not bridges that would divide us, because South Sudan, we can build it together. I grew up in a war, and my message is peace.

YOUNG: But boy, I mean, when you extend that out to Nigeria, it's hard for someone to feel peaceful when their daughter's been kidnapped, you know, when their child is gone. In your case, you were separated from your family. It's hard to ask somebody to not want revenge when that happens.

CHANOFF: And this is what we have to look in to. We have to find ways to forgive and move forward. Robin, you had two young men on your show a few months ago, Dr. John Quack(ph), a Nuer, and John Dowell, a Dinka, who preached a message of peace. Both of them have lost family members. Yar as well has lost family members, and yet here she is talking about the need for peace, not the need for revenge.

YOUNG: Yar, I'm also thinking, well, from a trek out of war-torn Sudan to the U.S. is one thing, but to the White House.

AYUEL: I am very, very excited and also thankful. I never dreamed that I would meet the president of the United States, but my focus is to bring peace in my country, and protect the vulnerable populations. That's my focus. But yes, I'm very excited to meet the president and very thankful, also, for the opportunity.

YOUNG: And you're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.