USCRI: U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants

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LOST Star Stands Up for Refugee Rights in Ethiopia

Actor Ken Leung accompanied USCRI on a nine-day journey through northern Ethiopia, where tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees live in camps.  Leung, 40, witnessed firsthand the conditions in which these men, women, and children—who have fled war and violence in their native country—live for years on end.  Many of these refugees are denied their basic rights as human beings, including the right to work, move freely, or pursue a decent life while in exile.

Leung’s trip came on the heels of the Ethiopian government’s decision to grant encamped Eritrean refugees freedom of movement.  Previously prohibited from leaving the camps, Eritrean refugees will now have the option to choose their place of residence, gain an education, and become active members of a community. 

Here, Leung—a New York City-based actor best known for his role on the popular television series LOST—reflects on his recent visit to Shemelba and Mai-Aini refugee camps and vows to continue to raise awareness of the plight of warehoused refugees around the world. 

USCRI: What was your first impression of the refugee camps in Ethiopia? Tell us what you saw.

Ken Leung: My impression of the camps is that they are places of camped promises, and bastions of the kind of bravery I will never understand.  Despite not having desperately-needed essentials—clothes, medicine, firewood, a generator—refugees are forming committees and appointing representatives to give a voice to their struggle.  For example, at Mai-Aini refugee camp, a 14-year-old boy and a girl who looked 7 spoke on behalf of the unaccompanied minors in their camp. Unaccompanied children, they informed us, have been crossing the border from Eritrea in increasing numbers.

USCRI: Upon seeing first-hand the way refugees live in camps, what stood out or surprised you about their living conditions?

KL: It surprised me that Shemelba refugee camp has neighborhoods and a ‘downtown.’   It surprised me how little we need to live. That we have limitless potential.

USCRI: Were the refugees you encountered happy to see you there? Did you get a chance to speak with a refugee?

KL: We walked through each camp as a collective, hosted by UNHCR [the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees] and the government agency ARRA [the Ethiopian Administration for Refugee/Returnee Affairs].  Most of the refugees we spoke with were the refugee leaders, who expected us and welcomed us.  But after the formal meetings, people would come up to us and the energy changed.  They were curious and, in some cases, hopeful.  A representative for the elderly in Mai-Aini grabbed my hand like family and pleaded with me to remember them.  There is so much to say and do.  It made me want to do something to help, to keep meeting them.

USCRI: How would you describe the overall mood of the camps and their residents?

KL: In Shemelba, we passed through a clinic on our way to visit the medical dispensary.  The mood was subdued.  Someone was carried on a stretcher.  The grounds of the clinic were filled with people waiting.  It was hot.  The sun was beating.

But the school in Shemelba was fun.  We walked past a row of classrooms and visited one.  Everyone seemed tickled to see us.  I sensed that every kid there wanted to be in school.  A group of girls playing outside the school ran up to us when they saw us.  They were screaming with excitement when I showed them their images on the camera.  They were full of hope and promise.

USCRI: Has your perception of refugees changed at all after visiting the camps?

KL: When we see images of refugees in refugee camps on TV, we tend to generalize their situation.  But having gone to the camps has helped me view the people living there as the unique individuals that they are.

How do you hope to make a difference in the lives of refugees?

KL: I will continue to think about them, take advantage of opportunities to spend time with them, listen when they speak, listen when they don’t, respond from my heart, and speak with their welfare in mind.

USCRI: In your opinion, what should we and the rest of the world be doing to help refugees?

KL: Speaking for myself, I intend to continue on this journey and do whatever it takes.

Photos from top to bottom: Actor Ken Leung takes a first-hand look at life in refugee camps in Ethiopia; not allowed to work, this Eritrean woman, much like other refugees living in camps, has to rely on food rations; Eritrean refugee children pose for Leung's camera.

Read personal stories and interviews with refugees from around the world >>

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