Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
January 28, 2023
AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Good afternoon, everyone. Let me thank all of you for joining us today. I’ve had an extraordinarily productive and busy day here in Nairobi.
I got up early this morning for a solemn ceremony at the old U.S. Mission, where we lost more than 200 Kenyans and Americans. And it really was solemn because for me, every single one of the people inside the U.S. Mission who were victims, were friends. I had served in Kenya from ’93 to ’96, and the bombing happened in 1998.
I also had the opportunity to meet with President Ruto, where we had a broad discussion on the regional challenges that Kenya is working on here in the region. And these are the similar challenges that I am dealing with in the Security Council. And I also wanted to thank him for Kenya’s very strong and supportive role during their two-year tenure at the Security Council.
I then had the opportunity to visit a plant that produces electric motorcycles, and to see what we’re doing on the – really, how we’re dealing – how companies are helping to address environmental issues. And that was really an extraordinary example of what can be done if people are committed to it.
Back in the 1990s – in fact, 1989 – I served as the Department of State’s U.S. resettlement officer for Africa. At that time, the United States had a 2,000-person cap on refugees coming from Africa. Most years we actually wouldn’t even meet the 2,000 number and I remember very sadly that my first year when I committed that I was going to reach the 2,000 number, I got to 1,982. And I’ve never forgotten that those 18 people that I could have helped didn’t get out, and I didn’t reach those numbers.
We felt we could and that we should be able to take more refugees, and we wanted to ramp up the program. So I was then assigned to be the refugee coordinator here in Kenya, and I served here from 1993 to 1996. But before coming, I worked on a program that would help us ramp up the refugee numbers. But we had a problem: we simply did not have the allocated resources to process more people.
So we decided to reach out to our civil society colleagues for support. And Church World Service here with me today stepped up – and became what we called then our JVA. And I don’t know, are we – do we call you JVAs now?
DEPUTY DIRECTOR NICOLE IRUNGU: RSC [Resettlement Support Center].
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: See, I’ve been out of it a long time. JVAs were Joint Voluntary Agencies.
So when I came to Kenya as the regional refugee coordinator, I was able to see up close and personally what those efforts had done. Church World Service established an office here for the first couple of years. You funded out of your own money half of the operation, and we funded the other half. But we were able to ramp up those numbers and eventually while I was here, we were able to push our numbers to almost 25,000.
But I saw how much it meant for these refugees to be able to come to the United States and how it really transformed their lives. I saw how Church World Service, together with our partners from the International Organization for Migration, from UNHCR, made all the difference in the world. They helped to vet refugees for the resettlement program. They ensured that the applicants had their medicals and all of their documents in order. They made sure that they were prepared for their interviews with what was then INS, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which is now USCIS [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services].
And I want to take this opportunity now, some 30 years later almost, to thank Church World Service for your help. We were able to continually expand the cap and bring more African refugees to the United States. And by 1999, the allocation for Africa was 12,000. By 2001, it was 20,000. And in 2003*, this fiscal year, it will be 40,000 refugees.
And to be honest, that’s a drop in the bucket when we consider how many people can benefit from this program. But it is an extraordinary effort and it shows the commitment that the United States has to refugees.
Civil society – and Church World Service specifically – made all the difference. They changed the lives of thousands upon thousands of families fleeing violence, disease, poverty, and hunger. And they do this still today.
Just a few moments ago, I met with refugees who Church World Service helped and had the opportunity to talk to them about their future journeys to the United States. And I shared with them my experience and really congratulated them for their efforts. There was a seven-year-old among those who are being processed, with her parents, and I told her that she was going to make a difference; she was going to be our next Ilhan Omar, who also immigrated from the United – from Kenya as a refugee.
They are all fleeing persecution and violence. And I could hear and see on their faces the relief that they were finally headed to the United States to forge a new life and to find a new home.
Over the course of my career, I’ve often been asked by good-hearted Americans how they can help. What can private citizens do to support refugees? And today we have the answer, and that is the Welcome Corps.
The Welcome Corps is a new Department of State program to empower everyday Americans to sponsor and welcome refugees arriving through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. This new, innovative program allows private citizens to support the resettlement of refugees as they begin to build their new lives in the United States. Thirty years ago, we innovated by bringing civil society into the fold. And today, we’re expanding the circle by bringing private citizens in.
This is a proud moment for me as it is for all of us. And we are still leaning on civil society.
We’ve put together a consortium of non-profit organizations with expertise in welcoming, resettling, and integrating refugees into the United States to offer expert guidance and support to Americans joining the Welcome Corps.
Of course, it should come to no surprise that Church World Service is still one of those organizations. And I encourage any and every American who is interested in it to check out welcomecorps.org.
With that, I’ll hand it over to Nicole from Church World Service to talk a little more about this exciting development. And when she’s done, we’ll take a few questions from you. So over to you, Nicole.
DEPUTY DIRECTOR IRUNGU: Thank you, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield. We are thrilled to have you with us here in Nairobi, and we are grateful for the decades of service and support you have given to this program and to African refugees in need of protection. I am Nicole Irungu, and I have worked for Church World Service for the last 14 years. I am the deputy director at the Resettlement Support Center Africa, which used to be called the Joint Voluntary Agency.
Since 1990, CWS along with its partners IOM and UNHCR have resettled almost 325,000 refugees from Sub-Saharan Africa to the United States. For more than 75 years, CWS has welcomed refugee families from around the world to cities and towns across the United States and provided friendship and support as they rebuild their lives.
CWS and the whole team at RSC Africa are excited to support the Welcome Corps, and we are thrilled for the thousands of refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, and other African nations who will now have the opportunity to benefit from this new initiative.
Community-driven resettlement is the backbone upon which the modern U.S. refugee admissions program was built. And now, as the United States Government looks to expand refugee resettlement, it is only fitting that we are returning to those roots by inviting regular Americans to play a critical role in welcoming refugees to their new home.
CWS is supporting the Welcome Corps launch both domestically and overseas. At RSC Africa, we will help match the first refugees to the Welcome Corps sponsor groups. Working with refugees who are part of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program is a joy and a privilege. They are some of the most inspiring and resilient individuals you will ever meet.
As Americans take on the role of welcomers stateside, our team at RSC Africa will do what we do best: we will walk alongside each of these refugees to prepare them for the journey and opportunity of a lifetime. We are ready and excited for what the future holds.
MODERATOR: So we’re going to take a few questions, and we’ll start with Noe (ph) from African Intelligence.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, Ambassador, for your (inaudible). Last year, Ambassador, (inaudible). Sorry. Last year, the USA committed more than $250 million to help Kenya face – Kenya and its neighbors to face this drought which also has (inaudible) impacts on the migrations. Where are we now, six or seven months later? How is – how has it been in terms of impact and recovery from this? Thank you very much.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah. The figure now for Kenya alone is about $376 million, and as I mentioned – maybe I didn’t mention it here – the figure for the region, for the Horn, is about $2.4 billion. So we have successfully helped this region avoid famine, but people are still desperate and the needs are still there, and we’re encouraging other countries to contribute to these needs. This is not something the United States can do alone, and it requires a global effort, and part of my reason for this trip is to put eyes on but to do a call for action by other countries to contribute to this effort.
MODERATOR: Great. Next we’ll go to Daniel with The Daily African. Oh, Daily Nation. I’m sorry.
QUESTION: Okay. So thank you for coming. I wanted to know what you think of the treatment of –
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I can’t hear you.
QUESTION: Now, I wanted to know what you think of the treatment of refugees in Kenya. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: What I think of the treatment?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah. So, as I said, I have been in and out of Kenya working on refugees issues since 1989. And I have seen the situation evolve. I discussed with President Ruto today, who noted that many of these refugees have been in Kenya for 30 years. They don’t have a home to go back to. In a sense, they’re Kenyans. So we are supporting efforts to create settlements for refugees that will allow refugees to work and find livelihoods here in Kenya and to contribute to Kenya’s economy and to improve the lives that they have here in Kenya.
MODERATOR: (Inaudible.) Next we’ll go to Julia with Reuters.
QUESTION: I’m not sending. I need to write. Julia from Reuters. I’m the Ethiopia correspondent.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Hi.
QUESTION: In the past two and a half years, you’ve been fairly vocal about the conflict. So I was wondering, what’s your assessment of the current situation? We know there’s been a peace deal, but is your understanding that foreign troops and non-Ethiopian troops are still in the Tigray region? And is your assessment with respect to the humanitarian response and atrocities a positive one? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: So we welcome the cessation of hostilities. So many lives were lost and destroyed in this useless war. And we have been consistent in our call for foreign troops – to name Eritrea – to leave Ethiopia. We understand that they have moved back to the border and that they’ve been asked to leave Ethiopia, and I think that’s important if this ceasefire is to hold and humanitarian assistance is allowed to continue to flow.
MODERATOR: That’s all we have time for today, but thank you all for coming.