Cooperstown alumna helps make refugees' dreams come true

ContributedAmity Otieno is shown in this undated photo. 

Amity Otieno, a 2000 Cooperstown High School graduate, has spent the past 11 years helping refugees resettle to the United States and other countries.

While Otieno was a student at Cooperstown, she said, she spent one year studying in Japan. After graduation, she studied international politics and Japanese studies at Earlham College in Indiana, and she spent three years in Japan after graduation.

She then went to Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California for graduate school to study international migration policy and focused her studies on forced migration and human trafficking. Otieno then worked for the International Office for Migration in Japan.

“I worked in the counter-trafficking in the Asia region,” she said. “I would help people who were forced into human trafficking return to their home country.”

Otieno transferred to the Bangkok, Thailand office where, she said, she worked with many refugees from Myanmar.

In 2009, she started working for the International Rescue Committee and was sent to Kenya to help African refugees.

“Living in another country made me realize that not everyone is allowed to be who they are,” Otieno said. “It's why people move from place to place out of desperation. They could be fleeing from persecution due to religion, sexual orientation, race.”

Otieno said she started working with human trafficking, but then went to refugee resettlement to “give some of the most vulnerable in the world a fresh start.”

In addition to helping refugees in Kenya, Otieno visited Nigeria, Rwanda, Nairobi, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda and Cameroon to help refugees resettle in other countries.

Otieno said she met her husband in Kenya, and what she had planned to be a one-year job, turned into eight years, “and two amazing kids.”

She and her family recently moved to Bangkok where a “dream job came up,” for Otieno, she said.

“Being part of that process is very fulfilling,” she said. “It was overwhelming to see what they went through. Even if they never knew I was a part of helping them, knowing that they are going to my country to get a second chance is fulfilling.”

Otieno said her organization works through the United Nations, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and its counterparts in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia to resettle refugees who could face certain death if they stayed in their home countries.

She said the UN refugee program has three possible solutions. The refugees could go back to their home countries, resettle in the countries to which they fled or be sent to a country where their rights, such as LGBTQIA, religious, political and gender, are acknowledged. She said only between 1% and 2% of the refugees actually get to resettle.

“These are people that just want a normal life,” Otieno said. “They just want to be able to practice their religion. They could be LGBTQIA. They could have been forced to flee due to political opinions. They could be a woman who just wants to work and that's just not the reality of where they live.”

She said there are 100,000 refugees waiting to enter the U.S.

“We have an amazing country. Why not help people who are vulnerable?” she asked.

Vicky Klukkert, staff writer, can be reached at vklukkert@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7221.

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