Refugees’ plight is personal for these diplomats [video]

Timothy Eydelnant and Hoa Tran are two of the 3 million refugees who have started new lives in the United States since the 1970s. Eydelnant and Tran came with their families, who were fleeing oppression, persecution or war. Each became a citizen, attended college and embarked on a career.

Following separate journeys, they both have arrived at the U.S. Department of State, where they help coordinate humanitarian aid to refugees from the Syrian war and those fleeing conflict and persecution in Asia.

Eydelnant, born in Minsk, Belarus, is the Syrian humanitarian assistance coordinator for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. Tran, who fled Vietnam in 1975, is the Asia team leader for the same bureau.

Both say their past journeys lend urgency to the day-to-day work they now perform providing aid and protection for displaced people around the world. Their bureau works with international organizations and nongovernmental organizations to find lasting solutions to refugees’ plights through voluntary repatriation, integration into host countries or third-country resettlement in the U.S. or elsewhere.

Eydelnant was 16 years old when his family made its way to Minnesota in 1989 under a program for religious and ethnic minorities facing discrimination in the then–Soviet Union. His parents, engineers in Minsk, took factory jobs to help Eydelnant and his brother build better lives.

He memorized flags and capitals as a boy, and at an early age envisioned a career in diplomacy. A fellowship at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow led to the Foreign Service and postings to Jerusalem; Helsinki; Rio de Janeiro; Basra, Iraq; and Vienna.

The United States has committed $5.6 billion to help the nearly 5 million refugees who have left Syria. Eydelnant, who has visited camps in Turkey and Jordan, says: “Behind our desks, we tend to get lost sometimes between pieces of paper and numbers. Seeing the horrors they fled and the conditions they live under puts it all in perspective.”

Tran, whose father worked for the South Vietnamese and U.S. governments, was 7 years old when her mother woke her in the middle of the night, saying, “We have to leave right now.”

“It was incredibly scary and chaotic,” recalls Tran, who was evacuated with her parents and six of eight siblings to the U.S. Navy base in Cam Ranh Bay and camps on Guam and Wake Island before being resettled in Atlanta.

“We struggled when we came to the U.S.,” she said. “Everybody who could work worked to contribute to the household economy.” She learned documentary photography and advocated for refugees, then earned a doctorate in anthropology. She never imagined her path would lead to the State Department, where she helps shape policy and direct assistance to the Rohingya and other refugees and asylum seekers in the Asia region.

Eydelnant doesn’t like talking about himself, but wants refugees to see they can realize their dreams. “It requires a lot of hard work, but you literally can go from a refugee background to being the representative of your country.”

Tran says, “It’s an incredible opportunity to be involved in the mission of this bureau. It’s so important to me to be able to give back.”