6-21-2012By Eleanor Acer and Kathryn Plummer
Refugee Protection Program
This week at a Capitol Hill reception to mark World Refugee Day, Members of Congress and others paid tribute to the late Representative Donald Payne (D-NJ), who championed the protection of refugees throughout his career. Together the speakers painted a portrait of a committed and highly skilled advocate for human rights – both at home and around the world. They also stressed the importance of U.S. leadership on human rights and the protection of refugees.
Abdalmageed Haroun, a Darfuri human rights activist, explained how Donald Payne saved his life. When Mr. Haroun was being tortured in a secret detention center in Sudan, his torturer arrived late one night carrying a letter. “Who is Donald Payne?” The man asked Mr. Haroun, who said, “I do not know a Donald Payne.” His torturer told him that the Sudanese government had received letters from Congressman Payne calling for his release. “That day,” Mr. Haroun said, “the torture stopped,” and he was transferred to a federal detention center and eventually released.
Mr. Haroun—who has received asylum in the United States with the help of Human Rights First and a team of pro bono attorneys from the law firm Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP in New York—expressed his appreciation to Representative Payne’s family, to the United States government and to the team that represented him in his U.S. asylum proceedings. Anne Richard, the Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, highlighted Representative Payne’s legacy and stressed the need for U.S. leadership in protecting refugees and displaced persons.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), which Rep. Payne chaired, paid tribute to his memory and vowed to continue his work. The speakers included Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO),the current Chair of the CBC, Reps. Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Barbara Lee (D-CA), who said that members of the refugee communities in their districts came out in masses to meet Rep. Payne as he traveled through, and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-MA) who challenged the audience to carry on Payne’s work. Congresswoman Lee also warmly recalled the ways in which Payne mentored colleagues.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) said that “Donald set an example for all of us.” Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) paid tribute to Payne’s commitment to the persecuted and displaced and called for support for the Refugee Protection Act, including elimination of the one year filing deadline and reform of overly broad legal provisions that prevent refugees from receiving asylum in the United States. Additional speakers included Representatives Nita Lowey (D-NY), Sam Farr (D-CA), Jim McGovern (D-MA), and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL).The Honorary Hosts also included Reps. Howard Berman (D-CA), Joe Pitts (D-PA), and Frank Wolf (R-VA).
The speakers also thanked members of Rep. Payne’s family for being in attendance, including William Payne who spoke movingly about his brother’s passion for protecting refugees. He called on others to follow in his footsteps.The master of ceremonies was George Biddle, Executive Vice President of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), and the event was sponsored by Episcopal Migration Ministries, HIAS, Human Rights First, IRC, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, The Episcopal Church, Refugee Council USA, US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Women’s Refugee Commission, and World Relief in collaboration with other cosponsors.
It is clear that many people – in the United States and around the world – know, and will remember, “Who is Donald Payne” – a man of deep commitment, compassion, and action.