- The Washington Times - Monday, February 22, 2010

HOLLISTON, Mass. | Hiding from merciless militiamen and trekking through unforgivable mountainous terrain, Madhel Majok escaped the mass slayings and genocide of the Sudan that killed his parents. The 9-year-old orphan fled to neighboring Kenya, where he then survived vigilante shellings on his crowded refugee camp.

Madhel remained in limbo for eight years while waiting for any country to grant him refuge.

Now 17, Madhel has found safety in a small New England enclave 30 miles west of Boston. He’s a star soccer player at Holliston High School, listens to rappers Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. at his leisure and lives comfortably in a foster home, thanks to a federal program that matches refugee minors with American families.

“I like it. It’s peaceful … quiet,” said Madhel, who wears American urban-style clothes and stays in a home with four other refugee Asian and African children. “Took me a long time to get here.”

The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, which has 700 refugee children in foster care, has asked states to prepare to foster more international refugee children like Majok, whose parents either have disappeared or been killed by war or natural disaster. The need is heightened by continuing armed conflicts in Africa and recent events such as the earthquake in Haiti.

The request means that Massachusetts and other states must ask more households to open up their homes for foster care or ask existing foster families to take in another refugee child at a time of economic downturn.

“Between all the wars going on and all the [human] trafficking laws that have changed, more children are needing safe homes,” said Sherrill Hilliard, the program manager for Refugee Immigration & Assistance Program in Washington. “And we’re doing our best to find them.”

Massachusetts, a state that historically has taken in one of the largest shares of the nation’s unaccompanied refugee minors, has been asked to increase its current share of 93 to 125, said Richard Chacon, director of the Office for Refugees and Immigrants in Massachusetts.

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services says 14 states and the District of Columbia, participate in the federal Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program: Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Washington.

It is not the only way parentless refugee children can find safe haven in the U.S. The Obama administration, for example, recently said it will allow orphaned Haitian children to enter the U.S. temporarily on an individual basis. And some groups, like the Heartland Alliance in Illinois, help unaccompanied undocumented children by providing housing and legal representation.

In 2008, foster homes and related facilities in the United States and 67 other countries took in 16,300 orphans, according to Tim Irwin, the spokesman for the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees. That’s the highest number since the agency started keeping records, Mr. Irwin said.

In the U.S., states license foster homes with the help of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The federal government reimburses states for all costs of the children’s schooling, health care and related expenses.

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