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Resettlement After the Disaster: Take a Cue from the Past

Thursday, 01 September 2005 12:00 AM

Come with me back to late 1956. The Hungarian population had risen up in a brave but futile attempt to rid their little nation of the Soviet Communist occupiers. It worked for ten magic days. Then the Soviets sent two thousand tanks and two hundred thousand troops and put a brutal end to Hungary's Freedom Fight.

I was a reporter in Vienna covering the massive flow of Hungarian refugees to the outside world. Two hundred thousand Hungarians fled their homeland, and they found themselves in somewhat similar conditions to the American refugees from Katrina.

They were fleeing not Mother Nature but Big Brother communism. They had nothing but what they wore plus maybe a satchel full of what they could carry. And those Hungarians knew from the get-go what is just dawning on the American refugees: there will be no going back in the short run, and nobody can tell how long the intermediate run will be.

Long before the computer and e-mail, those Hungarians lined up outside the headquarters of ICEM (International Committee on European Migration) in downtown Vienna waiting to be interviewed. Friendly and efficient bureaucrats (United Nations, no less!) interviewed each refugee, showed them a list of countries that offered a haven, collected details on their education, job skills, work experience, information on their family, and let them select choices one, two, and three as to where they'd like to resettle.

A huge tote board let us know which countries were preferred. The USA was first by a wide margin. All of Western Europe followed. For days and days Turkey made the board with just one single refugee.

And it worked! It worked smoothly and splendidly. I visited the Hungarians who chose to go to Norway and, as a volunteer for Catholic Relief, I coordinated the resettling of Hungarians who chose to accept offers of homes and jobs in Greensboro, North Carolina. The outpouring of American generosity turned into an embarrassing overload. Jobs, housing (including in one case the gift of a house), clothing, medical care, food, playmates for the children, English lessons - we were offered more than we could ever handle.

Why not copy that 1956 system immediately?

Every refugee from Hurricane Katrina who is comfortably resettled diminishes the crisis by one, right? With today's computer wizardry we could match individual refugees from the Gulf to offers currently pouring in from every corner of America and Canada.

Incomes now assumed to be ended may sprout anew when the computer connects with the right match. The couple in Utah with a guest room that can accommodate a married couple can say so. The widow in Montana who has an empty ranch house might account for as many as a dozen. When the couple arrives in Utah to occupy the guest room, there will be a sheaf of offers for every kind of assistance required. (English lessons shouldn't be a problem here.)

When the matches are made, transportation from the blighted area will take the refugees to the nearest functioning airport. That cost would also be covered, not by America's strapped treasury but by America's open heart.

There will be sticky outcomes. In Greensboro a Hungarian family of educated professionals invited another Hungarian family of factory workers over for a weekend, and then complained to me those Hungarian peasants ate eight eggs for breakfast. Big deal! There will also be new friendships, networking, contacts, acquaintances, marriages, and babies.

The instant we knew they couldn't go home for awhile, something like this should have been implemented.

Envision Katrina's handiwork as a puddle of toxicity. And America's good heart as a giant sponge. Then imagine a big squeeze of that sponge plunked right into the middle of all that poison to suck up the toxicity.

I refuse to accept that a gaggle of international bureaucrats in 1956 could do a better job of relocating displaced people without computers than our American team can do today with the best computers.

I have a guest room. I'll take ANY two who need relocation.

And now I'm betting more on America's heart than on America's competence.

I bet you would, too.

102-105-102

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Come with me back to late 1956. The Hungarian population had risen up in a brave but futile attempt to rid their little nation of the Soviet Communist occupiers. It worked for ten magic days. Then the Soviets sent two thousand tanks and two hundred thousand troops and put a...
Resettlement,After,the,Disaster:,Take,Cue,from,the,Past
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2005-00-01
Thursday, 01 September 2005 12:00 AM
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