As part of our “Americans in the UN” project, we talked to Tina Hinh, who serves as an Assistant Resettlement Officer with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Hinh’s family fled Vietnam in 1978 to a refugee camp in Palau Bidong, Malaysia, where Hinh was born. Her family was eventually resettled in Michigan and then moved to Houston, Texas, where Hinh grew up.
How did you first learn about the UN?
Tina Hinh: The UN plays so much into my personal story. The UN was there at the refugee camp when I was born, helping out my parents with assistance and being a presence at the camp. I would hear my parents talk about their experiences. So I would say my first time hearing about the UN is it being a force for good and helping people in the most desperate situations.
What motivates you to work for the UN?
TH: The UN has been part of my story, and I’ve benefited from the work of the UN Refugee Agency. I truly believe that I am one of the lucky ones – that my story could have turned out very differently, but it turned out the way that it did. And because of that, I’ve been given so many choices in terms of what I was going to study, who I was going to marry, and what I was going to do with my life. It always seemed to me that my work ought to be to the benefit of people who have fewer choices. The fact that I get to do it with the UN and work with colleagues from around the world is an opportunity that I am amazed I get to be part of.
What would you say to Americans about why the UN is important to their lives?
TH: The UN is important because we are more connected than ever, and we need a place where people can work together on a global level because there are things that happen across borders. Whether it’s displacement of people or climate change, we need a forum to work in the global interest. There are people whose voices are louder than others, and there are other people whose voices can’t be heard as much – having a forum where those voices are more level is incredibly important.
When you’re talking to your friends and family in the U.S., is there anything that surprises them about the UN?
TH: I think they are surprised at how vast the different agencies are and what they do. I think the UN Refugee Agency is a little more known because of our work now with different crises, but there’s so much work being done out there by UN staff, from transportation to climate.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
TH: I work with an organization called the Refugee Congress. They are a group of refugees who have been resettled to the U.S., and they are a network of refugee advocates who have been resettled or received asylum in the U.S. There is one from every state, and they are working together to advocate for other refugees.
One of my favorite parts of my job is being able to work with them. These are individuals who have established themselves in the U.S., and now they are working on behalf of other refugees. They come from all walks of life. Once they have started their lives in the U.S., they’ve done everything – they are journalists, lawyers, social workers, and artists. The commonality is they have had this experience and gotten through it, and now they are making sure that other refugees also get that chance.
Is there anything else you would say to Americans about the UN or UNHCR?
TH: One thing that a lot of people may not understand is that our colleagues are on the front lines, putting their lives in danger, and they are doing it because they truly believe in the mission and the mandate of our agency – that if we’re not there, there is not going to be anyone there to provide food, shelter, and protection.
When I talk to refugees, there are so many different stories. The 65 million displaced people run the gauntlet of the human experience. It is easy to think of refugees as a ‘them,’ but the truth is it could be any of us. To see refugees as having that shared humanity as the rest of us, and they are just in a difficult situation not in their control, should be basic.
They are humans too, and they are just like you, but they are in this situation – but that is not what defines them.
Some of the refugees I’ve met here in the U.S. like myself, who when given the chance to start over, are some of the most patriotic Americans I’ve ever met.