November 9, 2010 by Vanessa Pirandello
|Jimmy Lu, employment specialist with the IRC in New York Photo: Vanessa Pirandello/The IRC|
In his 30-year career at the International Rescue Committee, New York-based employment specialist Jimmy Lu has helped more than 4,000 refugees from Kosovo, Myanmar, Bhutan, Tibet, Iraq and West Africa find work, even in the toughest job markets. A former refugee himself, Jimmy was recently honored with a Sarlo Foundation Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service. His New York US Programs office colleague Vanessa Pirandello tells his story:
Jimmy's journey began in his native Vietnam when communist groups arrested him under the premise that he was working for the CIA and handling U.S. currency. His detention was unsubstantiated and in spite of Jimmy's adamant denials, he was jailed. As luck would have it, one of Jimmy's brothers had previously befriended the son of a prominent police commander in Hanoi. His short visit to Jimmy's detention center resulted in a release from prison and Jimmy's life was thus spared. Fearing severe repercussions, Jimmy was urged to flee and, with his sister, brother and 5-year old niece-in tow, he left Vietnam.
The year was 1978. In the middle of the night, a small wooden boat took them to a cargo ship where they joined over 3,300 other Vietnamese refugees bound for Hong Kong. Their journey on the ship lasted more than a year as the Hong Kong government would not allow the vessel to enter its territory. Conditions aboard the ship were miserable. Although the Red Cross provided food rations on a daily basis, the refugees were often sick, and with no indication of how long they would remain in this predicament, the feeling of helplessness was devastating.
In the winter of 1979, the ship was finally steered into Hong Kong harbor during a thunderstorm. Everyone was arrested and put in jail. A few days later, Jimmy and his family were taken to a refugee camp where they waited to be accepted into the U.S. Resettlement Program. The IRC in New York was the agency assigned to facilitate their adjustment to their new lives in the United States.
On March 18, 1980, Jimmy and his family landed in New York City. Relatives who had previously been admitted to the U.S. greeted them at the airport. Jimmy remembers: "I was so nervous when I first arrived; New York is such a big city, almost the size of my country!" The IRC in New York provided assistance with services such as finding temporary housing for Jimmy and his family and covering the first two months of rent until they were able to find a better place.
Close to a month after his arrival in the United States, on April 14, 1980, Jimmy was hired at the IRC in New York as a placement assistant. The director of the office at the time could clearly see that Jimmy was an exceptional man: dedicated, humble, friendly and willing to work hard to help his fellow refugees. While he worked full time at the IRC, Jimmy put in 11-hour days on the weekends as a dishwasher. In 1983 he enrolled at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, where he earned his Associates degree in 1985. Working seven days a week and studying in the evenings to get ahead, Jimmy established himself within the New York City refugee community. Jimmy was quickly promoted to employment specialist, a position that is very dear to him to this day: "Every time I see a newcomer, I am reminded of what I felt when I first arrived."
Always ready to share a smile with anyone, Jimmy is a legend at the IRC for supporting an astronomical job placement rate. Over the course of his IRC career, Jimmy has placed more than 4,000 refugees in employment. "I feel happy when I place a client - especially people who don't speak the language. They need our help." IRC staff members say that when they run into refugees who arrived from Kosovo, West Africa, and more recently from Myanmar, Bhutan, Tibet and Iraq, they all remember Jimmy -- the person who gave them a chance at success in their new home.