With a career in public health that began with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, Auburn native Paul Giannone has seen firsthand how governments, international charities and other organizations can fail those who need help than most.
Unfortunately — according to Giannone in his new book, “A Life in Dark Places” — the experience he gained working with refugees in places like Vietnam, Sudan and Pakistan is just as relevant today as it was years ago.
The book is a rewrite of Giannone’s 2011 piece, “Dear Kara: One Man’s Journey From War to War.” Dissatisfied with the way it was edited, Giannone began working with a former journalist to do it right this time, partly through the addition of new chapters and a new introduction and epilogue.
The book details much of Giannone’s work in public health across nearly 40 countries, which included refugee relief, disaster response, AIDS/HIV interventions and research, institutional capacity building and more.
One of the new portions deals with Giannone’s time in the Balkans assisting refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War.
In 2015, Giannone got a call from a friend at Christmastime asking to help. Although he was retired by then, Giannone couldn’t refuse after he was told that the organization he’d be helping worked primarily with women and children.
“If it’s women and children, I’m going to do something if I can,” Giannone said.
What Giannone saw there reflected his previous experiences so much that it inspired the chapter’s name: "Déjà Vu." The system put in place but the United Nations to help the refugees where Giannone was working in Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia was so mismanaged that it actually put refugees at risk for human trafficking, Giannone said.
“It’s like we hadn’t learned anything in 20 years on how to handle refugees,” he said.
At the start of his career, Giannone served two tours in Vietnam as a public health advisor with the 29th Civil Affairs Company. It was an experience in which he found his calling.
“Vietnam was bad enough, but Vietnam focused me on what I called the vulnerable. I was going to spend my life working to help people like that devastated by disasters,” Giannone said.
Throughout his long career, Giannone witnessed what he called many consistent failures of the American government’s foreign policy, how it hinders those attempting to do good, and how many of those same individuals fail to help the vulnerable due to their own egos.
For instance, after the Vietnam War ended, Giannone became involved in the “boat people” crisis, in which refugees from Vietnam fled by boat to other nations in Southeast Asia before being resettled.
Because the war itself had ended, public attention had almost completely collapsed, Giannone said, leaving America’s resettlement program nearly free of scrutiny. Without that, it was free to offer little effective help to refugees.
Giannone believes it was hypocritical that the government stopping food shipments to Vietnam despite having bombed the country — including with the infamous defoliant Agent Orange — so much as to cause multiple crop failures.
The media was also a part of the problem, Giannone said, as reporters were more than happy to sell papers with sensational stories of boat people drowning, while ignoring Giannone’s attempts to alert the public to other issues like former North Vietnamese soldiers exploiting the resettlement system.
It’s a situation Giannone said is directly comparable to today, with the influx of migrants from Central America attempting to reach the U.S.
According to Giannone, many of those migrants are genuine refugees under international law, as they’re fleeing the violent drug cartels that dominate some Central American countries. But rather than attempt to help those countries so their citizens wouldn’t want to flee, it’s the American appetite for recreational drugs that fuels those same cartels, Giannone said.
Despite all the darkness, Giannone said seeing the selflessness of volunteers who come to the aid of refugees and the perseverance of the refugees themselves has been “the lighthouse that keeps me motivated.”
“That’s an incredible, motivating, bright thing,” Giannone said, “I’ve seen the worst in human beings for sure, but they are far outweighed by the good.”
Giannone said he hopes the book will serve as a wake-up call for Americans to stop passively and pessimistically dodge real issues for the sake of political expediency, and truly engage with issues.
“Somehow, you’ve got to get involved with your government,” Giannone said.