Despite rhetoric, refugees are a humanitarian concern

The top six nationalities refugees originate from in Arizona. Figures taken from the U.S. Department of Health Services, Office of Refugee Resettlement, 2014. Graph by Jorge Encinas/Arizona Sonora News.
The top six nationalities refugees originate from in Arizona. Figures taken from the U.S. Department of Health Services, Office of Refugee Resettlement, 2014. Graph by Jorge Encinas/Arizona Sonora News.

Without warning, a sudden deafening sound is followed by a wave of pressure passing through the body. Time seems to slow as the quick flash is finally registered by the eyes only to be quickly replaced by clouds of dust and smoke. The heart races and confused thoughts begin to desperately piece together information.

Disoriented, reality begins to slowly creep into a muffled consciousness. An explosion has just taken place. Soon, the dust clears and sounds become sharper.

What had been a busy street filled with people going about their day is now rubble. The window fronts of markets are shattered and collapsed, bodies lie tattered and torn on the ground.

Those who can move have fled the area to find shelter. All that is left in this wake of destruction is an empty street filled with misery and death.

The constant stress of living in fear for their family’s safety can leave people with only one option. Leave their home, and everything they know, to find refuge in a new country.

The process of reaching the U.S.

For many refugees, after having left the violence of their home behind, the fear from years of oppressive conditions and retaliation leaves many too frightened to tell their story.

In place of their realities is often the heated rhetoric of many politicians and media personalities who look on refugees with suspicion and fear.

A fear that a terrorist will use the refugee and humanitarian process to sneak into the country to conduct attacks.

From her downtown office on Fifth Avenue and Congress Street, Holly Seidel of Tucson Refugee Ministry called that scenario unlikely.

“If a terrorist wanted to come to the United States, there are much, much easier ways to come than coming as a refugee,” Seidel said. “You’d have to be a pretty stupid terrorist to come as a refugee, because when you apply for refugee status you’re not even guaranteed what country you’re going to go to.

“So, there’s no way they would even know they were going to come to the United States, let alone, have this whole plot before hand to come carry out some act of terrorism here.”

The Tucson ministry is not a church, but works with churches around the city to educate and facilitate volunteers who work with and assist refugees from all areas of the world.

Before arriving in the U.S., refugees are subjected to an intensive screening process that identifies those with the most need to leave their home country and flag any potential threats. Only one percent of the total global refugee population are considered strong enough applicants to move forward in the process from the initial stage.

During the screening process, security checks are performed by several U.S. security agencies, such as, the National Counter Terrorism Center and intelligence community, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department.

The checks take biometric data, demographic data, medical screenings, interviews and searches for prior criminal records or known associations with what are known as “bad actors.” Once the refugees arrive in the U.S., they will have one year to apply for a green card, which will start another set of security checks.

The overall process can be a lengthy one and for Betsy Fisher, policy director for International Refugee Assistance Project at the New York based Urban Justice Center, one that can be responsibly reduced.

“Obviously, there are some things that cannot be compromised, like a very thorough screening process,” Fisher said. “But a thorough screening process doesn’t necessarily mean a long process.”

The State Department estimates the average time for the process is 18 to 24 months from the time the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, first gives them their referral to when they arrive in the U.S.

“We frequently see cases that take much, much longer than that,” Fisher said. “The length of those cases is troubling when you consider how vulnerable those refugees are as they wait for this processing to continue.”

This is in addition to the long waiting periods many refugees face while at the U.N. camps. For those one percent who do get recommended for resettlement, they could have already been waiting for years, Fisher said.

Usually, refugees coming to the U.S. are families. Calls to ban refugees are based on fears that men of “fighting age” will gain access through the process and attack the U.S.

In 2014, 51 percent of refugees were under the age of 18, the UNHCR reported. It was the highest recorded number of child refugees in more than a decade.

While some of the cases are single individuals coming to the U.S., priority is given to families, Seidel said. For cases involving single males arriving from Iraq, the circumstances can be related to an increased danger on their lives as result of their service with U.S. forces, she said.

In other instances, it can be because the wait times are so long that a child in a refugee family becomes too old to be processed under the family’s file, Fisher said. In those cases, a new file would be done for the individual who was originally entering as part of a family.

Another situation where males could be entering alone is when there is the threat of extreme danger to those who are part of the LGBT community, Fisher said.

“Men of fighting age would, basically, always be coming over with family with very rare exceptions,” Fisher said. “Another situation where you might see that is someone with a severe medical need.”

An example is someone who may be paralyzed as the result of torture, Fisher said.

The refugees who pass all of the screening processes and find themselves in the U.S. will then have to begin the process of both assimilating into a new, and possibly very different, culture while simultaneously having to become independent and self-sufficient.

For many, the chance to escape the often violent conditions of their home country leaves the refugees excited at finally making it to the U.S. But with language barriers and the stress of having to find work soon after arriving, the experience can be taxing.

“They’re so grateful to have a place where they’re safe, where they have an opportunity to start a new life,” Seidel said. “Because, I mean, you think about a lot of these refugees, they’ve been in camps for years or they’ve been stranded for years in a country where they’re not wanted.

“So they essentially don’t have a country anymore, they essentially don’t have a home,” she said.

Who they are and how many the U.S. takes

As instability and war continue to plague multiple regions around the world, the refugees who Seidel says no longer have a country or home have been growing.

According to the UNHCR, the end of 2014 had 46.7 million people assisted or protected by the agency. The UNHCR reported there were 59.5 million people displaced worldwide.

The UNHCR gives the referrals that begin the process of resettlement, which amounts to the one percent of refugees waiting to find new homes. By the end of 2014, the UNHCR had 14.4 million refugees under its mandate.

The causes leading to displacement, often war and oppression, left 42,500 people per day being forced to leave their home countries to find shelter somewhere else.

The U.S. takes more refugees, from all nationalities, than any other country, Seidel said. The number of Syrian refugees however, are lower, Seidel said.

Syrian refugees accounted for nearly 25 percent of all refugees worldwide, and 95 percent of them remain in countries surrounding Syria, the UNHCR reported.

While the U.S. takes more refugees than other nations as a whole, the amount compared at a per capita rate is lower.

“It’s true the U.S. takes more refugees than anybody else,” Fisher said. “The U.S. does not take the most per capita, in terms of the refugee resettlement program.

“I think that the Syrian refugee crisis has brought into pretty sharp focus why the U.S. should be doing more,” Fisher said.

Said Seidel: “For last year, (the U.S.) took 70,000 refugees. The official program started in 1980, and there were some years where we were taking 200,000 refugees.”

The Office of Refugee Resettlement, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, reported almost 70,000 refugees coming into the U.S. in 2014, as well. Arizona received 2,964 of those refugees in 2014.

The largest groups of refugees in Arizona are people from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq and Somalia. Only 15 refugees arriving in Arizona are reported to have originated in Syria.

Texas received the most overall refugees, 7,214. Mississippi and Arkansas tied for the lowest out of all the continental states having only received seven refugees each.

The U.S. however, has the capacity to take more refugees, Seidel said, and Fisher agreed.

“I don’t think there’s any question that, you know, economically or culturally we could handle more refugees,” Fisher said. “Refugees are a tremendous asset to the communities where they live and they single handily revitalize cities and neighborhoods, particularly in mid-sized towns across the country.”

For Fisher, the refugee resettlement program not only benefits humanitarian concerns and local economies, but it also can support national security.

“We have to show that we are committed to refugees and committed to alleviating human suffering and that we’re sharing the burden to support our allies in the region,” Fisher said. “And that we can do that, while keeping our country safe with our current screening processes.”

Refugees in America

Sitting at a small round table, in the community dayroom of an apartment complex in Central Tucson, a young Iraqi man sits with his eyes fixed on the ground as though he is reducing a massive world to a single point below his feet.

His glasses are skewed and dangle from his ears, his clothing is loose and his unshaven face is marked with scars. The man is in his mid- to late 20s. Nervously, he fidgets with his fingers in his lap as he decides whether to tell his story to the public.

The man speaks no English. Sitting next to him is an interpreter who tells him about the story’s objective. To tell his story through his voice and his perspective.

As the interpreter explains the story to the young man, he tells him it is a good thing — that it will help the public understand what the refugees have experienced.

Despite assurances that his identity will be protected and no video or photos taken, the man refuses to tell his story on the record. While continuing to look down as he rocks back and forth in his seat, he tells the interpreter in a soft voice that he simply cannot do it.

As the two men slowly walk away from the table, they stop at a piano near the exit. The interpreter plays a few notes on the keys. Looking down at the ground, the young Iraqi man smiles.

There are many refugees who are too afraid to talk about their experiences openly. They may have fears of retaliation against themselves or family still living in their home country. Some, however, do speak about their experiences. One such man is Aman Hamid.

Standing at the door to a small apartment, Hamid jokes with an elderly woman sitting in a chair on the patio. He introduces the woman as his aunt. She, like Hamid, came here as a refugee to build a new life in the U.S.

He is a tall, welcoming man, with an inviting smile who is open about his time as a refugee and his life helping other refugees. Sitting on lawn furniture, borrowed from his aunt’s patio, Hamid told his story on how he came to leave his home in Sudan and how he now works with other refugees who have recently arrived.

It has been six years since Hamid came to the U.S., and he has spent the last four helping those who are now in the same position he was after he arrived.

In Sudan, and now the U.S., Hamid worked as a Christian pastor who left his home when conditions became hostile for those of his religion — a result of government oppression against Christians. He still considers his home country too unsafe to return, out of fear he could be killed or jailed by the government for his faith.

While he finds the people of Sudan, and the many Muslims he considers friends, to be good, he makes it clear the problems there are the result of the government and not the people.

With high expectations about how it will be in the U.S., many refugees find the reality discouraging. Some even want to return home out of desperation or a desire to return to a familiar life.

“Many people they thought that when they go to America that it’s like paradise,” Hamid said. “When they came, they are faced with the facts they say, ‘I want to go back.’

“Here is better, it’s not perfect, America is not perfect, but it’s a safe place,” he said. “Nobody can try to attack you or kill you or something like that. Here there is safety and there is law.”

Tasnim Zahlan Ismail, a University of Arizona student majoring in public health and global studies in her fourth year, spends time volunteering with a family of Syrian refugees who have been relocated to Tucson.

While Ismail provides some translating assistance, she also spends time helping the family to assimilate into the country and being a welcoming friend. The assistance she provides is one Seidel says is an important function many of the refugees need most.

“The best help that any refugee family can get is to simply have a friend,” Seidel said. “And I mean like a committed friend who will visit them, who will help them navigate this new life that they know nothing about.”

The basic help many Americans get from simply asking friends if they know where to go, or how to do something, is often not an option for refugees, Seidel said.

For Ismail, this is the purpose of her volunteering with the Syrian family who has been welcoming of her as part of their lives and in their home. Part of this is just spending time with them.

“The mom cooks meals and she brings out platters of food and we eat, and then we go play games with the children, and we talk, and we draw, and we paint, and I teach them some English,” Ismail said. “It’s, honestly, no different than your average American family here. We just eat a lot.”

Ismail, the daughter of Palestinian parents, is a first-generation American. And while she can see the fear still present in the eyes of Syrian parents, the similarity they have to her own family is reason for her to say they are no different from any other family in the U.S.

She says people need to look past the statistics or debates surrounding refugee families, and put a human face on the situation. The refusal of some people to not welcome the strength and qualities that refugees can add to the U.S. is something she finds mind boggling.

“You really have to humanize these people and humanize Syrians and not look at them as statistics or in large groups, and I think it’s very demeaning doing so,” Ismail said. “Because you forget that the Syrian crisis or Syrian refugees are people just like you and I.

“You go and you visit these people and realize how beautiful it is because you’re learning about a new culture, you’re hearing this language and you’re just exposed to so much happiness,” she said.

“And seeing that coming out of a family, who struggled more than I will ever see struggle in my life, that’s beautiful and it’s motivating.”

Jorge Encinas is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at jencinas9@email.arizona.edu.

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