8 Things I’ve Learned About Refugees

This summer I have the privilege of interning at World Relief, in DuPage/Aurora, Illinois. I’m working with the new arrivals and volunteer coordinators to get a closer look into what the refugee resettlement process looks like and how World Relief is doing it as a Christian non-profit.

Suffice to say, the experience is doing more than building my resumé or further solidifying my desire to work cross-culturally. It’s changing my heart.

Despite having traveled to over twenty different countries and being passionate about serving overseas, I didn’t know a lot about refugees before this summer. I thought I’d share some of the deeply impactful and often eye-opening things I’ve learned in my time working with refugees.

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1.) There are 65.3 million people displaced worldwide; 21.3 million refugees. The UNHCR, or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has a myriad of terms to describe and identify the different situations of fleeing people around the globe. The UNHCR was only created in 1950, to help the millions of displaced Europeans after World War II. For someone to apply for refugee status, they have to flee from their home country due to a “well-founded fear of persecution” and life-threatening “war or violence” (USA for UNHCR).

2.) There’s a difference between a country that is hosting refugees and resettling refugees. Unlike internally displaced person (IDPs) who flee his or her home but stays within their home country’s border, a refugee crosses international lines in search of asylum. In countries where there is persecution and conflict, refugees often flee to neighboring countries. Turkey is currently hosting 2.5 million refugees, Pakistan has 1.6 million, and Lebanon has 1.1 million. There are 90 countries where refugees are seeking asylum; there are only 30 countries that resettle (RefWorld). Countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, Sweden, and Britain resettle refugees, meaning the refugees go through a process to permanently move to a third country and pursue citizenship there.

3.) Refugees can come from any background, socioeconomic status, family size, or situation. They can come with anything from a backpack to several large suitcases. Some have good English, while others can’t read or write in their own native tongue. A refugee could have been a doctor, a businessman, or a farmer in their country. Refugees are as different as the culture and context from which they come. The reasons refugees fled their homes, their living situation in a host country, and their feelings towards resettlement vary dramatically.

4.) The refugee resettlement process takes years. Think about it: it’s years of dealing with persecution or fleeing your home country. Then it’s years of settling into a refugee camp and being registered as a internationally recognized refugee. Then it’s years of paperwork to apply for resettlement – after deciding there is no possibility of returning home. It takes years for that paperwork to make it through the pipeline and be processed: by the UNHCR, by IOM (International Office of Migration), by the government of the resettlement country, and by the local resettlement organization. You don’t go from fleeing your home, to moving into a refugee camp, to seeing your new apartment in Aurora, Illinois within the year. It can take between 5-10 years for all of these steps to actualize for a refugee.

5.) After all of that, less than 1% of all people who can be classified as refugees end up being resettled. The United States has a cap on the number of refugees that can be resettled. The current ceiling is 85,000 – which includes refugees of all ages and nationalities. The highest ceiling has been 200,000, the lowest was 20,000 after September 11. The individual resettlement cases are handled by nine government sanctioned non-profits. World Relief is one of these non-profits (of the nine, five are faith-based).

6.) After years of waiting, the refugee still has to undergo tests, checks, and examinations before they can be resettled. There is a misconception, often perpetuated by images of refugees fleeing to hosting countries or miscommunications after terrorists attacks, that the U.S. is resettling potential terrorists. Not likely. When a refugee applies to be resettled, they don’t chose the country they will ultimately end up in. Even in situations where they have a U.S. tie, they are not guaranteed to end up in that country or in a particular state. Refugees undergo federal background checks, in addition to numerous security checks by the resettling non-profit. They face incredible scrutiny at every stage of the long, tedious process. In addition, refugees also must wait for medical paperwork, security documents, and, in some cases, an exit visa from the host country. It is incredibly difficult to get all of the ducks in a row, at exactly the same time (most of the documents have delays in mailing and short-term expiration dates). The refugee resettlement process is not for the faint of heart – nor is it for people who might be on a mission to harm a particular country where they may or may not eventually be resettled. It seems not only ridiculous but unjust deny thousands of good, hard-working, caring people and families hope for a safe future because politicians and social media have perpetuated a relatively irrational fear regarding refugees.

7.) Refugees are hard working – in fact, they start out their new life with debt. The U.S. provides a small stipend for each refugee, facilitated through their resettlement agency. This often covers the first few months of rent in an apartment and basic living necessities. However, the cost of traveling to the U.S. is provided by a travel loan through the IOM (International Office of Migration). The refugees are expected to pay this loan back, as part of becoming self-sufficient within the first few months of arrival. While this may seem unfair, it is actually a very important part of a refugee’s transition to the States. The travel loan allows countries to resettle more refugees because it reduces the financial impact on the government (and consequently, the people who are taxed). It also halts cycles of dependance and victimization, by allowing the refugee to take ownership of their own life and ability to provide for themselves. Celebrating the final payment of a travel loan is an incredible experience for a refugee. They paid their way here and have begun to built a life for themselves.

8.) Refugees are people. The numbers are helpful for seeing the big picture and are necessary when looking at how many cases World Relief is taking in a month, how many mattresses the donations coordinator needs to buy, or evaluating the efficiency of systems dealing with insurmountable numbers of displacement. They can also be helpful to see just how great the need is and how small the part we play actually looks in comparison. However, whenever you introduce numbers you run the risk of devaluing each and every person that owns one of those numbers. It’s not just another family that I compile household item donations for – they are parents, and women, and children who are going to gather around a strange table, in a new apartment, and retire to beds with blankets that they didn’t pick. They are real people with real stories and real emotions surrounding their transition here. That deserves our attention because people always deserve our attention.

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