One of the last things a refugee does before getting the OK to come to America is take out a loan. Not just because being in debt is the American way of life, but because the United States does not pay for a refugee’s airfare. They must sign a promissory note, agreeing to pay back the amount in full on a zero interest loan. Most people, both for and against the resettlement process, do not know this at all. They are presented with phrases like refugee camp and extreme vetting, turning the process of resettlement into a to-do list. But resettlement is not a to-do list. It is a grueling ordeal, filled with uncertainty and fear. Fear that you’ll be turned away, that you won’t make it through the vetting process, and fear that you might not make it in America. After upwards of four years of extreme vetting, all America says is you can live here. After that, you’re on your own.
The process as we know it is not a simple one. The New York Times places it at twenty steps, beginning by registering with the United Nations and ending with a security check at the destination airport. This explanation can be a little reductive and imprecise. In order to register with the United Nations, you must first leave your home and flee your country. Most Americans—though not all—cannot possibly understand the impetus to pack up everything they can and leave, to leave their homes, their jobs, everything they’ve built and saved for and go to a refugee encampment where they will live huddled in conditions akin to those of a music festival on the last day. Only then will they register with the United Nations to explain why a refugee camp and the distant possibility they will be resettled was enough to leave everything they knew.
In the grand scheme of resettlement, a refugee must have a legitimate reason for leaving. In fact, they won’t even be considered a refugee until they have described a legitimate fear for staying in their homes. Many times they leave because where they lived had turned into a war zone, but also because they fear retribution for political stances or persecution for their religious beliefs. Whatever the reason they may have for leaving, they are not a refugee until it has been determined they cannot go back for fear of violence. The 1951 Refugee Convention gives explicit definitions of who may be considered a refugee. That 1951 document is essentially a Constitution for Refugees and the States (Nations) that resettle them, granting rights and setting provisions for what the relationship should be like between Refugee and State. These rights are guaranteed no matter what nation they are referred to including rights to practice their religion and a right to work. It also binds the refugee to the laws of the nation.
This means that if they are referred to the United States, a refugee is bound to the laws of the United States. If they are referred to the United States, they will have an interview with the State Department. This is followed by multiple screenings and interviews. In a Vice News short, one refugee who resettled in Texas described the process between interviews as “focusing on if [his] answer would be different.” The facts and paperwork would be researched, fingerprints scanned, and even in some cases foreign surveillance groups akin to our CIA would be contacted. This process would be culminated in an extensive interview with Homeland Security who must sign off. If all these things matched up, if after months of no contact the stories matched up and nothing could be found by the different agencies vetting the refugee, then they must submit to health screening and cultural orientation classes “to give an image of the United States.”
It is at this stage in the process that the refugee is matched with a resettlement agency like IRIS in New Haven, Connecticut. Although the organization had quietly existed for over 30 years, resettling close to 5000 people in that time, it gained stature in 2015 for taking in a family that Mike Pence’s Indiana refused to resettle. After a few more screenings and the loan for airplane tickets, they take over the charge of getting these refugees resettled. Even before the refugee lands, an agency like IRIS must coordinate certain necessities like housing. The payment for this, like the airfare, does not come from the United States government directly, but is instead generated through IRIS. This reveals another hidden facet of the refugee resettlement process—the cooperation of Americans who are unafraid of refugees. A homeowner willing to rent out an apartment to refugees who must find work once they get here is a homeowner that believes in the process of resettlement.
And they aren’t just homeowners, they are business owners that look to give jobs to refugees, and they are a community that donates furniture to furnish an apartment, and they are the people that welcome a refugee into the community. For IRIS, these people are called Cultural Companions, and they are normal, everyday Americans. They are not specifically trained—although there is a handbook—and the idea is to simply help refugees be active participants in American culture. The handbook suggestions range from helping refugees sort mail to explaining dating customs. It is a reminder that for the most part, although a change in scenery will directly alter a refugee’s cultural milieu, they don’t need help changing their identity, they need help figuring out what junk mail is and where to catch the bus for work.
Work is another item on the list the refugees might need help with. Getting a job is not easy for anyone, but it’s especially difficult for someone who has left an entire life behind. Refugees are a diverse crowd, and that means they come from diverse backgrounds. Some were shopkeepers, some were farmers, and some were lawyers; but no matter their background, they are always jobless when they come to America. With few exceptions, they almost always have to start at the bottom and work their way up. To borrow a phrase from the right-wing of politics, they pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They have to in order to survive, just like everyone else. But this is a boon: they are active participants in our economy, just like everyone else. In fact, immigrants open new businesses at almost twice the rate of native-born Americans. This is an investment in the American way of life.
After all the vetting, the screening, the loan for the airfare, the cultural shock, and being forced to hit the ground running after years of fearing for your life, refugees still want to live here. This, despite the rabid tongues of those fearing them in America. This frightened country is still preferential to their living in constant fear of being murdered for their religious or political beliefs, for simply being part of the wrong ethnic group. Americans should not fear a group of people running for their lives. They should know their fellow Americans are already part of resettlement, from the vetting process right down to helping them get a library card. They should know that 0 (Zero) Refugees have committed terrorist attacks on American soil. They should know that even after President Trump’s unconstitutional ban on Muslim Refugees, Hameed Darweesh, an Iraqi interpreter for the American Armed Forces said “America is the greatest nation, the greatest people in the world.” If you agree with him, then it is time to find out what you can do.
@chrisjohngilson is not dead, he writes about music for Pancakes & Whiskey, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Paste, Splitsider, and elsewhere.