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Refugees face long, grueling process

In February 2014, Faris Alghanimi left his job in Bagdad, escaping the danger of the Taliban to face a new challenge: The U.S. immigration system.

Alghanimi was born in Iraq and lived in Bagdad most of his life. In 2011 he began to feel he was no longer safe in his country. In May, he applied for refugee status. In order to gain refugee status, a person must meet several criteria laid out by Article 1 of the 1951 United Nations Convention “owing to well­founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

North Dakota refugee resettlement records. Courtesy of Lutheran Social Services of N.D.
North Dakota refugee resettlement records. Chart courtesy of LSSND.

The United States has been accepting refugees since World War II. North Dakota has brought in more refugees per capita than any other state in the nation. The number of refugees brought in has varied year to year. However, since 2009, of the 19 million refugees in the world, the number admitted into the United States has been very close to 75,000 every year. Over half of these are from Bhutan, according to documents provided by Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota. The process that refugees go through to get to the United States is many times decades long, extremely dangerous, and rarely successful. Every piece of their past is checked, both by the U.N. and by the U.S. and once they get here, if they get here, they are thrown into another arena where they fight for jobs, respect, and a happy life, rather than for survival.

Fleeing Death And Danger

According to Saurav Dahal, a Special Projects Manager at Lutheran Social Services, many refugees who arrive in the United States come with stories filled with blood and anguish. During a presentation he gave on the refugee process, Dahal read this passage told by a 13­year­-old refugee:

“I remember running through the streets that were once so shiny and so beautiful, now turning into bloody mess. I saw people on the ground yelling, ‘Please help me’. I watched in horror, praying to God that I’m just dreaming and for him to get me out of this nightmare. But no, the smell of burning buildings and the noise of tanks rushing down the streets and the blood of the wounded soldiers made it too real. That is the worst feeling of all, watching people die and there is nothing you can do about it. From that day and now, nothing will ever be the same.”

Since fleeing death is a requirement to become a refugee, this kind of story is common. “Most refugees you talk to or meet have seen or have had that experience where they have faced violence or had their family members killed or their loved ones killed,” Dahal said.

Alghanimi’s fear of persecution came from the Taliban, who roamed much of the country. “I worked with the U.N., which was in a very secure region, but when I get out [of that region], the terrorists would think I worked with the U.S. Embassy or Iraqi government and they’d start to do something bad to me. That is why I applied to get my refugee status,” Alghanimi said.

Alghanimi worked for the U.N., where he helped give jobs to people in poor communities by starting U.N.­funded projects in those same communities. Later, he worked for a program funded by the U.S. while still in Bagdad working with people displaced by the Iraq conflict.

In most cases, to apply for refugee status a person must already be outside of their home country. This escape is usually very dangerous, and many die trying to get out. “Of course not everybody makes it,” Dahal said. “We have all heard the story of the Syrian boy found on the shore, a four­ year­old, that basically went viral, and we hear of incidents where boats capsize and people die.”

Once reaching a refugee camp outside of their home country, they must register with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Once a person gives proof that they are fleeing persecution in their home country to the UNHCR, they will be given refugee status, Dahal said. However, gaining refugee status is nowhere near the end of the journey. Life as a refugee is uncomfortable and full of danger. According to documents from LSS, many refugee camps are under­supplied and over­crowded, have poor security, and have only very basic healthcare and education. People living in the camps are not able to work outside of the camp, and are constantly exposed to disease.

“Refugee camps are not a solution,” Dahal said. “When you see a camp a number of things come to your mind such as law and order, basic supplies, healthcare… there is not enough to make a sustainable living for the rest of your life and for your children and grandchildren.”

It took Alghanimi three years between gaining refugee status and getting to come to America. However, those years seemed very long. “You do not feel safe there. I had to change my car every six months to hide [from the Taliban].”

The overseas process takes a minimum of two years, but can be decades long. Chart courtesy of LSSND.
The overseas process takes a minimum of two years, but can be decades long. Chart courtesy of LSSND.

Three years is an incredibly short amount of time to be accepted into a host country. Dahal said that many refugees spend upwards of 20 years in refugee camps waiting to be resettled. “Many Bhutanese refugees we have helped, their children are in their mid­twenties, they have never seen Bhutan. They have never been to Bhutan. The only thing they know is about Nepal, but they are not a Nepali. They are from Bhutan.”

However, refugees from Iraq do not have to go to refugee camps because there is a working government there, Dahal said. In fact, many of the world’s refugees are not in camps. They are in big cities and are referred to as urban refugees. According to the UNHCR website, “Like 3.3 billion other people on Earth, they have been steadily moving to cities and towns, a trend that has accelerated since the 1950s.”

The benefits for urban refugees include opportunities for making money and a greater chance of anonymity, but those advantages come with heavy downsides. Living in cities can make it harder

for refugees to make their way to the UNHCR agencies to get help. Also, even though urban refugees and those living in camps have the same rights, the UNHCR website claims “Refugees may not have legal documents that are respected, they may be vulnerable to exploitation, arrest and detention.”

Most applicants aren’t accepted

Once a person files for refugee status, they have to go through rounds of interviews with the UNHCR to determine if they actually qualify as refugees, according to the U.N. Stephen Baird, an immigration lawyer in Fargo, explains that most refugees do not pass through this part of the resettlement process and onto the U.S. immigration system. “The failure rate for people going through the U.N. system is extremely high, like 95 percent,” Baird said.

After a refugee passes through the UNCHR, they are put into host countries’ immigration systems. They generally do not go anywhere until a country has processed and accepted their application. Each country a refugee applies to individually processes the refugee and determines his or her eligibility to come to their country. According to Baird, refugees have no real input on where they end up. Once a country finishes their processing, that refugee has to decide whether to go to that country. “They can decline, they don’t have to take [the invitation], but if they do then they are betting on whatever country they prefer to go to will accept them. Most people won’t do that, they just go wherever they can and make a new life wherever they end up,” Baird said.

Once passed into the U.S. immigration system, a refugee has to go through many more layers of investigation, Baird said. This starts with filling out forms that establish identification, which can be a challenge. “Most people do not have forms of I.D., birth certificates, anything to back this up, so what they are filling in on the form is backed by nothing but yes, this really is my name.”

Baird said most refugees come from countries that have been having problems for a long time and there is no way to ever confirm these people’s identities. This can be especially problematic when refugees do not remember their real identity. “People may not know for sure when they were born, or they may not know for sure where they were born, or one or both parents are long gone and they don’t know who they were anymore.”

To be considered by the U.S. service, they must fit the U.S. definition of a refugee, which differs in slight ways to the U.N. definition, Dahal said. For example, being displaced by famine will qualify someone as a refugee by the U.N.; however, the U.S. would label that as economic migration, and therefore anyone displaced by famine is not eligible for resettlement in the U.S.

Just like the U.N. process, the U.S. immigration process for refugees also has a very high rejection rate, Baird said. People will often be turned away if they have had any past legal problems, or were involved in a conflict as a combatant or belligerent. Further, the U.S. accepts a limited number of refugees each year. The Proposed Refugee Admissions Report by the U.S. State Department says the ceiling for the number of refugees admitted will be 85,000 for the 2016 fiscal year. That is up from 70,000 in 2015. So far, according to a report posted by the

Refugee Processing Center in the U.S., as of April 1, 2016, 29,055 refugees from around the world have been admitted into the U.S. during the 2016 fiscal year.

U.S. demands high security checks

According to the official website for the White House, refugees go through the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler coming to the United States. First, refugees must go through several background checks conducted by the FBI, State Department, National Counterterrorism Center, and the Department of Homeland security. After these, every time new information about an applicant surfaces, such as a previously used name or an old phone number, they have to go through background checks again, according to the site. After this there is a round of interviews with U.S. officials and fingerprints are collected. According to Baird, if at any point, there is doubt about refugees’ security risks they are turned away.

For Alghanimi, the interviews were not too daunting. When he had to go to interviews, he was able to stay in a familiar place. “For me it was easy, because I worked beside the U.S. embassy… I just go next door.”

If a refugee makes it past the interviews and security checks, they undergo medical screening and are matched with a sponsor agency, Baird said. The refugees that are accepted are resettled into the U.S. through one of several nonprofit agencies, such as LSS. Where they eventually end up, according to Baird, often depends on whether the refugees already have friends or family in the U.S. and what places have the best economic conditions and infrastructure to handle the influx of people.

However, being rejected from the U.N. or U.S. systems does not have to spell the end for refugees. “These people that get rejected out of the U.S. or U.N. systems, a lot of them do end up refugees in other places,” Baird said.

Being placed in a new home country is a common way for refugees to be resettled, but it is not the only way. Dahal said that there are three ways refugees can be resettled. One is the way we are familiar with in America, where a host country takes in a refugee and that is their new home. A second way is called voluntary repatriation. This is when a refugee decides that they are willing to reintegrate into their home country after what drove them out has calmed. Voluntary repatriation is the least common way for resettlement, Dahal said, because the conflicts that force these people out usually last for decades. The last way resettlement happens, and also the most common, is integration into the host country where the refugee first fled to. For an example of the last resettlement option, turn to Nepal. Nepal has a refugee camp with many Bhutanese refugees, and Nepal is the most popular country for those refugees to resettle in, Dahal said.

The United States is currently the only country that accepts refugees from Iraq, according to Dahal. This means for Alghanimi, being accepted for resettlement by the U.S. was his only hope of living a safe life. Luckily for him, he was accepted.

Alghanimi has been in Fargo now for more than two years. Working with refugees, which was the reason he was targeted by the Taliban in Iraq, is something he continues to do in the U.S. Now he works with LSS as a translator, enjoying the biggest perk of his new job: safety.


This piece was completed for the Investigating and Narrating the News course where all students reported  on refugee issues and stories in Fargo-Moorhead.

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