Self-Sufficiency in 8 Months – How to Settle a Refugee

we can build walls

It came to my mind yesterday that most of us have limited knowledge of the refugee situation in the United States alone, much less the world. The purpose of this post is to give a few important facts about refugees and resettlement. Because I am in the United States, I have focused on the process here. In order to better understand the worldwide problem, I think it’s important to know what your countries rules and laws are.

Legal Definition: “A refugee, as defined by Section 101(a)42 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), is a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country because of a “well-founded fear of persecution” due to race, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, religion, or national origin.

Brief History: The definition of the word comes from the United Nations 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocols. The definition was crafted because of the need for international protection of displaced peoples after World War II. Policies around refugee resettlement in the United States go back to 1980, when Congress passed the Refugee Act and huge numbers of Souteast Asians came to the United States under refugee status.  It was then that the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) was created.

Key Point: Our refugee policies have not been truly updated since that time! 

Process: The process is long and difficult, and the number of refugees who end up with legal citizenship in a country where they resettle is small compared to the overall number of refugees. Each year, the president submits a report to Congress called the “Proposed Refugee Admissions Report.” The overall number of refugees that the U.S will accept is proposed by the president and agreed on (or not) by congress. It’s important to note that the number of refugees actually settled is generally far fewer than the number agreed on. This is because of the cumbersome and ridiculously large amount of paperwork that goes into each person’s application. In 2014, that number was 70,000 but the actual number was around 45,000.

There are three choices for a refugee once they escape: repatriation (once safe), local integration, resettlement in a third country.

Priority for resettlement is based on three things: 

  • Priority 1: Individual cases primarily based on persecution
  • Priority 2: Key designated groups – these are selected in consultation with other groups like UNHCR.
  • Priority 3: Relatives of refugees who are already settled in the U.S. (spouses, parents, children under 21)

The process begins in camps or at borders by UNHCR. UNHCR registers refugees and determines their status. They then refer to the US Resettlement Program (USRP). Prescreening is done by Resettlement Support Center staff, followed by an onsite interview by United States Citizenship and Immigration Service and Department of Homeland Security. It is safe to say that with the increased threats and fear of terrorism, this part is grueling. Once the person is approved, they are finger printed and have security checks. The average time for processing refugees is 18 months but applications from Syrians take much longer because of security and the difficulty of verifying information. 

Key Point: The average time in a refugee camp has risen to 17 years. 

Final steps before arrival are medical screening and determining where in the United States the person will be resettled. Travel arrangements are then made by the International Organization on Migration.

Key Point: Cost of travel must be repaid within 6 months of arrival in the United States. It is not free. There is no free lunch in this process. I promise. 

On Arrival: A VOLAG (Volunatry Agency) meets the refugee on arrival and takes them to predesignated, furnished housing. During the first 90 days, VOLAGS arrange for housing, food, transportation, medical care, and employment counseling services. Each state has a state coordinator and the VOLAGS work closely with the state coordinators. Both ultimately answer to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Key Point: The goal of the United States Refugee Program is “Self-sufficiency after 8 months.” 

Think about that for a minute. You’ve lost everything. You hear a car backfire and you think it’s a bomb. Anyone in authority fills you with fear, because you know your life journey is literally in their hands. You grieve for the family you left behind, even as you are relieved that you are finally safe. But in eight months, you need to be a fully functioning member of society. That is an enormous task.

Difference between Immigrants, Refugees, and Asylees: An immigrant comes to the country of their own accord. Some would argue that often circumstances in their countries are so difficult that they have to look at other options, but they are not forced from their homes. Refugees and asylees must have a “well-founded fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.”* The difference is that refugees get permission to come to a country before they arrive, whereas asylees receive permission after they arrive.

Important things to remember: Research has shown there to be four main categories of stress experienced by refugees. These are Traumatic Stress, Resettlement Stress, Acculturation Stress, and Isolation Stress.  A key part of working through this is strengthening areas that contribute to resilience in people. Among other things, family and community support for the refugee contributes to resilience and ability to move forward. Community matters. Family matters.

As I think about the current crisis, I think the photograph at the top says it all, so in closing, I will repeat it: “….But imagine for a second if it were you; your child in your arms; the world you knew torn apart around you. There is no price you would not pay; There is no wall you would not climb.”**

I highly recommend the film The Good Lie. The movie came out last year, but was not widely shown. It tells the story of the Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan, orphans who walked thousands of miles to get to refugee camps in Kenya. It is a poignant look at the refugee journey and the tenacity it takes to resettle.  I’ve included the trailer for the movie here.



**Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission

“How to Distribute a Migrant”

The words sound like a cookbook or an instructional manual, like “how to change a tire” or “how to skin a squirrel” or “how to bake bread.”  You follow the directions and its nice and tidy, then you pack the instruction manual away.

But these are damaging words. They were the headlines in July when the European Parliament was trying to decide how to “distribute migrants,” like they are some sort of inanimate object.

These were 7000 human beings — men, women, children — stranded on the sea for weeks while governments tried to decide their fate. You have to ask yourself, what would cause 7000 people – men, women, and children – to leave a place? You have to pose the question: How bad is it, if I’m willing to risk everything to float across international waters to get to safe shores?

That is an act of desperation. And these are NOT migrants. These are refugees. But as long as headlines like “How to distribute a migrant” are used, we can take away people’s humanity and reduce them to objects.

How to distribute a migrant: The instructions look different depending on the country.

Hungary – Use tear gas on crowds and build a razor wire fence until you can build something more permanent.

Greece – Turn many away at sea, refusing shelter and withholding access to basic needs, Maslow’s lowest hierarchy.

Germany – get ready to take in those seeking asylum, but be ready for extreme violence from right-wing zealots.

United States – turn off the television and don’t read the news. That’s the best way to distribute a migrant.

An article published yesterday on NPR tells me that the U.S. will accept over 8,000 Syrian Refugees in this next year. The United States has a track record for receiving the highest number of refugees in the world, and even that number is low compared to overall need. Consider these figures from UNHCR published in 2013, before we had even more refugees and internally displaced people around the world.

  • United States 59,548
  • Australia 10,691
  • Canada 9,160
  • Germany 4,775
  • Sweden 2,456
  • Norway 1,202
  • Netherlands 1,029
  • Finland 929
  • New Zealand 894
  • United Kingdom 710
  • All Others 1,832

The combined total then was 93,226. This is compared to four million Syrian refugees alone who are in need of placement. This is staggering, and you know what? These countries and governments need to step it up. I want to scream “Stop just talking about it and do something already!” 

“Let’s not pretend it’s working!”

These words from a UN human rights expert are sobering and prophetic. “Let’s not pretend that what the EU and its member states are doing is working. Migration is here to stay,” Mr. Crépeau stressed. “Building fences, using tear gas and other forms of violence against migrants and asylum seekers, detention, withholding access to basics such as shelter, food or water and using threatening language or hateful speech will not stop migrants from coming or trying to come to Europe.” *

Just like our homes expand as we invite guests in, so it is with countries. They expand for the good when they take in those who need refuge. You have only to look at Lady Liberty and the millions who have gone through Ellis Island to know this is true.

On a personal level, what can we do? Well, no matter what country you are in, stop calling them migrants. They are not migrants, they are refugees desperately in need of safety and shelter. We can find out what our local governments are doing, what groups like Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services are doing to assist with the refugee crisis and volunteer or raise awareness through churches and groups of friends. We can remain aware and if you are a person who believes in the power of prayer, you can pray.

“Be mindful, O Lord, of those who travel by. Land, and sea, and air; of the old and the young; the orphans and widows; the sick, the suffering, the sorrowing, the afflicted, the captives, and the needy poor; and upon them all send forth they mercies, for thou art the Giver of all good things.”* from the Orthodox Prayer Book, Prayers of General Intercession

And we can stop using cookbook phrases, instead thinking about loving our neighbor, and caring for the refugees among us. Because we are fools if we honestly think this could never happen to us.

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Today is World Refugee Day….But What About Tomorrow?

Monday, June 20th, 2011 – World Refugee Day is recognized today. Thanks to my daughter and one of her friends I am reminded that this one day is set aside so we can remember, we can honor, and we can collectively advocate for refugees. Today’s post is a thoughtful, beautifully written reflection by one of my daughter’s friends Brittany Gonzalez. See the original and link to her blog at Writingpeaces.  Some facts to remember as you read:

  1. The number of displaced people is at a 15-year high. 
  2. Poor countries host 80% of refugees.
  3. Afghanistan & Iraq are ‘top source’ countries. (Source:

“…and then they raped me. With their bodies, with their guns, with sticks. Over and over until I was no longer human.” She looks down at her hands, ashamed, and repeats the last part, “I’m no longer human…” She begins to cry and I offer her my hand, but she doesn’t take it. Instead she finds the nerve to look me in the eye and apologize for the horrors she has just unloaded on me. In her arms, she holds a tiny bundle, the product of a nightmare. A human life that never should have existed, a living testament to the horrors she endured, and now – the only thing giving her a reason to live.

I want to tell her that everything will be alright. I want to give her hope and comfort. I want to empty my wallet in order to help her create some semblance of a stable life. I want to scream. Instead, I press on with the interview, somewhat grateful that my shaking hands are hidden behind the screen of my Macbook. God forbid I should appear weak in the face of atrocity.

I finish the interview, assure her that her resettlement case will be written up and submitted to the UNHCR for review, knowing full well it will be months before they look at it and another few months before they return with an answer, most likely denying her the opportunity to move to a place where she can be free from persecution, from fear.

She stands up to leave, to shake my hand and thank me for taking the time to listen. With her hand in mine, I look her in the eyes, searching for the right words, desperate to say the right thing. The words will never seem right, but I can try. “You are human. I see you sitting in front of me, exuding strength. You are human. I see how you love your child. You are human, and none of this is your fault.” She manages a thin smile, stroking her baby’s face with the pad of her thumb, unsure of how to respond. After a few moments of silence she says, “thank you, I know there is not much you can do for me. I just needed to tell my story.”

She leaves, and I lock myself in the office bathroom, crumble to the floor, and cry. After a few minutes there is a knock on the door:

“Brittany, your next client is here.”

Today is World Refugee Day. One day a year set aside for the world to honor and advocate for those who have been displaced by war and persecution. Mothers who have seen their children die at the hands of hatred, husbands who have watched their wives raped repeatedly as a tactic of war. Men and women who have endured torture for their political views, only to escape to a country where they will be persecuted again – for the color of their skin, for their inability to speak the language, for pursuing their human right to live, and to live free.

Today is World Refugee Day, and in cities across the globe, people are preparing for the celebrations. Community centers are throwing international themed parties, museums are showing special exhibits, the UNHCR is posting excessively on Facebook. Today is World Refugee day, but what about tomorrow?

Tomorrow, the war against illegal immigrants will rage on in the United States. In England. Italy will intercept a boatload of Libyans fleeing war and send them back to their deaths. Americans living near the U.S./Mexico border will take up arms to protect themselves from those who are brave enough to leave the only life they have ever known in search of hope. The Egyptian military will exercise its state-sponsored right to shoot and kill anyone seen attempting to cross the Egypt/Israel border illegally. Hundreds will die in North Korean labor camps, and dozens will be sentenced to death in China for daring to send out a potentially political tweet. Another child will be tortured and killed in Syria, a homosexual will be murdered in Uganda, and the main story on CNN will be about the latest sex scandal in Washington D.C.

I’m thankful that there is an entire day dedicated to raising awareness about the plight of refugees, and to honoring those who have survived unimaginable atrocity. All I’m asking, is that tomorrow, we don’t forget them. That we will continue to tell their stories. We are all human, and we all deserve to be acknowledged – to have our rights acknowledged – EVERY DAY.

On this, World Refugee Day, I ask you to help us help refugees find a place to call home. ~ High Commissioner António Guterres