Saturday, December 9, 2017

Behind the numbers: a look at the refugee admissions process

It was late at night in the beginning of 2016 when Jason Florio was on a speedboat traveling across the Aegean Sea. Florio, a photojournalist working with the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, frequently went on expeditions across the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas to document migrants and refugees who were making the oftentimes harrowing journey to Europe.
He noticed that there was a boat on their radar that just suddenly disappeared and went out to the location where it was.
“It was just total darkness and when we got to the position where the boat should have been, all we could hear was just people shouting from the water from kind of a few hundred meters away and as we got close, we could see that there were probably about twenty people just spread out in the water, some holding children,” Florio said.
Florio and the crew began to help bring people on boat when he noticed something particularly jarring.
Protesters gather outside the Presidential
Inauguration earlier this year. Photo by
Larisa Karr. 
“We brought the bodies back onto our boats and there were two mothers,” Florio said. “They didn’t realize that their children had died. It was just absolutely awful to see these poor women looking at their beautiful little children laid on the deck. It’s stuck in our minds forever.”
Eighty percent of refugees won’t make it to Europe or other Western countries like the United States.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, developed countries host only 20 percent of refugees, while the rest remain in camps in the world’s poorest countries.
These refugees, Florio said, attempt to migrate to Western countries in pursuit of a better life.  
In the United States, refugee admissions have been slashed by Trump from 110,000 to 45,000, according to the White House.
Million Makonnen, Executive Director of the North Carolina African Services Coalition, said this number is surprising.
“This has never happened before in the history of the United States,” Makonnen said. “We don’t know what the future holds for these people.”
Elizabeth Colton, a former diplomat and foreign service officer with the U.S. government, said Trump’s ‘America First’ rhetoric has actually been an established component of U.S. foreign policy for years and the U.S. has always been trying to persuade countries neighboring the conflicts to accept more refugees.
“The American diplomats, along with the diplomats of the other receiver countries that are Western, are working diplomatically with the neighboring countries to try to persuade them,” Colton said. “ But the fact of the matter is, we were always doing that.”
For the refugees that do reach the United States, the process is long and arduous.
According to the Department of State, there are seven steps in the Refugee Processing and Screening System.
First, the refugee is referred to the UN Refugee Agency, which then collects basic biographical information and documentation. After this information is sent to a Department of
State Resettlement Support Center (RSC), an interview takes place and a series of background checks by the National Counterterrorism Center, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, the Department of State and the intelligence community takes place.
Adam Clark is the Office Director of World Relief Durham, one of the nine voluntary refugee processing centers run by the U.S. State Department.
“An individual refugee would undergo health, biometrics and deep background checks, as well as interviews by Homeland Security staff for on average about two years,” Clark said.
Once the biometric security checks and interviews are complete, they complete a cultural orientation about American customs and undergo a medical check.
Every week, representatives from the nine domestic resettlement agencies meet to look over information about the refugees submitted from the Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System and determine where to resettle each refugee. Shortly thereafter, the refugee is notified.
When they arrive in the U.S., individuals like Makonnen are there to welcome them.
“Once we know that a family or individual is coming on a certain date, we prepare an apartment for them with pillows, mattresses, bedsheets. There are a list of things that are required,” Makonnen said. “We take them to their house, where there will be appropriate, ready-made food for the family when they get home.”
Shortly thereafter, according to Makonnen, individuals will go through an orientation program, apply for social security and enroll in an English class.
The U.S., however, does not recognize economic refugees, people who are fleeing to overcome oppressive poverty. The majority of individuals fleeing to Europe are economic migrants and refugees.
“If people are able to cross the border into Turkey and make it to a UN camp, they can then apply for refugee status,” Clark said. “The whole international refugee program, the goal of it, is to return people to their homes once it’s been determined that it’s safe to return.”
The vocabulary of displaced individuals throughout the world is oftentimes confused, according to the UNHCR.
An asylum seeker is “someone whose request for sanctuary has yet to be processed.”
This means that, even though they may meet the definition of refugee, they have not been interviewed and officially designated as such.
In contrast to asylum seeker and refugee is an internally displaced person, which, according to the UNHCR, are "persons or groups of persons who have been forced to flee, or leave, their homes or places of habitual residence as a result of armed conflict, internal strife, and habitual violations of human rights, as well as natural or man-made disasters involving one or more of these elements, and who have not crossed an internationally recognised state border."
The application process through the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services for asylum seekers is similar to that of a refugee, with the applicant having to undergo extensive background checks and interviews.
With an estimated 65.6 million people forced from their home according to UNHCR, Florio’s work remains relevant.
“The Syrian refugees I met, they had absolutely no choice about their situation,” Florio said. “They were forced from their homes and I think that’s the least we can do as human beings is to try and give people a welcome and give them some kind of sanctuary.”

This article was originally published in The Blue Banner.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

North Carolina is one of the top states for refugee assistance

The media promotes a current deluge of anti-refugee sentiment in countries across the world on a frequent basis, according to a study conducted by British human rights organization Article 19 .
What the media doesn’t focus on are the people who genuinely care about refugees and want to help them adjust to a new country, said The Ethical Journalism Network in a 100-page report. The state of North Carolina in particular has a number of agencies operating that are eager to help people fleeing from conflicts, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
A protester sends a clear
message against Trump's
rhetoric at the Moral March in
Raleigh, January 2017. Photo
by Larisa Karr. 
David Hains, the director of communication at the Catholic Charities Diocese of Charlotte, said leaving one’s country of origin, especially if one is forced out, is incredibly difficult.
“You wouldn’t be able to bring all of your friends with you, wherever the situation was and it’s that stress over what happened, particularly to loved ones and of course the stress of adjusting to a new culture and not having the familiar foods and sights and sounds and smells,” Hains said.
Catholic Charities, who primarily serve a Bhutanese population, helps refugees in the Queen City by offering housing assistance, health care referrals, registration for school and instruction in English, amongst other services.
Hains recently went to the homes of both Syrian and Bhutanese refugees and was shocked at how he was able to communicate with them even though they spoke absolutely no English.
“We were still able to communicate with hand signs and they communicate friendship without speaking and it was obvious that they sought American friendship and they were very gratified to the American government and in our case, to the Catholic Church, for what they had received and where they were,” Hains said.
Mayra Hayes, the director of the English as a Second Language program at Guilford County Schools in Greensboro, said the determination of refugees to get an education in incredible.
“All of our high school children are working second shifts,” Hayes said. “They’re working and they’re going and they’re coming back and they’re going to school and it’s just that drive to get an education.”
This drive is one that Hayes, who immigrated to the U.S. from the violence-ridden country of El Salvador at six years old, knows well.
“As a six-year-old, I did see my mother struggle learning the language and the passion she had, making sure that I spoke English and that I went to school, it was that drive from her that was always instilled in me,” Hayes said. “If it wasn’t for that passion and that push throughout the years with mentors and folks in school that really helped me, I would not be where I am.”
A pro-immigrant protester stands proudly at
the Presidential Inauguration earlier this year.
Photo by Larisa Karr. 
Hayes said the diversity of languages within just one classroom is amazing, with many of the students coming from Spanish-speaking countries, Arabic-speaking countries, Africa and Vietnam.   
Greensboro, along with Charlotte, resettles the most refugees in the state of North Carolina and is known as a “global gate city.”
“That’s what makes Greensboro so unique and that’s why the resettling agencies are just a gem,” Hayes said. “They are the gems and jewels in the crown, the little jewels in the crown of Greensboro, because they do amazing work.”
Leilani Roughton is the executive director of the New Arrivals Institute in Greensboro, where all refugees resettled in the city are required to go to do an assessment of their English skills.
The Institute, whose mission is to assist refugees and immigrants through self-sufficiency and U.S. citizenship through education, offers a variety of programs to people who have just come to the country, including English language training, employment preparation and health education classes.
Roughton said that the reason the New Arrivals Institute was started was because women and children were not initially accessing language services and were alienated from the larger Greensboro community.
“They were pretty much trapped in their house. They weren’t learning English and oftentimes they were afraid to even leave the house because they didn’t know the language, Roughton said. “They didn’t know how to get places and so this was a real issue that we felt needed to be addressed.”  
The New Arrivals Institute recently received a third grant from the state for the Refugee School Impact Program, a program that works with school-age children and their families to ensure that refugee children graduate high school and potentially go to college.
“We don’t want these kids dropping out of school and there’s an after-school piece of it where we offer tutorials for the kids because it’s very possible that their parents are not educated and they’re not able to assist their kids in completing their homework,” Roughton said.
In the city of Durham, Deb Reisinger teaches a course at Duke University on Central African refugee resettlement in the area.
“We study the historical reasons for people fleeing that certain region and then look at the laws and policies that affect that,” Reisinger said. “We learned that there are a lot of Central Africans in the region and so I thought that this would be a really good opportunity for students to use their French locally and to understand certain parts of Africa.”
Reisinger, who points out that the vocabulary of refugee resettlement is something very few Americans understand, said this class has transformed her students’ understanding of the world. After taking the course, students chose to pursue further research in the subject, with some currently working as advocates for refugees and others choosing to work in Europe on the migrant crisis.
The majority of Central African refugees who arrive in Durham are from countries where conflict is rampant, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic.
“Many of them have spent time in camps in Chad or in Cameroon or in Rwanda, so neighboring countries and some of them have been in camps for a very, very long time,” Reisinger said.
According to Hayes, the sights they have witnessed in their country of origin are particularly horrible.
“You have children that are going through trauma. Maybe they have witnessed a family member murdered, their own dad and they have seen their mother violated,” Hayes said. “I think that is the trauma that you see in their faces and there are children suffering from PTSD because they’ve seen the most horrific, horrific parts of war and have walked miles and miles and miles to get to refugee camps and the struggle once they’re there is to try to get here to the States.”
These experiences have fostered resilience in the refugees, who come to states like North Carolina eager to assimilate and participate in American culture.
“We accept so very, very few of the millions and millions of people who are stateless and homeless and who have to flee their countries,” Reisinger said. “Those who we receive are really special people and contribute enormously to our culture and our society and economy and everything else and should be integrated as much as possible in our society.”    
This article was originally published in The Blue Banner.

Global refugee population rises to all-time high

Indra Acharya was in a Lyft on his way home from brunch when his driver began ranting about how the United States is bringing in refugees and unnecessarily ‘feeding them all their life.’
Little did his driver know he was talking to a refugee.
Acharya, who was born in a refugee camp in Nepal after his parents were forced out of Bhutan, believes that a lack of understanding facilitates these hostile sentiments.
“There’s a negative kind of image of refugees as opposed to really trying to understand why they become refugees in the first place,” Acharya said.
In 2016, 65.6 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Protesters against Trump's anti-refugee
laws hold signs at the Presidential
Inauguration earlier this year. Photo by
Larisa Karr. 
Of those 65.6 million people, 22.5 million were refugees. This number, according to the UNHCR “Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2016” report, is at an all-time high.
Julia McPherson is the Director of Advocacy and Operations at Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, an organization that helps refugees with education, social and health issues in 47 countries.
“We are seeing record levels of displacement around the world and so that work is really critical right now because of those numbers,” McPherson said.
The number of refugees being able to return to their home countries has plunged dramatically from 25 percent in 1994 to a little more than 5 percent last year, according to the UNHCR report.
This is due to an increase in the number of conflicts throughout the world, McPherson said.
“We unfortunately aren’t seeing a sustainable solution for the current refugee crisis,” McPherson said. “The numbers will continue to increase because so many of these conflicts are dragging on for years and years.”
Several conflicts, particularly those in Central and South America, can be attributed to the United States.
“The political history of Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras is entirely intertwined with the United States, with various conflicts that the United States government has helped to support, either by training soldiers or sending money back in the ‘80s,” said Natalie Teague, an immigration attorney in Asheville.
Because of the political instability in these countries, Teague said, they are now controlled by gangs, which have instilled a sense of fear in the population.
“They’ve seen people shot in the street and seen a gang come and burn a business to the ground. They’ve seen family members taken captive by gangs,” Teague said. “I’ve worked with women that have talked about the gang coming to the front door and telling their kids to run out the back door and literally go north and don’t stop until you get there.”  
Many of them, however, end up in unsafe surrounding countries, which is common when refugees flee conflicts in their native land.
Eighty-four percent of refugees are hosted in developing countries under UNHCR’s mandate.  
Regardless of where they are, a state of constant fear is common amongst refugees and other displaced persons, including Acharya.
“When I was in a refugee camp, it was a constant fear of death. It’s a constant fear of survival. It’s a constant fear of your own existence,” said Acharya, who is currently studying law and politics at Georgetown University.
In the camp, Acharya said, it was common to see people dying everyday, with some of his friends being killed by Nepalese individuals because they believed them to be illegally occupying the country.
Being surrounded by death was also a reality for Walter Ziffer, a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor who was in seven concentration camps before being liberated at the end of the Second World War.
Walter Ziffer survived seven concentration
camps. Photo by Larisa Karr. 
“The outcome for inmates was planned to be the same in all those camps,” Ziffer said. “We were supposed to die and some of us were supposed to die after having exhausted ourselves and having given to the German Reich all of our strength by having worked for them by building the autobahn.”
Ziffer said that he notices some parallels now between the political climate of his youth and recent global events, including white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville, the election of the far-right political party Alternative for Germany and neo-Nazi marches in Sweden.
He said he was recently having a conversation with an individual who said his family was wondering where they can go when things for the Jews get worse in this country.
“I was stunned to hear that saying because that is the very saying that people said in Europe before Hitler came to power,” Ziffer said.
This far-right shift in attitudes, Ziffer said, is because people view those they are not familiar with as ‘the other.’
“When you become an object, when you no longer have a subject, you become an object that you can do with whatever you want to,” Ziffer said. “You step on a roach and it’s just like stepping on and having no respect for the ‘other.’”
Acharya also speaks about the complex of the ‘other’ and how prevalent it is in American society.
“The U.S. has an attitude of being afraid of others, whoever it is, throughout history and we tend to create the image of others in a way that benefits us,” Acharya said. “There is this preconceived notion that they’re terrorists, they’re welfare leeches that don’t work hard, they’re dirty, they’re filthy.”  
For Acharya, this attitude of fear is because there is a lack of education and communication with people from other backgrounds.
“The lack of understanding and lack of interaction with many folks contribute to the preconceived images and notions, stereotypes, that exist,” Acharya said.
Not talking to people like individuals was common in the refugee camp.
“If you’re a kid and you’re killed, which happened to many of the people that I knew, it’s like they don’t even talk to you as a human being,” Acharya said. “It’s not ‘Person A’ who died, it’s one of the refugees who died. You’re just a number.”
Ziffer knows this feeling as well.
“I lost my name,” Ziffer said. “64,757 was my number.”
This article was originally published in The Blue Banner.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

For students like Marlene Rangel, cancellation of DACA creates uncertainty

Marlene Rangel sits outside of a nondescript Starbucks on a late summer evening, tears slowly filling her soft brown eyes as she begins to recall a particularly painful incident.

“One thing that I’ll never forget is when my mom crashed. This lady hit her sideways and she got out of the car and the lady started saying that is why we shouldn’t be here,” said Rangel, a 24-year-old nursing student from Mexico City. “It hurt so bad because my mom doesn’t speak English and she couldn’t defend herself.”
Marlene Rangel is upset
about President Trump's
   recent decision to cancel
DACA. Photo by Larisa Karr.
For Rangel, these types of incidents stand at the forefront of what it means to be an immigrant in 21st century America.

Mario Arellano, a friend of Rangel’s, said being an immigrant has both negative and positive aspects.

“You can think anything you want. I’m an immigrant. I’m a Mexican. I don’t have any papers. I’m a wetback. That’s fine,” 24-year-old Arellano said. “Whoever’s saying that to me, I believe in my head I’m going to be better than him eventually, not only as a person, but as a successful person.”

One of the programs that helped many young immigrants get on their feet, including Rangel and Arellano, was Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA.

“When Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, he basically said any person that’s here illegally can be given a work permit and be told that they’re not going to be deported if they meet certain criteria and they basically left that criteria up to the president,”  said Robert Lamb, an associate attorney with Hatch Rockers Immigration.

As a result of the program, many younger immigrants, the majority of which are Hispanic, had the option to go to school and pursue successful careers.

Jacob Oakes, a 40-year-old immigration attorney at Pisgah Legal Services, said he saw positive effects of DACA rippling throughout Western North Carolina.

“The whole office was really excited the other day when we heard that one of our clients got a full scholarship to a college and without DACA, they probably wouldn’t have been able to afford to go to college at all,” Oakes said.

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, North Carolina has the 7th highest number of DACA recipients in the country at 27,385.  

For Rangel, who currently resides in Hendersonville, DACA opened up the opportunity to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse, something she has been working toward for years.

According to Arellano, she has always studied hard.

“She’s always working hard. She’s always at work. She’s always working and I told her one time, ‘That’s eventually going to pay off,’” Arellano said.

On Sept. 5, uncertainty and fear gripped many DACA recipients when President Trump announced he was cancelling the program.

“I don’t want him to take it away,” said Miguel Benitez, a 24-year-old certified nursing assistant from El Salvador. “DACA helps a lot of young Hispanic people to do something with their lives in this country, like get a job or get a better education.”

Rangel, who came to the U.S. from Mexico City when she was 8 years old, said moving to a different country was the beginning of new opportunities.

“Even though I was really young, we would live by eating beans or rice or stuff like that and so when I came to America, I could eat hamburgers and pizza and all these things,” Rangel said. “So, seeing that helped me realize that I needed to go to school because I had that opportunity, whereas if I was in Mexico, I didn’t.”

Opponents to DACA said they are illegal and as a result should not be entitled to such privileges.

“Immigration’s very complicated and you hear opinions on all sides of this, such as they came here illegally so we can’t forgive that,” Lamb said. “On the other side of it, there are a lot of provisions for there being some kind of equitable consideration, even if someone has broken a law.”

Like Rangel, many DACA students came to the U.S. at a young age and usually did not have a say in whether or not they wanted to relocate.

“I was a kid when my parents brought me here. I remember I was crying,” Arellano said. “I didn’t want to leave where I was from but my parents wanted me to have a better life.”

There are DACA recipients that have been here for up to 30 years and have almost no connection to the country in which they were born, according to Lamb.

“The idea for them is that they didn’t even consciously do anything wrong,” Lamb said. “Someone else made that choice for them and so they shouldn’t be punished for that.”

The question now at the forefront of every DACA recipient’s mind is what will happen when the program ends on March 5 of next year.

“After DACA expires, you don’t get a chance to renew and we’ve gotten somebody with a March 7 expiration saying, ‘Is there anyway you can just try?’” Oakes said. “The answer is, of course, no. There’s no wiggle room there.”

Rangel is reluctant to talk about what will happen after March 5.

“I haven’t thought about that and honestly I’ve been keeping my thoughts away from that, just trying to focus right now because nursing school is super hard,” Rangel said.

The fear has set in for Arellano, as the reality of deportation could become more and more probable.

“Seeing how it’s going in Mexico, all the violence, all the killings, all the poverty, it’s tough to make it over there and it really makes me think about it, you know?” Arellano said. “It makes me think of what’s going to happen if they deport us all over there. What’s going to be of our lives, all the dreams that we have?”

Oakes, an Asheville native, said he is not optimistic about what is going to happen to the DREAMers, as DACA recipients are known.

“I fear that it’s not going to get better before it gets a little bit worse,” Oakes said. “Under the current administration, they’re not particularly sensitive to immigrants in general and so I think it’s unpredictable and predictability in the law is always a very helpful thing even if it’s bad predictable.”

Oakes said a solution must be found and Congress has six months to come up with alternate legislation to DACA.  

According to Lamb, the United States’ history of dealing with undocumented immigration is relatively recent.

“Before Reagan and Bush, we didn’t have this issue. Before the 1950s, there were no laws about whether someone was or was not allowed to come here,” Lamb said. “So, this is a new problem that we’ve created by creating immigration laws to restrict the flow of people into the country and something that we’re having to deal with.”

The laws will affect individuals like Rangel, who, despite the circumstances, refuses to be negative.

“I was taking my dog for a walk, just not thinking about anything and then all of a sudden I turn around and there’s this little rock on the ground and it has ‘hope’ written on it,” Rangel said. “That’s my motto, to never lose hope, because there’s always a door that’s going to open, no matter what. They can’t all close.”

This article was originally published in The Blue Banner.