When photos of weeping parents and dead children began to make international news earlier this year, the condition of refugees seeking a safe haven in Europe was met with some compassion. Now, as a result of the horrendous attacks in Paris, Americans are responding with fear. The House recently passed a bill to halt the admission of Syrian refugees to the United States, though the President has vowed to veto it, and Republican candidate Donald Trump has declared that he would like to bar all Muslims from entering the United States, regardless of their origins or intentions.
As a former refugee, I am dismayed by this shift in tone. Most refugees are desperate to escape terror and persecution, but Syrian refugees have it especially bad: They are under threat from their own government and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) alike. They flee because they face abject poverty, lack of opportunity and even death.
What’s more, many people don’t understand the rigorous process that refugees are subjected to before they are granted asylum. I know because I experienced the resettlement process firsthand. I was born in Bhutan, but when I was a child my family, along with tens of thousands of others, was violently forced out of our country. I did not have a place to call home for 18 years, and lived in a refugee camp where my six-member family shared a 200 square foot tent-like ramshackle hut, made of bamboo and plastic. It lacked an indoor bathroom and electricity; we relied on kerosene oil and coal briquettes to cook the rice and vegetables rationed to us by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). I studied up to the tenth grade inside refugee-camp based schools run by a non-profit organization called the CARITAS-Nepal. Classrooms were crowded and often taught by unskilled teachers without adequate training. There were no libraries, computers or labs in camp schools. When the United States government offered to resettle Bhutanese refugees in 2007, I applied through UNHCR right away. At 23, I was the first member of my family to declare interest in resettling in the United States.
The UNHCR office called me for a first round of interviews after about a year. The agency had records of my activities and involvement in the refugee camp where I grew up, partly based on a census they randomly conducted to vet refugees well before resettlement began. Early in the process, I was called to a small room where a UNHCR official warned me that my case would not be advanced if anything on my record appeared suspicious.
My file was forwarded to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which facilitates most refugee resettlement processes around the world, and after several months, the organization called me in for more interviews. Because of an earlier bomb hurled by an armed group from Nepal in the IOM premises, and some strong opposition to resettlement by Bhutanese nationalists in exile, the IOM office was heavily guarded, with a thick iron and brick wall enclosing the building. Most of us got to our screenings on buses owned and operated by the IOM, but I never took them, because those opposing the offer of third-country resettlement threatened my life. I attended those interviews secretly and fearfully. Although I had a faith in the process, I was always worried whether I would in fact make it to the United States safely.
During the IOM interview, they verified the information passed to them by the UNHCR and also my biometric data. I sat through several rounds of interview with the IOM, then one conducted by staff from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
I was a bit worried about this part: There were rumors floating in the camp that the DHS staff would be stern, and that they would be quick to deem a refugee ineligible on a technicality. To my surprise, I found them very friendly. My officer was loud, yet welcoming; I, on the other hand, had trouble maintaining eye contact, because in my culture it’s not common to do so. I was asked whether I support communism and or whether I have ever worked for a terrorist organization; I was also asked whether I would be willing to join the non-combatant services, upon resettlement, if needed. I happily agreed.
Although I was deemed eligible for admissions to the United States as a refugee almost immediately after the DHS interview, I had to wait to have medical clearance to make sure I did not have any communicable disease while boarding the plane. It was a tedious process that took months of tests, but I passed them all.
Like most things in life, the waiting was the toughest part, but I finally made it to the New York City in mid-2009. Culture shock, lack of English language skills, and difficulty navigating the subways in New York City was very challenging — yet my life there was much better than in the refugee camp. And although I’d worked as a journalist back in Nepal, I was happy to take manual job.
I am, as of August 2014, a proud naturalized American citizen. I now have a place to call home; a place where I can practice a religion of my choice; a place where I have no fear of being persecuted by my own government; a place where I have access to better medical treatment; a place where I have a roof to protect me from sun and rain; a place where I can pursue my dreams proudly; a place where I can participate in democracy freely.
This is the first time that I have had the chance to be proud of a country, and I am glad it is the United States.
Many people aren’t so lucky, or do not pass the intense screening process. An elderly neighbor of mine was denied eligibility for resettlement to the United States because he was allegedly involved in sexual assault. Another neighbor was rejected because he’d spent several years in jail. The UNHCR works in close coordination with the host government to make sure people who may pose a threat to others are not resettled.
However, the strict process can exclude people who deserve a safe haven or delay their arrival. One of my brothers was supposed to arrive in the United States sometimes in 2012, but because his name matched with someone currently living in the United States, he had to undergo more lengthy screenings. He finally made it to the United States in 2013.
My parents, meanwhile, only arrived in the United States in mid-October. They should have arrived in 2012 with my brother; we still don’t know why it took so long, and we waited for them in painful limbo. My parents are now in their seventies. They do not come from a place the United States is at war with, their children are American citizens, and yet it still took years to get approval for them to join us.
There are currently more than 10 million Syrians displaced inside and outside that country’s borders, but the United States is only planning to accept 10,000 of them. Since 2012, we have granted a mere 1,800 Syrians refugee status, and only after a vetting process that can take two years.American politicians have grabbed headlines saying they will not welcome Syrian refugees out of concerns for national security. I want to remind these politicians that the refugee resettlement process is thorough and intensive. The safety of the American public and compassion for refugees should not be in opposition. The resettlement process we have in place allows us to be secure and welcoming at the same time.