Suspended from the strings of bureaucracy, a refugee’s life dangles much like a marionette. They wait to return, to move on or to find some kind of resolution in their lives. It is just one more struggle in a long journey for those who have witnessed and survived war and conflict. These victims more often than not are our Muslim brothers and sisters. The average time one remains a refugee is twenty years.
The life cycle of a refugee, explained Nadia El Shaarawi, Assistant Professor of Global Studies at Colby College, begins with the forced or voluntary migration from the affected country of origin. Once leaving the country of origin, a refugee will seek a safe haven in the first country of asylum. From this point, there are three alternatives – returning to the person’s country of origin, local integration(naturalisation in the host country), or resettlement into a third country like the U.S. or Canada.
The worst refugee crisis in history had been the displacement of Palestinian refugees in 1949. Iraqi displacement added to that number in 2003, followed by the Arab uprisings in 2011 of which Syrians have out done them all, surpassing the Palestinians, to become the worst point in refugee history. Since 2011, more than half of the four million plus fleeing Syria fled with their lives more than once to get to their first country of asylum. After that terrifying experience, refugees are greeted with food rations twice a month, walking a mile for water, overcrowded makeshift classrooms of 40/50/60 students to a single teacher while higher education is nearly non-existent. There is no preventative health care, privacy or security, and jobs are scarce.
For those who are absorbed into the society of their host country, they are often ineligible to attend schools or to work. Our current crisis in Syria has the average person spending seven years negotiating the vetting process, often suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS), all the while living in suspension, unable to plan for their future or that of their children.
Let’s look at the statistics. In 2015, there were 65.3 million internally displaced people throughout the world. 21.3 million became refugees. Of these, 960,000 needed resettling, but only 107,000 were actually granted asylum. That means that less than 2% of refugees were granted asylum. From this 2%, according to Dr. Shaarawi, 66,500 were resettled in the United States. Of others seeking asylum, 19% found a home in Canada, 9% in Australia, 2% in Norway and the other 8% among various other countries. (1)
A refugee family, after running for their lives, will face 13 to 16 layers of screening. There are security checks, fingerprints and interviews among other investigations. If you pass those, you move on to medical screenings, then they see if there is any sponsorship available. Finally, the refugee will be scrutinised to be sure they are able to “fit into the culture of the society” at the relocation point. At any layer in the process, which may take an average of seven years, the refugee may be disqualified and prohibited from relocating.
Moreover, to become eligible to relocate to a third country you need to prove you are vulnerable. Angelina Jolie, while working with the UN, de fined those who are vulnerable as those who had been raped, experienced violence, torture or threats to protection. Ironically, being vulnerable is key to being resettled, but at the same time if you are too needy or too desperate in seeking asylum, a person could be disqualified, explained Dr. Sharaawi.
Resettling refugees isn’t easy in the current political climate. In Cleveland, Danielle Drake is the Community Relations Manager for US Together, a Jewish run agency founded in 2003 by refugees and run by refugees. Mrs. Drake said she “…is a Christian, working for Jews to save Muslims.”She has had four death threats in the past year. US Together has been taking in about 600 families a year. This number is expected to drop to 30 or 33 with Trump’s Presidency. She did not seem discouraged, however, and she vows to continue on.
So, what awaits the fortunate 2%? A lot according to Drake. Refugees have to repay their airline tickets within six months of arriving in the U.S. The goal is to have some member of the household working. They need to find a job and be self-sufficient as
quickly as possible, so they will be signed up for English as a Second Language classes (ESL), receive housing and some basic necessities as quickly as possible. (2) Transportation can be a real issue for refugees who may be given bus passes, which don’t make it easy to get to classes on time or buy groceries. This is where fellow countrymen really play a positive support role. Established Syrians will help their fellow countrymen, Iraqi’s help theirs, etc. If one has a car, they all have access to that car. This network has proven to be very valuable.
I spoke to a representative of the Islamic Center of Cleveland (ICC) to find out what assistance the refugees, brought over mostly by Catholic Charities in Cleveland, receive from them. The refugee families are supposed to get some food stamps for anywhere from two months to a year from the government, but they often run out of food in any given month. Also, food stamps may not start right away, in which case a new family may go an entire week without any food. This is where Cleveland’s food pantry comes in handy. ICC distributes the Food Pantry’s produce on the first Saturday of every month. If food stamps haven’t kicked in and the food pantry isn’t adequate, the masjid gives them food vouchers for any of the halal stores located in Cleveland. The ability to hand out these vouchers depends on charitable donations.
In order to help refugees in other ways, ICC has a Sadaqah Committee which consists of board members, a case manager and a licensed social worker who visits the families’ homes. They assist with minimal expenses like utility bills, airline tickets to see a dying family member back home, etc. One of the greatest challenges has been those refugees who come with PTSS. Understandably, they become angry easily. For example, when trying to get personal information to check eligibility, some refugees are offended and shout. “Those who refuse to give information won’t be able to receive supplies, which is stressful for everyone,” remarked Amina Abdel Fattah a board member from ICC.
‘Give’ is a charitable organisation which helps Muslims and non-Muslims by their themed monthly projects. They work with ICC on the first Sunday of every month when the food is being distributed. “One month’s project may be dedicated to personal hygiene, or winter coats, another to household items such as cleaning supplies or bedding,” says Sondus Mohammad who works at Give. They started with refugees, but the poor and homeless have caught on and are coming to collect the theme bags as well as slightly used clothing. They were helping around 100 families and this has risen to 250.
Surviving war is only a start. Being displaced or made a refugee is a traumatic experience, which is often compounded by what comes after it. It is good to know that there is a team of support waiting for at least some refugees along the way of recovery. May Allah ﷻ guide the helpers and reward the Muslims who give their time working to form a safety net for those who have travelled the long road of refugee hardship.
1. Stats given at her talk, Solving Displacement Iraqi Refugees, Mental Health, and the Double Bind of Vulnerability, February 2017 at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU)
2. At a panel discussion entitled U.N. Word Social Justice Day: “The Refugee Crisis in Syria.” February 2017 CWRU
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