The Road to the American Dream
The refugee resettlement process, from asylum application to vetting protocols, can take up to 10 years. And the hurdles don’t end once newcomers touch down on U.S. soil.
The refugee crisis has not left the news entirely since its debut in 2015. With an unprecedented number of over 65 million individuals displaced around the world, just under a third of them refugees—from countries in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere—it’s no wonder many refugees have been resettled in the U.S.
Before ever being considered for resettlement, however, individuals fleeing violence and persecution must first receive refugee status—which is why there are more displaced persons than refugees. Potential refugees must first flee their home country and apply for asylum through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), where they must prove they’re fleeing violence or persecution.
If an individual receives refugee status, and if the UNHCR determines the country they fled to can’t provide the proper resources, they can apply for resettlement in a third country, chosen by the UNHCR. Before acceptance for resettlement, each refugee goes through a vetting process conducted by the UNHCR, and, should they pass the UNHCR protocols, is vetted by their prospective resettlement country. In order to be potentially admitted to the U.S., refugees undergo a screening process involving several background checks, interviews, and fingerprint scans conducted by eight federal agencies.
The U.S. vetting process alone can take two years, and the entire process—from asylum application to resettlement—can take upward of 10 years, depending on the individual’s circumstances and the backlog of applications for any step of the process.
Only one percent of refugees will be accepted for resettlement, in the U.S. and elsewhere. And of that one percent, 85,000 were resettled in the U.S. in the 2016 fiscal year. In late 2016 and early 2017 another 30,000 refugees were resettled in the U.S.
Of those refugees settled in the U.S. in the past year, roughly 100 individuals have made their way to Salem.
Catholic Charities of Oregon is one of several agencies contracted by the federal government to aid refugees and manage federal funds allotted for the purpose of refugee resettlement. Catholic Charities is the biggest player in resettling refugees in Salem.
Miriam Marsh is an intern for the refugee resettlement branch of Catholic Charities of Oregon, and a senior in social work at George Fox University. Marsh acts as a case manager for a Somali family of nine who live in Salem.
Marsh notes that Catholic Charities is “the last stop on the line” for refugees. Catholic Charities’ job begins at the airport. The agency is only given two weeks’ notice of a new arrival, and in that time must arrange for housing and other necessary accommodations.
“It’s definitely a job that keeps you on your toes,” Marsh said. “And that’s kind of an understatement.”
Two federally-funded programs in particular are in place to help refugee newcomers: Reception and Placement (R&P) and the match grant. R&P lasts for 90 days, and helps refugees find housing, apply for insurance, enroll children in school, among other aspects of settlement. The match grant lasts for four to six months, and helps newcomers find employment. All other government support specifically designed for refugees ends six months after arrival, the idea being that the special programs allow the newcomers to become self-sufficient.
But getting to self-sufficiency is a long road.
“Things that you don’t think about as a citizen … they create barriers for refugees,” Marsh said.
Describing her role as match grant case manager for the Somali family, she said there’s always a new hurdle, both for the refugee families and the case managers.
“I have these services I’m required to provide”—like helping the family format a post-aid budget—but then, “I’ll get there and help them figure out something else,” she said.
Community members who want to get involved with Salem’s refugee community have many opportunities to do so. Catholic Charities relies heavily on volunteer support, especially in Salem where the resettlement program is new.
“We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without volunteers,” Marsh said.
Gretchen Hughey, a Spanish teacher who splits her time between North Salem and West Salem high schools, is a cultural navigator for a Syrian family of seven. “Cultural navigator” is the term Catholic Charities uses to describe volunteers who help refugee families through the process of resettlement and assimilation.
Hughey said that, as an outsider looking in, working so closely with a family of newcomers has opened her eyes to the “complexity of the experience.”
“You can understand that in an abstract way, but then to be walking alongside them, and realize everything that they need to do that they don’t know how—it’s sobering, in a sense of a big responsibility.”
Hughey, as well as the rest of the cultural navigation team, are careful not to become “paternalistic” and overbearing. She said it’s important to realize how language and cultural barriers do not detract from the individual’s independence.
“We feel extremely honored to have the relationship with the family that we do, and for them to let us into their lives in the way that they do. They’re in a vulnerable situation,” Hughey said. “They, prior to coming to the United States, were not used to relying on this team of people to meet their daily needs.”
The transition from one’s home country to the U.S. is difficult—the newcomer must learn new customs, find a new job, and make a new life.
Ali Al Omrani has a saying about starting over in the U.S.: “When you come here, it’s your birthday.” Everything is new, and there’s a lot to learn.
Al Omrani, a community school outreach coordinator for the Salem-Keizer School District, came to the U.S. six years ago through a special visa program for Iraqis who served the U.S. Army as interpreters during the war. Legally, this equates to status as a refugee.
The transition for newcomers with the status of refugee is aided by resettlement agencies like Catholic Charities of Oregon, whose refugee resettlement branch provides employment-matching and cultural navigation services. And even though Al Omrani spoke the language and interacted with Americans before coming to the U.S., the transition was still tough, because it’s about a lot more than material services.
“It’s not just about having a place to stay, it’s about having a place that feels like home,” he said.
That part of the process was easier for him, because he stayed with the family of his Army captain upon arriving in the U.S. That doesn’t happen for many people who come to the U.S. as refugees.
Moayad Adham is an engineer and artist, who came to the U.S. as an immigrant four years ago. And while, as an immigrant, the legal processes differ from that of a refugee, he had to adjust to a new way of life in a similar way.
Adham is from Syria originally, but lived in Saudi Arabia and Qatar before coming to the U.S. to be near his two sons. He currently volunteers with local refugee families and serves on the Salem Human Rights and Relations Advisory Commission.
Part of the trouble with the transition, Adham noted, is getting over preconceived notions of America.
Adham prefaces his next thought with “I’ll be honest with you, okay?”: Many Middle Easterners believe a majority of Americans are far-right conservatives.
“People come here and they’re confused” by a positive reception, he said, because they expect xenophobia as the norm.
Unlike Al Omrani, Adham didn’t have any experience with American soldiers before coming to the U.S. He said at first, he tried to avoid soldiers in uniform, because American involvement in the Middle East is characterized, by many Middle Easterners, by civilian casualties. (Estimates of civilians who died because of the Iraq War range from 100,000 to over 400,000.)
Now, Adham said, he has American friends who are in the military, and can be described as “peaceful creatures.” Making this realization took time, he said, and he now believes most people join the military because of love of country, as opposed to hatred of anyone else.
That’s part of why Adham volunteers with several local refugee families—he can act as a mediator, with a foot in both cultures, to “make sure they know they’re safe here” and can “stop using their survival brain.”
Starting over in the U.S. can be difficult for more practical reasons as well. In addition to cultural and language barriers, college degrees and professional credentials don’t often transfer from other countries.
In Iraq, Al Omrani graduated from college with a degree in veterinary medicine. But once he settled in the U.S., he found out that if he wanted to practice veterinary medicine, he’d have to go back to school for another five years. That wasn’t an option.
“I started from the bottom,” he said. He worked his way through entry level positions before being hired as a case manager at Catholic Charities of Oregon. Now, as an outreach coordinator with Salem-Keizer, he works with the students of refugee families.
Who Are Refugees?
Many misconceptions reign about the links between refugees and terrorism, even though there isn’t any statistical evidence to prove that the U.S.’s vetting procedures, set down in the Refugee Act of 1980, have failed to fully vet refugees. Those who work with refugees—as volunteers, case managers, cultural navigators, or any other capacity—will tell you what Al Omrani told me: Refugees “are seeking peace, a better life, a better life for their kids.” They want the same things the rest of us do.
When speaking about refugees, Al Omrani makes the differentiation between refugees from Iraq, who mostly come to the U.S. through the visa program for Army interpreters, like he did, and refugees in general, who come from all over the world and are fleeing conflict and persecution of all kinds.
However, he said, there is one commonality: “All of them, they come with hope.”
Other misconceptions aren’t as deliberately stigmatizing, but can still result in misunderstanding. Toc Soneoulay-Gillespie, director of refugee resettlement for Catholic Charities of Oregon, notes that the term ‘refugee’ can be seen as a demographic instead of a circumstance. She encourages the community not to ask ‘what are refugees?,’ but ‘who are are refugees?’
“The word ‘refugee’ is misleading and overlooks the fact that these are human beings who fall into the homeless category,” Soneoulay-Gillespie said.
Hughey, the cultural navigator, made a similar observation, that the term ‘refugee’ can become objectifying.
“I try to say as much as possible, ‘I work with a family of people from Syria who are refugees,’ as opposed to ‘the refugees,’” she said. “Refugee is a life situation, a circumstance that they find themselves in, but it’s not defining to who they are.”
The refugee population is made up of many demographics—the young, the elderly, families, single parents, Muslims, Christians, and so on.
For refugees who are also Muslim, even more misconceptions exist. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2016 more Muslim refugees entered the U.S. than Christian ones for the first time since 2006. Adham, the Syrian immigrant, notes that for the most part, Americans “don’t really know much about [Islam] or followers of the religion.” Adham is Muslim, and he’s been asked if he’s “from Islam”—as if Islam were a country instead of a religion.
Hughey notes that building cross-cultural relationships can help bring an end to such misconceptions. As a veteran volunteer of the Peace Corps (she served in Rwanda from 2012-2013), she draws on their mission when explaining the significance of cross-cultural relationships.
“When we know people from other cultures, those cultures become demystified—we cease to exoticize them,” she said. “And we can recognize that the humanity of the people living in other places is equivalent to our own.”
This, she said, is important to healing the divides and relaxing the tensions of a melting pot country. Reaching out to Salem’s refugee community can help us overcome our own biases, and help us bridge the gaps between the U.S. and other countries, Hughey said.
Salem is uniquely prepared to make this leap, according to many of the folks I spoke with. Al Omrani said the people of Salem, and of Oregon at large, are unique in their openness. He said his favorite part about Salem upon his arrival was the people, and “the smile on their faces” as he walked down the street.
Adham shares the positive perception of Salem.
“This community has made me a better person…and that’s why I’m serving this community.” Adham is currently a commissioner on the Salem Human Rights and Relations Commission, and aspires to political office, so he can make positive change for the city.
Mind the (Culture) Gap
Refugees come from all over the world. For many who come without a mutual language, navigating the new cultural landscape can be daunting.
Adapting to a new culture can be one of the most difficult parts of resettlement.
One instance of cultural dissonance Hughey, the cultural navigator, referenced was when she attended a school assembly with one of the Syrian family’s daughters, who attends North Salem High School, in October. The assembly involved a speech by the principal about breast cancer awareness, staff versus student dodgeball, and a pumpkin carving contest.
The culture clash was evident. “How much of this could I possibly explain?” Hughey asked herself, especially considering neither spoke the other’s native language.
Hughey said all she and the Syrian girl could do was look at each other, shrug, and laugh it off.
The culture shock goes both ways; the volunteer team doesn’t always understand the family’s customs, either. “But they know what they’re doing; they have reasons for doing what they’re doing,” Hughey said. “It’s just a cultural gap.”
That’s part of working cross-culturally, Hughey said—you “have to learn to live with intense awkwardness, and find the joy in it.”
And there is joy in it. One aspect of the Syrian family Hughey noted, which is characteristic of many Middle Easterners, is hospitality. Hughey said she has experienced this time and again, especially from the family’s five children.
“Whatever their children have, they share,” she said. For example, “If their daughter is wearing barrettes in her hair when I come over, she will take one off and give it to me. I mean literally.” Hughey keeps a collection of the gifts.
This bent toward hospitality is characteristic of Middle Easterners, Al Omrani, the SKDS outreach coordinator, notes, adding that the starkest difference between American and Middle Eastern life is the social aspect.
“Social life is one of the major shocks for everyone,” he said, because American “social life is limited.” Americans are more work-oriented, and don’t socialize with their community as much.
Adham, the Syrian immigrant, is a good example of the social nature of Middle Easterners. He goes to the Broadway Coffeehouse on a regular basis just to meet new people and socialize.
“I believe as an immigrant my best bet to merge with the society,” he said, rather than “retreat into [my] own bubble.”
He said in moving to America, the culture wasn’t so much of a shock as a challenge. Even as a self-described “open-minded person,” the American “lifestyle was hard for me to understand,” he said. Being introduced to someone’s boyfriend or girlfriend, and then the three kids they had together was hard to wrap his mind around, coming from a culture with more traditional relationship norms.
The culture differs in more significant ways as well.
“In Syria, human rights don’t exist,” he said. The situation in Saudi Arabia is similar. He noted too that in Syria, the government is the chief violator of human rights, while in Saudi Arabia both the government and fellow citizens are the perpetrators of such abuses.
For example, in order to apply for a job in Saudi Arabia, an applicant must include both religion and nationality on his or her résumé.
To find out that’s not the norm in the U.S. “was very pleasing,” Adham said.
Get Involved with Salem for Refugees
Salem for Refugees is an organization, founded in October 2016, to support refugees being settled in Salem for the first time. The organization is spearheaded by Doug and Anya Holcomb.
The organization has partnered with Catholic Charities, as well as other resettlement agencies, to welcome refugees, and coordinate resources and volunteers.
Anya Holcomb told me that SFR has three main ways of achieving its mission of, “facilitating a holistic and coordinated effort to welcome our new neighbors”—collaboration, communication, and volunteer mobilization.
Collaboration happens at their monthly volunteer meetings. Communication occurs through an email newsletter, and a website the organization plans to build into a robust resource for both refugees and those who work closely with refugees. Volunteer mobilization, or direct interaction with the refugee community, occurs both through the monthly meetings and the communication network.
Recently, on a Tuesday, an email went out to everyone on the SFR mailing list, telling the supporters that a refugee family of 12 was arriving. They needed donations of 12 beds and to find temporary housing for the family by Friday. A follow-up email was sent out on Thursday notifying the network that beds and housing had been secured.
Anya credits the success of SFR to community members and “the people of Salem…wanting to come and wanting to engage.”
The organization hosts a community gathering of volunteers at Salem Alliance Church on the first Monday of every month.
Learn more at salemforrefugees.org.