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Asylum Seekers: Beyond political refugee rhetoric

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Syrian refugees in Jordan (Credit: CNS Photo/Jamal Nasrallah, EPA)

When she was in high school in Iran, Sara’s parents told her she couldn’t go to law school. They had a big fight.

“But because of my religion and its persecution over there, they told me there’s no point, ‘because they won’t accept you. Nobody hires a religious minority as a lawyer.’”

Sara, an Iranian refugee, did not reveal her real name in fear that her family would suffer. She grew up Mandaean, a Gnostic tradition that reveres Adam, Noah and other Old Testament figures as well as John the Baptist.

Her parents confronted teenaged Sara with the harsh reality those of their faith face in Iran.

“You’re Mandaean, and no one wants to be represented by a Mandaean in Iran.”

So Sara gave up her dream. She followed her older sister to study “Plant Protection,” earning a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in the less competitive field. But her heart was never really in it.

The 32-year-old religious refugee was telling her story to me at Catholic Charities of Los Angeles’ satellite office in Glendale off busy San Fernando Road. Carol Meylan, director of the Intra-Agency Programs, and Sam Samadi, resettlement program manager at the agency were also present. Catholic Charities had helped her resettle here 1 1/2 years ago.

When asked to talk more about the kind of discrimination she faced as a Mandaean, her expression changed. She turned to Samadi, who facilitated her coming to America. Finally, she confided how she feared saying anything more specific that would bring harm to her family still back in Iran.

The Catholic Charities worker was nodding. He explained how Christian and other non-Muslims can’t have public celebrations of their faith, while liturgies inside their homes were usually tolerated.

“They have no sympathy, no kindness,” she said.

Sara learned English in Iran translating articles and books in college and graduate school. Now her dream was to live more freely in the U.S., where she could openly practice her faith and, perhaps, even be what she wanted to be. So when the opportunity to leave arose, she did.

“It took me one year, which was a good period of time,” she said. “Mr. Samadi helped me a lot with HIAS [Hebrew Immigration Aid Society] to go to Austria first. But it was hard. I was living in a place with two bedrooms, me and one other Mandaean girl. And the rent for each month was €800. It was a lot for us, and we had no permission to work over there.

“My father was trying to just save money for me. And I had been working in Iran and had some savings. But it was lots of money we had to spend there waiting. They were playing games with us refugees, and we couldn’t do anything.”

Samadi — a refugee himself, who fled Iran in 1979 after the shah was overthrown by the Iranian revolution — had gather with Meylan and Sara to consider the recent changes in our nation’s refugee policies initiated by President Donald Trump’s executive order on Jan. 27.

The order can be broken down into three parts: blocking all refugees from entering the United States for 120 days, banning Syrian refugees “indefinitely” and stopping visa applicants from seven nations with large Muslim populations until new “extreme vetting” procedures can start. The countries include war-torn Syria, along with Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.

Samadi said that during his almost three decades working for Catholic Charities, first in Maine and mostly here in Los Angeles, nothing like the sudden policy shift had ever happened.

“With my experience working with refugees with Catholic Charities, and being a former refugee from Iran — one of the seven banned countries — it’s not even comparable to 9/11 and what we went through after,” he pointed out. “It’s different. It’s un-American, unfair.”

Some have compared the executive order to previous action taken by the Obama administration, which delayed processing refugee requests for six months in 2011. Yet the Obama administration’s action was taken in response to a failed terrorist plot undertaken by Iraqi nationals in the United States.

The Trump administration also argued that the seven countries in the order had been previously identified by the Obama administration. After the attack in San Bernardino, the Obama administration removed the seven countries from the Visa Waiver Program, but did not bar them from entering the United States altogether. It merely changed the process.

Springfield Bishop Mitchell T. Rizanski, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, and Las Cruces Bishop Oscar Cantú, chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, responded to the executive order in a joint statement.

“While we also recognize that the United States government has a duty to protect the security of its people, we must nevertheless employ means that respect both religious liberty for all, and the urgency of protecting the lives of those who desperately flee violence and persecution,” they wrote.

“It is our conviction as followers of the Lord Jesus that welcoming the stranger and protecting the vulnerable lie at the core of the Christian life,” the bishops wrote. “And so, to our Muslim brothers and sisters and all people of faith, we stand with you and welcome you.”

Also, Samadi stressed it was the opposite of the agency’s sacred mission of welcoming the stranger. “I can feel what the people and communities are going through,” he said. “This situation is really sad. It’s unbelievable. We’ve gotten hundreds of calls and emails. They come and they cry about their situation: ‘What am I going to do?’ ‘Why is our government doing this?’

“Now Sara will tell you,” he added, looking at the young woman dressed in a burgundy sweater and khaki pants. “She went through the system, the channels, to come to the U.S. We have a very humane program working with the HIAS organization in Austria with people like her belonging to minority religions in Iran. They come through that channel and 99 percent of the time they will be accepted to the United States. Only 1 percent are rejected and have to go back.”

But before they arrive in Austria, refugees sell or give away everything they’ve worked for all their lives, he said. And now they’re being told to return to the country that discriminated against them because of their faith.

Meylan added, “And they quit their jobs.”

“Exactly,” said Sara, leaning forward. “And go back to what? Nothing.”

Samadi pointed out that even if refugees were allowed to stay in Austria under the new restrictions, that would add many months. With the executive order shutting down everything for at least 90 days, their stay will be much longer — and expensive. Because Austria as well as the UN “don’t spend a dime” to help these desperate men, women and children sojourners.

Sara was nodding. “I was only in Austria four months, but ran through lots of money. You know, people who rent places to refugees, they know we have no other choice but to accept. So they were really putting pressure on us for rent and expenses. It was really high for us. Really high! And they didn’t give us back all the deposit.”

After a moment, she talked about one experience in Austria that was especially troubling.

By mistake, she and her roommate didn’t pay the correct fare for their train tickets at a metro station. They were arrested and told their fine was an additional €150 or they would be taken to the local police station.

Officers took their passports, ordering them to go get the money and come back right away. The women tried to explain how they didn’t understand the signs, but the officers just shrugged. They pleaded that it was all the money they had, but it was of no use. So they went home, got the money and rushed back to the station.

“It was a very bad experience,” she recalled, her voice still disturbed by the memory. “One hundred and fifty euro was a lot for us. And I was sick all day in bed crying. Because we really needed that money.”

Sara lived with her cousin — her “tie” in this country —  for 25 days in the San Fernando Valley, most of that time looking for her own place. But she had no credit or Social Security number back then. And even studio apartments were out of the question with the money she had left. So she finally settled on a room with a “very nice” Bahai Iranian couple, another persecuted religious minority in Iran. And that’s where she still lives today.

“I wish I could have come here sooner,” she said with a melancholy chuckle. “There are so many opportunities here. If I came here sooner, I could do many other things. So I think I’m too late.”

After a moment, Sara’s tone was more upbeat: “So I’m thinking maybe it’s God’s will that I’m here to pursue something that I dreamed about from the beginning and I couldn’t reach.”

Meylan, the Catholic Charities administrator, locked eyes with the refugee who now works full time at the agency helping other refugees. “You’ll be a lawyer, yet,” she said. “People go to law school in their 40s.”

Samadi was nodding. “Yeah.”

And Sara’s small smile grew into a grin.

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Refugees vs. Immigrants

The distinction between an immigrant and a refugee may seem minor, but it’s huge.

Immigrants choose to resettle in another country. And while the United States, like all nations, has a process for them to gain legal residency and then citizenship, some 11 million today in the U.S. are “undocumented.” These men, women and children who aren’t born here can be deported back to their home countries.

Democrats and Republicans have agreed the U.S. immigration system is “broken.” Congress has failed term after term to come up with reformed immigration laws.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has remarked, “Migrants, especially economic migrants, choose to move in order to improve the future prospects of themselves and their families. Refugees have to move if they are to save their lives or preserve their freedom.”

Refugees can apply for asylum in the United States, but critics note the process can take years. Most agree it’s an onerous task. Applicants must prove that if they go back to their home country, they will be discriminated against and persecuted because of their race, nationality or membership in a political group or religion.

“Refugees are generally people outside of their country who are unable or unwilling to return home because they fear serious harm,” according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

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Facts about U.S. refugee resettlement

Do refugees depend on public service?

Fact: Although many refugees initially depend on public benefits, most quickly become self-sufficient. Unlike most other groups of immigrants, refugees are immediately eligible for public benefits such as cash welfare, food assistance and health insurance coverage.

Are refugees mostly working or unemployed?

Fact: The U.S. refugee resettlement system emphasizes self-sufficiency through employment, and most refugees are employed. In fact, refugee men are employed at a higher rate than their U.S.-born peers.

Do refugees improve their economic position after they are resettled?

Fact: Refugees’ incomes rise over time, almost reaching parity with the U.S. born. Refugees generally arrive with very limited resources. Many come here penniless. Over time, however, they find jobs, advance economically and become self-sufficient.

Does the federal government absorb the full costs of settling refugees?

Fact: Although the federal government funds refugee resettlement assistance, funding has been limited, and the program is a public-private partnership by design. As a result, private agencies, NGOs and community organizations offer substantial support for refugees.

Do refugees come to the United States with low levels of education?

Fact: Refugees are more likely to have a high school degree than other immigrants, and just as likely as those born in the U.S. to have graduated from college.

Do refugees embrace their new country?

Fact: Refugees are on a fast track for permanent residency and citizenship, and a large majority becomes citizens. One year after arrival, refugees are required to apply for legal permanent residence; five years later, they become eligible to naturalize.

Is the United States likely to experience flows of would-be asylum seekers similar to Europe?

Fact: Due to its geographical location, the United States is unlikely to experience large flows of asylum seekers from Syria or elsewhere in Africa or the Middle East. Because asylum seekers from these regions have no easy land or sea route to the United States, they must generally seek admission through official resettlement channels.

In sum, the evidence suggests that the U.S. resettlement program, despite its funding limitations and reduced intake from earlier periods, successfully resettles substantial numbers of refugees every year. 

Source: Migration Policy Institute

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