Culture, People

Hard Conversations: Learning from the Resilience of Refugees

Photo by Matteo Paganelli on Unsplash

Our world is changing at breathtaking speeds. Amidst a backdrop of progress, development and connectivity, we also find retreat on a global scale; retreat to one’s community, habits and common identity.  A humanity that is connected unlike ever before requires a society that is willing to venture to the unfamiliar and have hard conversations. This means opening our minds, engaging with different, even opposing views, and asking ourselves difficult questions so that civil discourse does not become toxic and disagreement intolerable.

For this new series, aptly titled Hard Conversations, I set out to do just that. My first conversation was with Julie Kornfeld, a refugee and asylum attorney at IRAP (International Refugee Assistance Project), who grapples with the aftermath of the largest number of displaced persons since World War II on a daily basis. A humanitarian crisis of this magnitude demands our attention. This was one of those conversations that needed to be had.

This interview has been modified for clarity

Can you give us a general overview of the state of refugees around the world today and the United States’ current position on refugee resettlement? 

We are currently at 70 million displaced persons worldwide and nearly 30 million of them are refugees. This is the largest number we’ve seen since World War Two. 

Historically, the region’s of focus have changed, depending on the various crises happening in the world and U.S. foreign policy. In the 80s, most refugees were coming to the U.S. from South Asia. In the 90s it was the former Soviet Union and then it shifted to Africa and the Middle East. Today, the focus is back to Africa but because of the current administration’s Muslim ban and the refugee ban, we’ve been seeing a significantly lower population of Muslim immigrants, despite the fact that the top 5 countries with the highest numbers or refugees (Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia) all have large or predominantly Muslim populations. 

*In 2019, 79% of refugees admitted to the United States were Christian 

For the longest time the U.S. was the largest resettler of refugees in the world and their recent dip in commitment to refugee protection has created a huge burden on the rest of the international community. To give some context as to how big this burden is, in Obama’s last year as president, he pledged that the U.S. would resettle 110,000 refugees. Then, in Trump’s second week in office, he slashed that number by more than half. Since then, it’s been a trend of his administration each year to significantly reduce the number of refugees to now, in the current fiscal year, only 18000, which is the lowest the modern day U.S. refugee admissions program has ever seen. 

Speaking of the United States policy, just this week the Trump administration proposed a regulation that, if passed, would have a major impact on asylum seekers in the U.S. Can you tell us a little more about this latest development? 

The proposed regulation would basically upend the current asylum system by adding a significant number of restrictions to the refugee definition, making it nearly impossible for anyone to claim asylum.

A lot of organizations are actively reviewing and proposing comments to the rule, but if adopted as is, it basically limits refugees and asylum seekers to only fleeing persecution without having gone to another country first. It also gets rid of many of the categories that qualify for asylum, such as gender discrimination, domestic violence and other types of persecution that the refugee convention, definition, and the protection system has been set to do since their  existence. So this is very troubling.

Can you walk us through the general process for refugee resettlement?

The process gets pretty complicated, but in general once someone leaves their home country, they need to present themselves to the proper authorities in the new country and say, “I am a refugee”. If that country doesn’t have a functioning asylum system, then the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees takes over and registers that person as an asylum seeker. Then the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will adjudicate whether that person meets the international legal definition of “refugee”. Currently, the UN has identified 25 million people as refugees, but less than 1% of those people get to go through the resettlement process. To be part of that 1% you have to show that you are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. The cases that do reach that threshold are referred to one of the 27 resettlement countries, where they then have to go through a whole new process to meet that countries’ requirements. This whole process can take years. 

One story that stands out to me is one of a client of mine from Afghanistan. He was assisting the U.S. Army and because of his relations to the United States he had a target on his back from the Taliban and other militia groups. So, he fled Afghanistan with his family, his wife and his three children at the time, aged six, four and two. They arrived in Turkey where he registered as a refugee. He was getting fed up with all the delays [that I mentioned above] so he and his family boarded a boat to cross to a nearby Greek island. Tragically, the boat capsized and my client lost his wife and two children. Only he and his six year old son survived. They didn’t even make it to Greece and had to return to Turkey. I was representing him through the process to get him to the United States and the reason why his case is so meaningful to me is that it’s such a tragic story. But eventually he and his son did get resettled to the United States and they’re currently living in a community that has welcomed many Afghans. His son is now in middle school and the father is thriving in his new life. He still thinks about his family very often, but he’s been able to give his son a new life that is different than the life that he grew up with in Afghanistan. And he’s just one of the most gracious, compassionate, resilient people I’ve ever met. 

As tragic as his story is, to think that he’s probably considered one of the lucky ones is a tough pill to swallow. 

The fact that he felt that the system was taking too long and he had to board a crowded boat when he and his family can’t swim. That says a lot.

His daughter, his son and his wife, they didn’t need to drown. There are ways in which the international community and specifically the United States could have sped up their processing in a way that would have allowed the whole family to have been resettled to the United States. 

You mentioned that he was resettled in a community that had welcomed many Afghan refugees before. I imagine being a part of a community like that would have made a tremendous difference to the way he was able to acclimate and thrive in his new life. Could talk a little bit about the impact of community, common language or even religious and other social organizations, and how that can sort of make or break the experience in their new home? 

When refugees first arrive in the United States it’s a whole different world than they’ve ever lived before. That can pose significant challenges to individuals, especially ones suffering from PTSD. Their first priority is to find a job. But, given language barriers and the inability for their education credentials to be recognized here you can see doctors working as janitors. So, it is so important for individuals to find a community, whether it’s from other people that they have known from the past, people of their nationality and or just people in their community, Americans that are willing and gracious to open their homes and help them orient themselves to the new challenges of the United States. There are religious and community based organizations that are invaluable in helping refugees adjust to the United States by picking them up at the airport, making sure that they have a culturally appropriate meal, helping them with their job interviews, making sure they have a house, making sure they know what a resumé is, helping them sign up for food stamps. 

[G]iven language barriers and the inability for their education credentials to be recognized here you can see doctors working as janitors. So, it is so important for individuals to find a community…

How do you personally overcome language barriers with your clients? 

I always try and learn at least some basic greetings to break the ice, thanks to Rosetta Stone. But after that the support of interpreters is invaluable as they can really make or break a case. They help you build rapport and trust with a client, but they are also really important for flagging certain cultural differences or language gaps. For instance, in some cultures, people use the term brother more liberally, it can mean a cousin or a really close family friend. But that kind of distinction is really important in assessing a legal claim. Similarly, they can help me as a lawyer. Because of the United States security systems, we sometimes have to ask some really off-putting questions, like were you ever a Nazi or have you engaged in prostitution? So interpreters can help me phrase those questions in a way that is culturally appropriate.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the already existing global refugee crisis? 

The impact of the pandemic has been significant. For a while, all refugee travel was halted. And while it was halted for set periods of time for important public health purposes, the problem is that these delays also have unintended consequences. Unfortunately we’re going to continue to see the refugee processing system get bogged down by these delays causing a dramatic effect on how my clients are currently living. For instance, one of my clients is living in Eastern Europe in a country where he’s not able to work formally. He is a tailor, but because of the border restrictions, fabric is no longer going in and out so he lost his job. But he still needs to pay rent otherwise he will end up on the street and risk being rounded up and deported or persecuted for his sexual orientation status. 

But one thing [that stands out], and this is one of the reasons why I love working with refugees, is that they are some of the most compassionate and gracious people I’ve ever worked with. So, when COVID-19 hit I would talk to my clients and ask them how they are doing and they would immediately ask how am I doing? Many of them are used to living in kind of a lockdown, shelter in place and not leaving their apartments because of various other security threats. But they know that it is not common for a New Yorker to be tied into their apartment. So, it’s amazing that in their darkest moments they’re still able to offer compassion. And I have found this time and time again with my clients.

What is an unexpected lesson that you’ve learned from your clients? 

Another one of my favorite stories is from when I was representing an individual who was one of the first travelers affected by President Trump’s first Muslim ban. He was held in detention for 20 hours before being released. I was at the airport with him and I booked him a hotel nearby once he was finally released. When we arrived we ordered room service. He hadn’t eaten probably since the airplane food, which would have been even more than 20 hours ago, but he insisted on waiting to eat the food until my partner arrived. It’s those kinds of acts that I see my clients continue to do. And they’ve taught me significant amounts, not just about their cultural backgrounds and their country’s political history, but also the depths of resilience and compassion that individuals can have. 

[Refugees have] taught me significant amounts, not just about their cultural backgrounds and their country’s political history, but also the depths of resilience and compassion that individuals can have. 

I think that’s a beautiful way to end our conversation on a happy note. Before we go, could you recommend any resources or organizations for people who want to learn more about refugees and perhaps get involved and support in some way? 

For volunteering, I’d suggest people research their local resettlement agencies and see if there’s ways in which they can assist. 

I also recommend visiting the IRAP website  where you can learn more and donate to the work we do. In addition, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for World Refugee Day each year publishes stats at a glance and that will be the most up to date information on global trends of the refugee population.

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