The Call-In: The Refugee Experience In The U.S.

Jun 11, 2017
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

And this is The Call-In. Today we're talking about refugees. And we wanted to hear your family stories.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Hello. My name is...

HEVAL KELLI: Heval Kelli.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: On this morning's program there was a request...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: In regards to people who came to America as refugees and what challenges they faced.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: I'm a former refugee from Afghanistan. And I moved to the U.S. along with my family.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: My family and I came here from Russia when I was a little girl.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: My parents both fled the Holocaust.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: I was born in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge war.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: I was in jail in Iran.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: And that's my story.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: OK, bye.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Thank you, bye.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: Bye.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Supreme Court is expected to review Donald Trump's travel ban executive order this week after it was barred by the lower courts. Among other restrictions, the orders sought to halt U.S.-refugee resettlement for a 120 days. The changing legal status of the ban has caused a major slowdown for the refugee resettlement program. And as NPR's Deb Amos told me, she expects that to continue even if the Supreme Court strikes down the order.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: In practice, once you slow down that pipeline, it's really hard to start it up again because security checks expire and so do your medical checks. So what we saw last week is less arrivals than even the week before. And there's been something else interesting that happened.

Refugee advocates say who is coming has changed. Before the executive order, it was Congo, number one, then Syria then Iraq. In the last couple of months, Congo is still number one. But now it's refugees from Eritrea, Bhutan and Ukraine. Syria and Iraq has slid way down the list.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We talked to Matthew Soerens of World Relief. It's an evangelical organization - one of just a handful of groups licensed to help resettle refugees arriving in the U.S. He said that for groups like his, the uncertainty around Trump's executive order has forced some hard decisions. Let's listen.

MATTHEW SOERENS: Part of our funding is a grant from the U.S. State Department. That's on a per-refugee basis. So we've been geared up to resettle our share of the 110,000 refugees that President Obama had committed to resettling this year. And suddenly, that was dropped to the expectation that would be 50,000. And so we had to let go of a number of staff, about 140.

You know, some of the refugee groups that we serve speak languages that are just not easy to hire from. So it's not like we can go back and hire someone else who speaks, you know, Karen Burmese. There's not that many of those people who will be looking for a job if and when the resettlement program sort of resumes at the seal that it had been throughout most of the Bush and the Obama administration.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Deb, will these groups still have the capacity - the resources and staff - to help these refugees thrive here?

AMOS: All the resettlement agencies have the same challenge. They're all funded in the same way. And they've all been shedding staff. Now, it's clear that the administration is moving towards that 50,000 number. The president has complete authority to set that number, and he does it in October. So most people who are working in the refugee field expect that next year, whether the ban is lifted or it is not, that that number will move down to 50,000.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We asked to speak with someone at the White House about the thinking behind the refugee program suspension. And then we were referred to the Department of Homeland Security. DHS, in turn, referred us back to the White House. Ultimately, we were able to reach Simon Henshaw. He is a career State Department official and the acting assistant secretary who oversees the U.S. refugee program until President Trump names a nominee to fill the role. Here's what he had to tell us.

SIMON HENSHAW: I can't speak for the White House. I can only speak for my office. But as I understand it, there are some concerns making sure that we make sure that all necessary security precautions are taken. We take security very, very seriously in this program. We're always reviewing it and revamping it. And we want to make sure that we keep America safe.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You want to make sure that America stays safe. You've, obviously, been involved in this program for some time. Were you not keeping America safe before?

HENSHAW: Yeah. I think we were. But I - we've always revamped and improved security parts of this program as years have gone by. It's ever evolving. I think we can always do better. We can always look for new ways to run additional checks and make sure that we keep the program properly vetted.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Deb Amos, he's suggesting that lowering the number of refugees coming into the United States is because it's a safety concern. But the U.S. has had no incidents of terror attacks committed by refugees under our current systems of vetting. Is that right?

AMOS: You know, the Cato Institute - it's a libertarian think tank in Washington that actually usually box many of the Trump administration policies - did an exhaustive look at the link between refugees and terrorism. And they call it the phantom menace. Over four decades of the 3.5 million refugees admitted to the U.S., only 20 have faced terrorism charges. Three Americans have been killed by Cuban refugees in the 1970s.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That might be the case in the United States. But what about Europe?

AMOS: There have been occasions where asylum seekers have been involved in terrorism cases. But let's look at the difference in how refugees get to Europe and how they get to the United States. We saw, you know, thousands of people walking through the forests of Europe moving towards Germany. There was no program. There was no security checks.

To get to the U.S., it takes around 18 months. Every security agency in the United States is involved in the vetting. It is a totally different process for how you get to Europe and how you get to the United States.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Deb Amos. She reports on refugees. Thank you so much.

AMOS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORDUROI'S "MY DEAR")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Heval Kelli is a Muslim Kurd whose family fled Syria in 1996 when he was only 11-years-old. He called in to tell us his story. His father, a lawyer, was imprisoned by the Syrian government.

KELLI: Police came to our house. Beat my mom. Beat me in the head. My father was released. And his friends in the government told him that it was not safe for him to stay anymore because the next time he would get arrested, he would never get out of the jail.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: His father paid smugglers to take the family to Europe, where they spent several years in German refugee camps. They were granted permanent asylum in the United States in 2001, just two weeks before September 11. After the attacks, their immigration was put on hold. And they worried that after years of uncertainty, they had missed their chance. Then they got the call. You have three days to get on a plane and come to the United States. They settled in Clarkston, Ga.

KELLI: For two days, we don't leave our home. We were too scared. But what happens is something change everything. I remember it was a Sunday. And these people were knocking on our door. There were like these, you know, 10 white women and males. And they were standing there. First, we thought they were from the CIA.

So after three minutes of them knocking on the door, we decided to open the door. And there were actually members of All Saints' Episcopal Church. They came and say, hey, we heard about you guys. We want to welcome you to America. And they brought food and furniture. And we were surprised. I mean, how does a Southern Christian Church welcome a Muslim-Sunni refugee family right after 9/11? There must be something special about this place.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did you set up a new life? Were your parents able to find jobs?

KELLI: Well, my father, you know, had heart disease and kidney disease. So he couldn't work. My mom was wearing the hijab. And it was difficult to find a job without speaking English at that time. My brother was 14. And I was this 18-year-old high school senior who's trying to learn English without having friends or family.

And every refugee coming to America, you get about three to four months of rent. And then you got to be independent. So me, within two weeks in America, I had my first job of my life. It was washing dishes after school 30, 40 hours a week. And I did that up to going to college.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did you balance working full time like that and studying, going to school?

KELLI: The best thing ever happened to me was washing dishes because it was a motivation to not be a dishwasher ever again. But the same time, the job is so - you know, you don't have to think about it. You just wash dishes. So for the 30, 40 hours, I would just review English words in my head, trying to write on the steam on the machine and just practice English. And my - you know, I came here September 2001. And I started at Georgia State University August 2002.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I understand you're now a doctor.

KELLI: Yeah. It was a blessing. I went to Morehouse School of Medicine and then went to Emory University for internal medicine. And I'm a cardiology fellow at the university. The interesting part is the place where I used to wash dishes is one block away from where I train today as a cardiology fellow.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you ever encounter people who are fearful, though? And what do you tell them?

KELLI: I think a lot of people have, maybe, misconceptions about refugees because they don't meet refugees. I had a patient who I took care of one day. And next thing, I was speaking at a church. And he came to me. He was like, I love this country. Like, you know, the way you spoke about it. You love this country as much I do. I'm a veteran.

And he didn't recognize I was a doctor who took care of him in the ER. I was like, how's your kidney? He's like, how do you know? I was like, I was your physician. And now we work together to bring veterans and refugees together. So I think through our personal stories and interaction, we could get over the fears that people have for refugees.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Heval Kelli is a doctor in Atlanta. Thank you so much.

KELLI: Thank you so much for taking the time to share my story.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORDUROI'S "MY DEAR")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Next week on the Call-In, summer is coming. Kids love it. But for parents, it's a child-care challenge. Camp is expensive. And if you don't have family nearby, who's looking after the kids? Tell us your concerns, your plans and your solutions. Call in at 202-216-9217 with your experiences. Be sure to include your full name, contact info, where you're from, and your story. And we may use it on the air. That number again 202-216-9217.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORDUROI'S "MY DEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.