Perspective on the Refugee Process, from a Refugee

by Hana Selimovic – Views

I’ve spent the entirety of my evening reading and reading and reading about the ins and outs of the supreme courts decision to allow parts of the travel ban to proceed.

I’ve seen some really nasty comments. Nothing groundbreaking by any means, nothing new either because xenophobia has existed in the states since its creation, but…

A large majority of these comments comes from a place of discontent from American born citizens with these refugees and immigrants for not “coming here legally”. So, I thought I’d share, in loose detail, the process of how many become refugees (via personal experience). Please keep in mind that the process of admittance to the United States is even more complex and rigorous for those applying from Middle Eastern Muslim countries.

First, you apply for refugee status with a UN agency. This is a PROCESS and not something similar to an online college application that you can be done with in a half hour. You have to submit all documents that have ever been issued to you. Birth certificates, IDs, licenses, old utility bills, report cards. If you’re displaced, you have to provide proof of that too. If your house burned down or if your parents were killed, yes, they want it verified. You have to tell/write your story. Everyone in your family does. From the day that you were born to the moment that your hand gripped the pen to write, everything that has happened to you that put you in that chair goes in that statement. This includes providing them with names of all of your family members. All of your friends, neighbors, teachers. And their contact info. If they are dead or missing, guess what they want? Proof of that. This is month one.

The next 12 months or so is spent verifying the validity of your documents, information, checking references and names. Nit picking over every which detail.

If ALL OF THIS checks out, you get called in for an interview. What a relief, right? No. This is one interview of many many many more to come. In this interview with a UN official, you tell them your story. Your mother and father tell them their stories. Your baby sister. They split you up then you tell them again, together. Your life before the war and your life after the war. Yugoslavia being socialist, your parents’ Before The War stories were vital. Were they communists? Dissidents? They ask you a lot about the war and communism. Do you support it? Did you take up arms? Were you in the military? What’s your stance on communism? How did you feel about Tito? Are you religious? How religious? Were you in a concentration camp? How can you prove that you were?

This entire interview is repeated again and again and again. Forward to month (maybe) 16.

They ask you, a child, the same questions. Never mind that you’ve never heard the word dissident before. They want more proof. They want a retina eye scan. They demand a medical exam. Another interview.

Then they tell you they will call. You wait, a cloud of uncertainty of the future follows you around EVERY DAY. Then you finally get the call of approval. And the only reason this happened was because your information matched up. Not because you needed help. Because your documents were valid.

They tell you that you cannot bring a majority of the little belongings you have left. They tell you the costs of travel. (BY THE WAY, THIS ENTIRE PROCESS COSTS MONEY. THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS. AND YES, YOU PAY THIS.) You pack whatever you can. You have $200 from a ring your mother gifted you that you had to pawn. You say goodbye to your roots, your country, your people, your home, your family. Everything you ever knew. You cry the whole flight there. You get to America. Everyone speaks a language you don’t understand and looks at you funny when you speak yours. Welcome home.

You’re in America, the great! You’re safe! You made it! But not quite yet because more interviews. Of course, they are gracious enough to let you sleep for the night. You tell them the story again. You provide the documents again. You do another medical exam. You get seven shots in one day. Your little sister cries because she can’t stand the shots anymore.

They give your parents a month to do in a new foreign country what took them their entire lives to do at home. The extent of the Medicaid and food stamps is limited to this month but you do get old, donated furniture.

In the face of ALL OF THIS ADVERSITY, your parents find jobs. Both of them. They find two. They don’t sleep and you barely see them. You and your sister raise each other. On the first day of class, you get called a terrorist and told that you have lice. You’re dirty.

You keep your head down and excel in your ESL classes. You cry at home. But not to your parents because they’re at work. Month one is over. No more assistance. Your parents, because they work, are able to buy new furniture and even a car. You never see your parents but you are grateful to have a safe bed to sleep in. Fast forward three years. You learn English, your parents find better jobs, though they can’t shake the severe work ethic. They WORK. They work until they can afford to buy a house.

Fast forward nine years. You’re in college, working on a higher degree. You have a steady job. You have friends, a role in your community, a passion. You’re thankful for the fact that you were one of the lucky ones to survive. You’re so thankful that you spend your time volunteering and organizing to make sure others can be as safe as you are.

That’s what it means to be a refugee.


Hana Selimovic is a refugee from Bosnia who lives in upstate New York. She has been involved in community organizing and activism, and is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: