In the aftermath of ISIS-orchestrated attacks in Beirut and Paris, more than half of the United States' governors have pledged to attempt to bar the entry of Syrian refugees into their states. Even though both President Obama and French President François Hollande have insisted that their respective countries will continue to welcome refugees, anti-refugee sentiment is on the rise. As recently as last Thursday, the House voted with an overwhelming majority to tighten screening procedures on Syrian refugees. But amid all these attempts to make life even more difficult for refugees, one woman — Arnesa Buljusmic-Kustura, who identifies herself on Twitter as a Bosnian-Turk activist — explained in a series of 54 tweets the process by which she and her family became refugees.
Before diving into Buljusmic-Kustura's poignant narrative, let's take a look at what the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has to say about how a refugee comes to the U.S. Here's a rough summary of what someone would need to do, according to the USCIS and State Department websites:
- Receive a referral to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP).
- Receive help filling out your application if referral is granted.
- Compile a portfolio containing important information.
- Be interviewed abroad by a USCIS officer to determine resettlement eligibility.
- Undergo medical exams and background checks.
- Upon approval of refugee status, receive a medical exam, a cultural orientation, help with your travel plans, and a loan for your travel to the United States
- Apply for a green card one year after coming to the United States.
This summary does not include all elements of the application and resettlement process, and does not address work requirements or travel restrictions. Additionally, this is not sufficient if you want to understand what becoming a refugee is actually like; the erasure of human narratives is, in part, what enables Republican governors to conflate refugees with terrorists. It is especially important now, in this time of anti-refugee sentiment, that we seek out and amplify the narratives of refugees such as Buljusmic-Kustura. And even she acknowledged at the very beginning of her now-viral Twitter thread that the process for being admitted as a Syrian refugee to the United States is even more complex.
After this acknowledgement, Buljusmic-Kustura launched into a detailed explanation of how she and her family became refugees, starting with the application for refugee status. According to Yahoo! News, Buljusmic-Kustura was only 12 years old when she first came to the United States, around 2002. She was one of approximately 169,000 Bosnian refugees to resettle in the U.S. during and after Yugoslavia's civil war. This is her story.
This, of course, was just the beginning of the process for Buljusmic-Kustura and her family. Next, after about a year, came the first interview. It was not the only one.
Nor was the interview process easy.
Keep in mind that this was all still part of the process of applying for refugee status. Before this status could be granted and resettlement could take place, the family also had to undergo the medical exams and background checks detailed by the USCIS.
Finally, after two years, their application was approved, but the process of resettlement had only just begun.
At this point, Buljusmic-Kustura took a moment to address the costs of this process. The USCIS states that there is no fee to apply for refugee status, but that does not mean that there are no expenses. Indeed, the U.S. government issues interest-free loans to refugees to cover the cost of their travel to the U.S., through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program, but those loans must be fully repaid after settlement. This "no fee" statement also does not address costs someone might incur in the process of filing an application, such as lawyers' fees — it is not obligatory to hire a lawyer, but it is advisable.
Next, the family had to confront the reality of resettlement, and prepare to move.
Their arrival in America wasn't ideal, of course, but Buljusmic-Kustura expressed gratitude for her survival. However, the resettlement process was not complete upon arrival.
From here, Buljusmic-Kustura went on to describe what it was like to be a newly-arrived refugee family in the U.S.
A few hours after this last tweet, Buljusmic-Kustura added a couple of things that she left out of the original thread.
In addition, she had a few clarifications about her experience.
Buljusmic-Kustura's narrative's was followed by many on Twitter — a number of whom replied to her thread explaining that it had opened their eyes, that it inspired them to share their own stories, or that it ought to be shared with any and all people expressing anti-refugee sentiment. For everyone who thinks that refugee resettlement should be restricted or banned altogether, or that the security process ought to be more intense, take a look. The process is already intense, and for some folks, even more so. Nobody would voluntarily go through this rigorous process unless they had no other choice.
Today, Buljusmic-Kustura is using her experiences to help other folks. According to Yahoo! News, she — at 26 years old — is the executive director of the Bosniak American Association of Iowa, and she wants to deconstruct the criminalization of refugees.
With all the fear-mongering going around, I think it’s important for people to understand that refugees really are just regular people seeking a safe place. And when they're granted that status and the ability to escape the horrors that face them, they become contributing members of our society.
Something else that is important to know — and something that President Obama pointed out in some recent tweets — is that at the moment, the U.S. primarily resettles women, children, and disabled folks. For all the stereotypes about refugees and terrorism that have been circulating, it is necessary to note that it is extremely difficult for anyone to become a refugee in the U.S.
It is absolutely vital that we all write to our Congressional officials and governors to stand in solidarity with refugees, and express our discontent with attempts to restrict resettlement. In the context of recent attacks, we've seen an escalation in comparisons between refugees and ISIS, which makes no sense — according to The Washington Post, identified assailants in the Paris attacks were European Union nationals, and refugees are actually fleeing from ISIS-orchestrated violence.
What can you do? Speak out against anti-refugee sentiment. Stand in solidarity with refugees. Amplify narratives like Buljusmic-Kustura's. Take political action. Just as we must speak out against Islamophobia, so too must we speak out against the xenophobia that is preventing folks from obtaining refugee status.