Nimo Hashi nervously adjusted her hijab as she scanned the passengers arriving at the Salt Lake International Airport terminal last Friday, hoping to catch sight of her husband in the crowd. Her two-year old daughter, Taslim, dressed for the occasion in a blue jumper with large white polka dots, shifted back and forth in her white shoes, looking back occasionally at her mother’s anxious face.
When Abdisellam Hassen Ahmed emerged from customs, Hashi, flowers in one hand and Taslim in the other, walked over to her husband, and the family quietly embraced. Ahmed planted an enthusiastic kiss on Hashi’s cheek and beamed as he hoisted his daughter into his arms for the first time, touching her face in wonder. Taslim looked a bit puzzled, not surprising since she’d never met her father. But at that moment, everything else faded into the background — the years of waiting, the unexpected delay, the fear that Ahmed wouldn’t be able to enter the country at all. What mattered now was that their family was finally together.
Somalia: A Country in Crisis
A 30-year civil war in Somalia, punctuated by famine, drought, and numberless civilian deaths at the hands of armed militias, has left generations of Somali refugees either born or living in exile. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), nearly 1 million Somalis have fled to surrounding countries, primarily Kenya, Ethiopia, and Yemen. Another 1.1 million more are displaced in camps within Somalia.Refugee camps are meant to be temporary, but many Somali refugees have lived in these camps for decades. The Kenyan government is in the process of closing Dadaab, the country’s largest refugee camp, plunging many of these refugees into despair over an uncertain future.
“Refugee camps are meant to be temporary, but many Somali refugees have lived in these camps for decades.”
Ahmed’s story is fairly typical. Now 29, he has lived in refugee camps since he was three. He and Hashi met in an Ethiopian refugee camp after fleeing Somalia to escape the horrors of the country’s long-running civil war. Hashi had already applied for refugee resettlement to the United States when they met and was waiting to hear back about her application status. When she was accepted in 2014, she was married and pregnant with Taslim. She and Ahmed decided it was best for her to go to America without him while they waited for his application to make its way through the vetting process.
The Refugee Resettlement Process
The U.N. estimates that approximately 26,000 Somali refugees are currently working through the resettlement process to move to the U.S., a process that can take anywhere from 18 months to three years. While some Americans are ready to welcome these refugees with open arms, others are more cautious. Some are even skeptical that the vetting process can prevent terrorists from landing on U.S. soil. Many people do not understand how incredibly difficult it is for refugees to apply for asylum, much less make it through the arduous resettlement processFor starters, less than one percent — ONE PERCENT— of all refugees are referred by the UNHCR for resettlement, and only a small portion of that one percent is referred for resettlement in the United States.The vetting process includes numerous steps, cross-checks, and safeguards. Let’s take a look at the resettlement process, the strictest form of security screening for any traveler to the U.S., with its series of extensive background, security, and health checks.
1. Refugee StatusAn individual or family must apply for refugee status with the UNHCR. The U.N. collects identifying documents, biographical information. and biometric data such as iris scans or fingerprints. Applicants undergo an in-depth interview to determine whether they qualify as refugees and are strong candidates for resettlement.
2. Referral to the United StatesIf the applicant meets the criteria for resettlement in the U.S., he or she goes to a Resettlement Support Center (RSC). An international resettlement agency or nonprofit contracted by the State Department conducts further interviews, compiles additional background information, and assembles data required by U.S. security agencies for further screening.
3. Security Clearance
The security screening process includes a comprehensive investigation into the applicant’s travel history, affiliations, criminal history, cellphone usage, and social media activity. Applicants from countries with higher terrorist activity, such as Syria or Iraq, are subject to increased scrutiny. Up to six government agencies are involved in the security clearance process, including the Department of Homeland Security, State Department, FBI, United States Intelligence Community, Department of Health and Human Services, and Department of Defense.
4. In-person Interview
Applicants are interviewed by specially trained personnel from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), photographed, and fingerprinted. Their biometric data are cross-checked against several government databases, including the FBI, DHS, and Defense Department databases, to ensure they aren’t on the terrorist watch list or have committed a crime.
5. DHS Approval and Medical Screening
If the applicant is cleared by DHS, he or she must undergo a medical exam to ensure he or she is strong enough to travel and treated/free from any diseases that could threaten public health.
6. Matching with a Sponsor Agency
The applicant is matched with one of nine national resettlement agencies, who then assign the refugee to a resettlement site with a local affiliate. Catholic Community Services and the International Rescue Committee of Salt Lake are the main resettlement organizations for refugees arriving in Utah. Organizations like Women of the World provide ongoing support to refugees when resettlement services from these local affiliates end.
7. Cultural Orientation
Incoming refugees attend cultural orientation classes to help them adjust to life in the United States. Classes provide refugees with basic information and skills to help ease the transition to their new home.
8. Second Security Clearance
The International Organization for Migration issues the necessary permits and books travel. The applicant is still subject to additional security clearances/checks until departure for the U.S. to ensure the clearance is still valid.
9. Airport Check
Prior to entry to the U.S., applicants are subject to additional screening from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s National Targeting Center and the Transportation Security Administration’s Secure Flight Program to confirm the refugee’s identity as the person screened and approved.
10. Admission to the United States
Local resettlement-agency affiliates help refugees settle into their new home and provide initial services such as housing, furnishings, food, and clothing for up to 90 days. They also offer assistance with employment, English-language instruction, and job training. Refugees are expected to become self-sufficient as quickly as possible, no small feat considering the hardships they’ve endured over many years.
A New Life in Salt Lake
Ahmed and Hashi know how fortunate they are, even with the struggles that still lie ahead. Ahmed will need to find a job, learn English, get acquainted with his little girl, and become familiar with the rhythms of life in this new land. But for now, sitting on the couch in his apartment with Taslim and Hashi, he has all he needs.