Refugees 101

One of my friends who works extensively with refugees recently outlined the background check process. This info is also available on the State Department website. In the spirit of this blog, I hope to cultivate bridges through transparent, non-partisan information. Understanding how things work is step one:

First a refugee must register as a refugee seeking resettlement. This is done through the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees). They collect preliminary data on the refugee: name, age, place of origin, religion, flight story (why they left), and family members, as well as fingerprints. This information is then sent to the Refugee Support Center (RSC). This center is funded by the State Department. RSC conducts a lengthy investigation into the refugee. This includes multiple interviews by someone from the RSC. The information is also put into a database that is cross referenced to make sure the refugee is not already registered (if they left one refugee camp and went to another). The info is then sent to the US for a background check.

There are multiple agencies that participate in the background check:  the National Counterterrorism Center, FBI, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Defense, and the Department of State, as well as the intelligence community. All of their data is sent back to the RSC. The background check checks for security threats, including connections to “bad actors” or people that wish our country harm, or those associated with people that wish us harm, and past immigration or criminal violations. For Syrian applicants, DHS conducts an additional enhanced review. Refugees are screened more carefully than any other type of traveler to the U.S. All of this info is then sent back to DHS where people who are trained to look into immigration affairs further investigate the candidate. They also do in-country interviews with the applicant and run his/her fingerprints again. The interview and fingerprint info is checked against data collected at the start of this process to make sure everything is still the same. If new information pops up, for example if a known relative is registered in the camp during the process, it will be halted while a background check is done on the relative to make sure no concerning information pops up about the relative. If at any point inconsistencies are found, the process is halted and the applicant is not allowed to resettle in the U.S. If everything checks out the applicant is, again, fingerprinted and rechecked. The prints are checked against the following systems: The FBI biometric database, the DHS biometric database, which includes watch-list information and previous immigration encounters in the U.S. and overseas, and the U.S. Department of Defense database, which includes fingerprints obtained around the world. Again, if inconsistencies or problematic results come back, the process is stopped and the applicant is denied resettlement. If not, the applicant goes onto cultural orientation (about America) and a medical check. Again, if all is well, the applicant is then referred to resettlement partners in America who then resettle them in America.

The US has been resettling refugees since 1975. Since 9/11 the US has resettled roughly 75,000 refugees.  About half of refugees that apply for resettlement in the U.S. are allowed to resettle here, and only about 2% are of “combat age”. About half the refugees admitted are children, and 25% are over the age of 60. Refugees are “loaned” the money to fly here, and after one year in the U.S. they must start paying the US government back for their airfare. The whole process from registration to setting foot on U.S. soil takes about 2 years.

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Be Radically Curious

At a recent holiday party, a friend described today’s mood as one where it is vital to be radically curious. There are so many unknowns, so many possible ways for events to unfold, so many different roles to play and choices to make.

I like this phrase, “radically curious,” because it speaks to the best of the human condition and is universal. One can be radically curious about almost anything — art, politics, literature, music, food, sports, mechanics, energy, water, culture, relationships… you name it. In a world of sound bites, perhaps we have lost some of that impulse to seek out the truth in stories for ourselves.

So stay curious. Stay radically curious. And follow that curiosity wherever it leads you.

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Nothing comes from nothing

It has been far too long since I’ve written in this space.  Granted, a lot happened in the past ten months, but the events of the last few weeks demonstrate that history is at a crossroads. We are more globally connected than ever before, and yet the cultural divides seem to be growing deeper. Fear is a powerful emotion, but love is stronger. I do believe that justice marches only forward, slowly, but it does not march passively. The beauty is in how the actions of a few, over time, can be the difference between justice and injustice.

On this MLK Day of 2016, I am reinvigorating this blog. Silence does not breed justice, and as forces try to isolate groups from each other, it is more important than ever to cultivate bridges.  In my travels, I have found more often than not that people are people. While we have differences, we share more in common than the modern newsreel would indicate. The best antidote to fear and terror is conversation. I do believe that as long as parties continue to talk with one another, and as long as we are joined globally, love will prevail. But it will not happen through inaction.

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The Human Toll of an Anemic Recovery

Late last week, a friend shared with me an article from the Seattle Weekly, “A Letter to the Investor Buying Our Apartment Building.” Sadly, this emotionally charged piece is a common story, although it is a story rarely told. Our lopsided economic “recovery,” – a recovery for only the very few – has a human toll. Some have paid by being forced to move, many have paid by downsizing and rewriting their hopes and dreams, and some, as was the case for William (Bill) McHalffey, pay with their lives. Opportunities for even the most modest forms of dignity when a person falls on tough times are drying up, while life for the educated, tech-savvy, and asset and income wealthy continues to improve. In a place like Seattle and much of the rest of the country, there is a disappearing middle class.  Population growth is occurring mostly among the affluent and the poor, setting the stage for future instability and conflict.

Seattle is not alone in having a housing crisis, but perhaps what is most shocking about this form of inequity is the level of disagreement over the sense of urgency, who should take responsibility, and even some denial as to whether a problem exists at all. For a city that prides itself on social justice, one would think that the abundance of cranes on the horizon is a sign that at least some of the dwellings going up are affordably priced. While some are, most are not, and Seattle Mayor, Ed Murray’s demand that 20,000 of the needed 50,000 dwellings to be built over the next decade be priced affordably is a bold statement. Government and the non-profit sector cannot build 20,000 affordable homes on their own. By putting forth this number, Mayor Murray is saying that for-profit builders, developers, and investors are part of the solution, too. They have to be. The need is just that great.

The empirical evidence in the Seattle Weekly letter demonstrates what housing advocates have been saying for years – every resource is stretched to the breaking point, and when an investor purchases a building for profit, someone like Bill runs out of options. When there is nowhere else to go but the street, and the street means almost certain suffering and death, what do you do?

But I’m not here to talk just about people like Bill. I’m here to talk about everyone because in many ways the biggest tragedy of our anemic recovery is that too many of us are seeking ways to take ourselves out of the equation and put the blame on someone else. This makes sense because taking responsibility for a problem so seemingly insurmountable is tough. It is human nature to try to find someone else to provide the solution. However, the belief that larger government and non-profit organizations can solve this crisis is flawed, as is the belief that deficit reduction will lead to more growth or that tax cuts for the wealthy will trickle down. Poverty reduction is a growth industry, yet we are treating it as something to be relegated to philanthropy and charity. I believe that the answer lies in a balanced approach, where businesses recognize the value of investing in all people and communities, and government serves as a responsible backstop and policy framework that encourages the scaling of socially, economically, and environmentally mindful ventures.  The role of the people in this is to act as conscientious consumers, humane and respectful citizens, and neighborhood stewards.

Having lived in places with higher levels of inequality than the US, I can assure you that an increasingly inequitable America will be an insecure place to be even for those fortunate to have access to resources. Inequality leads to the erosion of a tax base, political turmoil, and social unrest. Highly inequitable places have gates around single family homes, even in quiet residential neighborhoods, and violent crimes occur with regularity. Sadly, those gates have already started going up in many of our communities.

The US is at a pivotal point, and we all need to choose between a policy of austere Social Darwin capitalism or a more humane form of social capitalism with a responsive and agile safety net. A wonderful survey of research from The Atlantic, “Welfare Makes America More Entrepreneurial,” challenges conventional wisdom on both sides of the political aisle, making a strong case that a resurgence of entrepreneurship is vital for a truly diverse economic recovery. Policies of austerity often result in curbing the ability for people to take calculated risks. When the American Dream becomes simply putting food on the table and keeping enough of an emergency fund to weather bad times, we all lose. It despairs me to think what potential opportunities for innovation have been thrown under the bus because their future inventor is too busy focusing on just getting by. A safety net benefits everyone.

Which brings me back to investors, builders, and developers. In planning for more equitable communities, we must not demonize people and institutions focused on making profits. To do so would be a zero sum game. If anything, we should invite them, and everyone else, to the table. Equitable communities involve all of us, and the challenges are substantial. We will likely need to rethink zoning, property ownership, financial tools, investment, construction, and even the very nature of what it means to have a home. Our current paradigm is broken and needs an overhaul. We can either work together on this or be torn apart by it.

My hope and dream as it always has been on this blog is to start from the most basic. Let’s talk with each other, not at each other.

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On Breathing

The words I Can’t Breathe seem quite simple on the surface. Who could have predicted that these words would come to define a moment, perhaps a movement, to close out the year 2014? Anyone who has ever struggled to breathe, nearly drowned or choked or lives with asthma, knows that this phrase is anything but simple. It’s an expression of a struggle.

I’m usually a very jolly person in December, despite the darkness and the cold, despite the deadlines that come with the turn of a calendar page. This season of giving feels different. Growing pains are preventing us from breathing collectively in peace and harmony.

When I played music to the tune of rehearsals three out of the seven nights of the week, or when I ran cross county and track and field breathing meant the difference between success and failure. One can’t do much of anything without deep breaths of fresh, clean, strength-giving  air. It calms the nerves, centers the energy, and keeps us at an even keel.

Our society is struggling to breathe because not everyone is free. Potential and opportunity are measured by zip code and class, and the dreams are squashed far too early for far too many people. When the dream becomes not a yearning for success but a struggle for survival we all lose.

However, in this season of giving, I do believe in hope.  #ICantBreathe represents an awakening. It might be a tall order for everyone to get along, but #ICantBreathe is about giving everyone a fair chance. Breathing as a society means recognizing in our bones that we are all on this rock hurtling through space together. We might not always agree, but none of us have the right to stand in the way of another’s potential.

Please share if you believe #ICantBreathe can and should become the closing chapter on centuries of class and racial oppression and the beginning of a more harmonious, just world.  Please share if you’d like to see #ICantBreathe represent constructive change for the better.  I, for one, believe humans are still capable of empathy and compassion.  It is what gives us souls.

Season’s Greetings, each and every one.

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Not just another thirteen orbits

I have to admit with a bit of embarrassment that it wasn’t until I fired up my “digital oracle” this morning that I realized today was another 9/11 anniversary. Lucky 13th. I remember clearly where I was and what I was doing. In college in Maine, gathering my books with NPR on, I heard that a small plane hit one of the towers. Didn’t think much of it, so I went to class. The love poetry of John Donne. Of course, news started bubbling up, and eventually class was let out a bit early. By the time I returned to my dorm room, all my friends were crowded around our TV. I tried to call home to New York, but it took a long time to get through. Luckily, everyone was safe, but the view from the train station looking south was devastating. That afternoon, I had another class: Religions of India — we were to focus on Islam. While no one would be penalized for skipping that day, the Professor didn’t cancel. Our curriculum was far too relevant.

Fast forward several years, there’s another moment I remember where I was and what I was doing. In a small village in Niger, listening to the BBC World Service describe the collapse of the world financial markets, the end of Lehman Brothers. It was time to get my rice and sauce from the local market. This market hadn’t collapsed yet. Fueled by the activities of people, community, and daily life, subsistence farming doesn’t play with credit default swaps.  But even remote villages eventually face turmoil when the world doesn’t sit well.

We remember events because they remind us how everything leads to the next occurrence, and the next and the next. While not everything happens for a reason (sometimes life does just throw you a stink bomb), I don’t believe there is true randomness in the long view. We plant the seeds of tomorrow with the triumphs or mistakes of today.

It’s been a while since I’ve cultivated a bridge on this forum.  Hopefully the next wait won’t be so long.

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On Truth and Reconciliation – Thank you, Madiba

Nelson Mandela Quote

Image by symphony of love, Creative Commons 2.0.

I lived in Cape Town, South Africa for six months nearly 10 years after the end of Apartheid as part of a study abroad program focused on the cultural and political transformation of the city.  Cape Town and South Africa as a whole is one of the most fascinating places in the world, both for its demonstration that hope can spring out of oppression, and also for its ongoing challenges.

While the end of Apartheid has not brought a smooth transition and South Africa still faces tremendous political, social, and economic challenges, two leaders stand at the forefront of this journey towards a more harmonious global society: Bishop Desmond Tutu and former President, Nelson Mandela. These two leaders are not simply figures for South Africa; they are figures for the entire world, articulating the best part of what makes us human – the ability to forgive but not forget.  As we remember Mandela’s life, let us not forget that we are part of his journey – which is the world’s journey, too.

Visiting Cape Town so soon after the fall of Apartheid, nearly everyone I met except for the very young children remembered the way things used to be.  My study abroad program had us live with host families – a few different families over the course of the six months, representative of the diversity within the nation.  Everyone’s memory had a unique perspective; while some experienced immediate improvement as a result of the end of Apartheid, many experienced a mixed bag.  Long-term change rarely brings short-term peace.

One major distinction from our experience in the US – a country that is still slowly overcoming a history of deep oppression by race and ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation – is the level of openness the public uses to speak about the past.  Perhaps my role as a visitor and scholar gave South Africans a greater level of comfort in telling me their stories, but I feel it was more than that.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission sent a loud and clear message to the country and to the world: the only way to move forward in prosperity together is to face the skeletons and demons of the past head on, develop a clear understanding of what happened, deliver justice when needed, and say that we can forgive but not forget.   This is easier said than done and the Commission’s ultimate legacy is yet to be determined, but Mandela’s unwavering optimism that humans are capable of reconciliation serves as a beacon of hope in an otherwise messy modern history.  Ask yourself, if you had experienced decades of oppression followed by a seemingly endless period behind bars, gazing at the staggering beauty that is Cape Town and Table Mountain, could you smile once again and forgive?

South Africa faces huge challenges, for forgiveness is not a one-time action.  Nor is movement beyond oppression a singular event in the United States.  Our vows for a more equitable society must continuously be renewed, along with an assessment of where we are, who we are, and where we are going.  As long as income inequality exists, we have not arrived as a people.  As we pay tribute to the incredible change agent who has left our human tribe, let us remember his lessons, for they are lessons to the world.

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