THE ANXIETY OF SEPARATION
“Coming to America was a day of worship and praise,” former refugee Blaise told a group of listeners at the Diocese of Southern Ohio Convention in Dublin this past fall, just two months after his arrival.
“Refugees don’t have choices. And for this opportunity, I thank God every single day.”
Blaise spent 11 years in a refugee camp, sleeping outside on boxes amongst hundreds of others and going days without food, consistently wondering if he would see another day.
Blaise and his brother originally fled their home in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to escape the threatening conditions of their community. Rebel military groups were, and continue to be, responsible for the murdering and kidnapping of hundreds of thousands in their region.
Now safe in the US, Blaise is an aspiring social worker with the hope of making an impact on the 65.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, according to the UN Refugee Agency.
Once settled, it’s safe to say that refugees make incredible assets to our community. Their hardworking mentality comes from a place of past wounds and hardships, and many use their history of physical and emotional violence to propel themselves forward in business, humanitarian and education ventures. Refugee families strive to create a successful life for themselves and others, doing their work with love and gratitude.
But unfortunately, the optimism can only go so far once harsh reality sets in, or the “honeymoon” phase of arriving in America has subsided. Families are grateful for the chance at a new life, but many cannot fully relax in a place of peace due to the darker side of the resettlement process: family separation.
I sat down with Angie Plummer, the director of Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS) to learn more about this emotionally taxing experience that many families are forced to navigate around.
“All of these cases are refugees separated from other family members back in their home country,” she explains as she points to the file cabinet to the left of her desk, containing drawer after drawer of hundreds of purple folders.
“Can you imagine? What could be worse than being separated from your children, your parents, or a brother or sister?”
Unwanted separation puts tremendous amounts of stress on refugees, for they feel a huge obligation to help the others that have been left behind. And you can’t blame them. They’ve experienced firsthand the violent conditions overseas and want nothing more than for their relatives to be safe. How can a new life in America be enjoyable without loved ones at their side?
Around 75% of all cases processed through CRIS are for the purpose of reuniting family members, but this process can take an average of four years.
These specific cases, called Affidavit of Relationship (AOR) cases, are for newly settled refugees with a relationship to a family member overseas and are handled on a case-by-case basis. Many cannot rest comfortably in their new homes with the uncertainty of their loved ones’ futures lingering. Families ask about the status of their case, but not much can be done to speed up the process. On top of already navigating and adapting around a new environment, the unpredictability of their family’s future is tough.
Amina Ali is another former refugee from Somalia who came to the United States in February 2013. Amina came to Columbus with her son, leaving her other four children and husband back at home. Due to horrific violence in her community, she was forced to leave her family, but did not expect to be separated from them for so long. Finally, in July 2016, she and her family were reunited.
“I can’t really describe the feeling when I was at the airport. I never thought I would see them alive, but when I saw them I could not believe it,” Amina says, describing the experience of reuniting with her family after over three years of separation.
“I was crying for about three hours and could not stop it. My older children knew me from before, but my four-year-old did not know me. Now she knows that I am her mother.”
As people of faith, it is important to consider the facts surrounding the resettlement process. Blaise and Amina were both fortunate to receive the chance at a new life with their loved ones by their side, but it came with a price: years of skepticism and heartbreak. The future for refugees is scary and questionable as new policies are being enacted to suspend entry to various groups. It’s an unfortunate scenario to be in, especially since many of the holes in the system can be credited to phobias surrounding religious groups in our nation.
Moving forward, our actions will be detrimental for the future of our brothers and sisters. The Refugee Council reminds us that resettlement saves lives, encourages other countries to keep their doors open to people needing protection, and promotes regional stability and global security. We cannot turn our backs on the refugees we have pledged to welcome. Refugee resettlement is a cornerstone of U.S. global leadership and for that to continue, we must uphold our values of generosity, hospitality and compassion.
Nicole Hamme is an Episcopal Service Corps member with Confluence Year. Her worksite for her year of service is Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS). Contact Nicole at firstname.lastname@example.org.