All posts by Kelly

A SERIES ON REFUGEES: Who They Are, Where They Come From, and Why They Had to Leave: Iraq

Iraq (9,880) (FY 2015 12,676)

The current state of Iraq stems from the vicious reign and eventual power vacuum left by Saddam Hussein, and the impact of international interventions. This video offers a short and simplistic overview of the Iraqi conflict. For the purposes of writing this article only I will refer to the group as Shia although an alternative spelling is Shiite. Sunni Saddam Hussein became president of Iraq in 1979 succeeding Baathist Ahmad Hasan Al-Bakr. The strong nationalist, Baathist party came to power via a coup 10 years after toppling the British-installed monarchy in 1958. As a Sunni, Saddam Hussein was in the 20% minority of a 63% majority Shia state. Sunni Muslims, however make up an estimated 80-90% of the world’s Muslim population. Iran and other states in the Middle East are also Shia and therefore have a vested interest in politics of Iraq. In 1980 the Pro-Iranian Dawah Party attacked Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz sparking the Iran-Iraq War. Meanwhile in 1981 an Israeli air raid destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor. The 8-year war between Iraq and Iran ended in a stalemate with over 500,000 deaths, roughly 500,000 permanently disabled troops and hundreds of billions in damages. In violation of international law both countries used chemical weapons and indiscriminate ballistic-missiles attacks with no regard for collateral damage and civilian losses. While Iran had the far superior military power, Iraq found support from Kuwait and regional power and long time rival of Iran, Saudi Arabia. The war ended in 1988 with both sides signing a UN-mediated peace agreement. Kurdish rebels took advantage of the war-weary nation to begin staking a claim for an ethnically Kurdish State. Iraq retaliates with a gas attack on Halabjah, a Iraqi Kurdish city. Saddam Hussein empowered by his military success invades Kuwait and rapidly overthrows the Kuwait emir to take control of 20% of the world’s oil reserves. In response to the invasion, the UN denounces the attack and issues a worldwide ban on trade with Iraq. On August 9th the U.S. began Operation Desert Shield to protect our ally in the region Saudi Arabia—also Sunni majority. After Iraq refused to vacate Kuwait, 700,000 UN troops, primarily from the U.S., but also from 31 other nations went into the Middle East to rid Kuwait of Iraqi troops called Operation Desert Storm in a 6-week offensive resulting in restoration of Kuwait and Iraqi surrender known as the Persian Gulf War. During the offensive 100,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed or wounded and another 100,000 civilians died from wounds, or lack of adequate water, food and medical supplies. At the conclusion of the offensive sanctions were enacted to get Iraq to disable their Weapons of Mass Destruction programs. Saddam Hussien refused and the Iraqi people suffered greatly with an estimated 1,000, 000 deaths as a result of the sanctions in place until the weapons were destroyed in 1998. The US and British initiate Operation Desert Fox bombing all remaining nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs. Life improved for the average Iraqis for a time. In the after math of 9/11 U.S. President George W Bush identifies Iraq as a state-sponsor of terrorism and the U.S. launched a now controversial invasion in 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein. With Saddam Hussein ousted, instability in the region and ensuing power vacuum, groups clashed in attempts to gain power. Suicide bombers and car bombs terrorized Baghdad and Ayatollah. Shia and Sunnis clashed in violent outbursts across the country. Images of U.S. soldiers torturing and humiliating detainees sparked outrage and were used in extremist recruitment materials. In 2004 the U.S.-sponsored, interim government fails to preserve peace and in-fighting begins between primarily Shia and Sunni forces. The U.S. lead a major offensive into Falluja to quell the uprising. In early 2005, 8 million Iraqis voted for a Transitional National Assembly, taking steps toward autonomously ruling Iraqi without U.S. intervention. As the year progressed violence escalated and the authority of the transitional government declined. Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani became president and Ibrahim Jaafari, a Shia, took office as the prime minister. Violence continued to build with more and more guerilla-style warfare like car bombs. Shias and Kurdish endorsed a drafted constitution, but Sunnis did not support it and the country did not pass it. Later,  a new constitution made Iraq an Islamic Federal Democracy and the majority of Iraqis voted in a real election for the first time in nearly 50 years. The country though dissolved into sectarian violence, as an average of 100 civilians died each day through 2005-2006. After Saddam Hussein was executed for war crimes and amidst continued violence primarily targeting Shia areas, US President Bush sends troops to Baghdad to work alongside Iraqi security forces. In response, Shia militant groups led a campaign of kidnappings and retaliation killings against the Sunni population. In 2007 bombings escalated and nearly 200 people died each day. Kurdish and Shia leaders continued allying themselves and blocking Sunni leaders from influencing government. From 2007 onward intervening forces slowly turned control of the government and security forces over to Iraq as death tolls dropped. In 2008 the U.S. handed once-Al-Qaeda controlled Anbar province back over to Iraqi security forces as the first Sunni province turned over to the Shia-led government. In 2009 the U.S. made plans to leave Iraq by 2011 and began giving more authority to Iraq. In June of 2009 the U.S. troops only existed as advisors to the Iraqi-controlled forces. Opposition forces began to rally but failed to win a majority in the 2009 elections. Near the end of 2009 attacks began again and the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State claimed responsibility for attacks killing hundreds of people. Radical Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr returned to Iraq. In December of 2011 the U.S. pulled all remaining combat troops from Iraq. In 2012 Vice President Tariw al-Hashemi was sentenced to death for running death squads and fled to Turkey. In the middle of accusations of corruptions, and continued violence President Jalal Talabani suffered a stroke opening the opportunity for Sunni Muslims to rally against the Shia-led government. Sectarian violence resumed and intensified to an all-out war. In July of 2013 at least 500 prisoners broke out of Taji and Abu Ghraib—many of whom were Al-Qaeda leaders and supporters. The Islamic State begian to attack Iraqi Kurdistan in response to Kurds fighting against ISIS in Syria. The two wars begin to merge leading to further violence. ISIS secured Fallujah and held the city against Iraqi forces. In 2014 ISIS took Mosul and key territory in the northern Anbar Province. Kurdish forces, the U.S. and Iran aided Iraqi forces until Kurdish Region President Massoud Barzani announced plans for an independence referendum in July 2014, but agreed to put the referendum on hold when Shia politician Haider Al-Abda proposed an inclusive government with Sunnis, Kurds and the Iraqi government agreed to share oil wealth and military resources with the Kurdish Region. The U.S., with international support began air raids in Iraq against ISIS. In 2015 ISIS retook Ramadi and held territory as demonstrations against the government led by Shia cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr occupied the streets in Baghdad. In 2016 with U.S. support government forces re-took territory held by ISIS including Mosul and Fallujah. Moqtada Al-Sadr stormed parliament demanding more government representation and an end to government corruption. In response the government recognized the Shia Popular Mobilisation Units in full legal status as part of the Iraqi military. The protests subsided. The refugees fleeing Iraq are fleeing ISIS and other extremist groups, and therefore, are our allies. As ISIS is pushed out of the country we should see this number continue to decline as long as Haider Al-Abadi’s government continues to support Shia, Sunni, Kurdish and other minorities and the economy gathers traction in a much needed reconstruction of war-weary cities. The fighting in Syria could also reopen wars in Iraq as Syria and Iraq share a border and many of the same international players have vested interests in both countries. I would be remiss not to mention that ISIS is an idea and much more difficult to get rid of than a governing power with borders. All-out war with ISIS continues especially in the northern provinces around Mosul and Kurdish areas. The Iraqi soldiers are our allies and taking the brunt of casualties in removing ISIS from Iraq. With a more inclusive government, the peace process continues to make progress.

UNHCR Iraq Page

IRC’s page on Iraq again this is a pro-refugee organization and therefore not a traditional news source.

NY Times’ overview of the Iraqi War published in 2008

BBC Country Profile Timeline: Iraq

BBC Country Profile Overview: Iraq

History’s Article on Iran-Iraq War

History’s Iraq Invades Kuwait

Council on Foreign Relations Iraqi War Timeline

Britannica’s Iraq War Entry (note the contents tab with additional info.)

Time’s “Seven Years in Iraq: An Iraq War Timeline

UNHCR’s Global Focus Page on Syria and Iraq

As this conflict involves the U.S. there is an abundance of credible sources and detailed accounts of our time in Iraq.


A SERIES ON REFUGEES: Who They Are, Where They Come From, and Why They Had to Leave: Burma/Myanmar

Burma/ Myanmar (12, 347) (FY 2015 18,386)

The world’s longest running civil war plagues Burma also known as Myanmar, a country the size of Texas with over 200 different ethnic groups and languages—many of which feature different alphabets. Sixty percent of the population belongs to the primarily Buddhist Burman ethnic group. With the remaining 40% split between many other ethnicities and sub groups within those groups. For example the Chin ethnic-group can be further divided into Chin-Hahka, Chin-Falam, Chin-Matu, and so on many of whom cannot understand each other. While Myanmar is 80% Buddhist, Christian minorities primarily of the Chin, Kachin and Karen people and the Rohingya Muslim minority exist in large number. Additionally Burma’s steep green hills and mountains contain valuable natural resources like jade, gold, timber and hydropower. Burma also has rich soil leading to areas of rural agriculture. Like India, Burma is a former British colony comprised of numerous natural enemies with complex histories and relationships. In 1942 during Japan’s expansion in WWII Japan invaded Burma, then a British Colony, and came to occupy the country in part with help from the Burma Independence Army (BIA). The BIA received military training, weapons and promises of an independent Burma from Japan in exchange for their aid in defeating the British. In 1945 Britain regained control of the region with help of the Anti-Fascist People Freedom League (AFPFL) formerly the BIA who, in short, doubted the promise of independence and grew weary of the mistreatment of Burmese soldiers. Major General Aung San, a lifelong activist, career soldier and politically connected rallied for a free Burma. He belonged to the majority Burman ethnicity and grew popular and went to London to work on an agreement for an Independent Burma. Political opponents however denounced him as “a tool of British Imperialism.” During a executive council session Aung and six of his colleagues were assassinated. U Saw, a political rival with Japanese ties was later executed for his part in the killings. With steps in place to secure a free Burma, independence came in 1948, but without a clear or popular leader. At this time each ethnic group was given the opportunity to secede and form their own nation. However, the Burman ethnicity with a majority and unilateral control of the military, politics and commerce wanted to remain a single nation to keep the vast resources under their control. U Nu, a trusted associate of Aung San became the Prime Minister. Though highly respected, the early government struggled to remain free and independent clashing with communist and ethnic-minority groups. The young economy struggled and his administration’s efforts failed to alleviate the tension as the standard of living plummeted. After a decade in control, in 1958 he resigned and General Ne Win took over. However the 1960 election put U Nu back in power when his party won the most votes. General Ne Win enjoyed the power of the government and in 1962 staged a coup establishing a military government and imprisoning U Nu. General Ne Win initiated, “The Burmese Way to Socialism.” The military government oppressed the average person, pillaging and seizing as desired. The generals begin a time of institutionalized rape and forced labor of non-majority ethnicities. Due to his ties to communism and blatant disregard for human rights the United States and other world powers raise sanctions against Burma crippling the already struggling economy. Ethnic minorities formed militias to fight against the military junta. Over the years these militias have had shifting alliances, leadership and name changes. Of particular interst are the Kachin Independent Army (KIA), The Arakan Army, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, Kuki National Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, Ta’ang Liberation Army and Zomi Revolutionary Army—all of whom have yet to sign a peace agreement. Additional military groups who have disbanded or signed treaties include All Burma Students’ Democratic Front, Arakan Liberation Army, Chin National Army, Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, Karen National Defence Organisation, Karen National Liberation Army, Karenni Army, Mon Nathional Liberation Army, National Democratic Alliance Army, Pa-O National Liberation Army, Shan Sate Army, United Wa State Army, Wa National Army, along with many more. General Win’s government could not simultaneously fight all fronts made especially difficult in the jungled mountainous areas without strong infrastructure. To fund the militias, groups turned to black market trades with China, and begin trafficking in heroin, methamphetamines and humans. As the economy faltered the government likewise turned to trafficking to fund the enduring wars with militia groups. In 1981 Ne Win relinquished control to retired general San Yu and stayed on as chairman of the party. In 1982 a law designated that people of “non-indigenous backgrounds” are “associate citizens” This law barred all non-ethnic Burmans from public office and spurred ethnic violence, retaliation and oppression of minorities. In 1987 currency devaluation and economic disarray led to anti-government riots. In response, the government killed thousands. In the uproar martial law went into effect and the government arrested thousands of people and political opposition including Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Aung San. In 1990, amidst the cries for elections the Opposition National League for Democracy won an election by a landslide, but the military refused to relinquish power. During this time Internally Displaced People camps became isolated, and supplies could not reach the camps leading to starvation, deplorable medical conditions and widespread suffering. Burma entered a series of cease-fire agreements in name alone between the government and militias. In the early 2000s the movement began to regain popularity uniting behind Aung San Suu Kyi as she won her Noble Prize. In 2011 the military government under Thein Sein attacked the KIA in Kachin State renewing dormant fighting. Democracy began to take root and the peace process gained steps. In October of 2015 Thein Sein signed a nationwide peace pact the month before the first legitimate election was held since the coup of 1962.  In March of 2016 Htin Kyaw as a proxy for Aung San Suu Kyi who is not allowed to hold office as she has children who are foreign nationals, was sworn in as the first democratically elected government since 1962. In peace talks and uniting the numerous ethnic groups, militias and populations Aung San Suu Kyi did not secure equal rights for all ethnicities. Namely the Rohingyas in Rakine state, the Muslim minority were not granted full rights and remain “associate citizens” unable to vote or hold office. The Rohingyas have been described as the world’s most persecuted people. Refugee camps full of Burmese were scheduled to close, the urban refugees in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia were scheduled to return as well as those who fled to the West in Bangladesh. However, these repatriations have been put on hold as violence persists. Aung San Suu Khi denies the violence and refuses to condemn the religious and ethnic persecution. Global outcry has denounced Aung San Suu Kyi even calling for her to be stripped of her Noble Prize. She remains popular with many groups for initiating democracy even at the expensive of few ethnic groups. Though no longer the sole governing power, the military retains strong influence and independence, at times challenging the budding democracy. Some of the fiercest fighting occurred in Kachin state where disturbances continue to pop up. Ethnic militias remain weary of disbanding and giving up autonomy and resources to a centralized government. We should see the number of Burmese resettled in the U.S., and global refugees decrease in the coming years though not disappear until the ethnic and religious violence completely ceases. The adage “if there is not justice for all, there is no justice at all” aptly applies here.

UNHCR Page on Thai Refugee Camps

Times Magazine Article “Inside the Kachin War Against Burma”

Asia Times Kachin War Explodes Myanmar’s Peace Drive

BBC Profile: Aung San Suu Kyi (note this does not address new criticisms of the controversial leader)

BBC Profile: Myanmar Timeline

Conflict Map of Myanmar

NPR: Rohingya Families Flee And Suffering in Myanmar for Bangladesh

CNN Myanmar’s Hidden War

Myanmar and the Karen Conflict: The Longest Civil War You’ve Never Heard of

Times Magazine: Burma’s Transition to Civilian Rule Hasn’t Stopped the Abuses of its Ethnic Wars

Burma Backgrounder from

Britannica Sun Aung

Britannica U Saw

Britannica U Nu

Indianapolis Monthly Kaw Lah’s Story

A SERIES ON REFUGEES: Who They Are, Where They Come From, and Why They Had to Leave: Syria

Syria (12,587) (FY 2015 1,682)

Watch a Vox video outlining the Syrian Civil War here. I usually do not give much credence to Vox, but this piece does follow the facts. The Syrian Civil war officially started in 2011 with the “Arab Spring”—a time when many nations including Syria began peacefully protesting restrictive regimes. In response to this call for change President Bashar Al-Assad cracked down violently. Communities armed themselves in self-defense and war broke out. Assad’s government has been a minority government in power for over 40 years, but had strong military backing. He could not cave to popular request for votes and remain in power. During this time, drought pushed rural Syrians to large cities straining and changing the demographics of some cities and thus tipping the balance of power. Once obscure minorities had numbers. Many of the rebel groups are divided along ethnic and religious lines, but not because they began that way. As the war progresses people have retreated to their own groups in a perceived safety and trust. The rebels began to split and fissure into more groups. At present, in Syria we have roughly 4 coalitions, Kurds seeking an independent state from Turkey and Syria somewhat backed by the U.S., ISIS being fought by everyone, Syrian forces led by Bashar Al-Assad backed by Russia, Hezbollah and Iran, and team “Moderate Rebels” backed by the U.S., Jordan, the Gulf States and Turkey—4 distinct armies made of players pushing different agendas, representing different ideologies and featuring different war tactics in and outside the rules of war. Namely the Kurds seek to claim independence and claim some land to create a Kurdish State. The rebel groups are not all on the same page. Should the rebels take control of Syria, the next challenge will be to find a way that a loose coalition of groups united in overthrowing Assad function as a governing body. ISIS also claimed land in Syria declaring the land its caliphate. The  burning hate-based group of terrorists willing to win at all costs, again with no regard for humanity in general, and also in violation of international law is known for conscripting child soldiers or and rapping and trafficking young girls. Iran and Saudi Arabia use Syria as a proxy war to gain dominance in the region. Russia has few remaining allies and wants to preserve Mr. Assad’s rule to ensure it’s last remaining military base outside the former Soviet Union remains open. The U.S. saw the opportunity to oust Assad—a long-time enemy—and to fight the Islamic state without more U.S. troops on the ground. Our policy has been to pump weapons into all groups fighting Assad and ISIS and thus ensuring the conflict continues. Wars open up power vacuums that will be filled one way or another.  Assad uses chemical weapons and murders innocent people in catastrophic numbers. He also uses starvation as a weapon, isolating Aleppo and striking citizens who try to flee. He violates international law and will one day likely be tried for war crimes, Inshallah. The Kurds are being attacked on multiple fronts bringing Turkey into the action. Turkey sponsors the U.S. backed rebels, but opposes the Kurds who the U.S. also backs as an ally in the fight against ISIS and now Bashar Al-Assad.  Add to this the many proxy wars going on between the Gulf States, Iran, Russia, Turkey, The U.S. and Syria is not only Syrians warring against their government, but a world proxy war being carried out in a country decimated by war. As more and more Syrians die and flee, each side will continue to fight in part because they are backed by wealthy nations who do not want to send their own troops, but want to win wars. That is why Syria is so complex and devastating. No realistic plan for peace exists and the conflict puts more and more people in the ground and drives more and more people out of the country.

UNHCR Syrian Conflict Page

NY Times Article: Straightforward Answers to Basic Questions About Syria’s War

CNN Syrian Civil War Fast Facts and Timeline

The Atlantic’s Confused Person’s Guide to the Syrian Civil War

PBS’s Cheat Sheet to the Syrian Conflict

BBC Syria: the Story of Conflict

Personal Story of a Refugee in Rolling Stone’s article “Mike Pence’s Refugee Problem” Please note that this piece is pro-refuge and a left-leaning source compared to all the others, and I acknowledge the bias.

A SERIES ON REFUGEES: Who They Are, Where They Come From, and Why They Had to Leave: the Democratic Republic of Congo

Democratic Republic of Congo (16,370) (FY 2015 7,876)

Click here to watch a 10-minute Overview of the Conflict in the DRC from the Council on Foreign Relations, though I take issue with some of the photos used, the lack of Congolese speaking on the DRC and that the video does not accurately portray Joseph Kabila, the video succinctly gives the history of the nation. The World’s 2nd longest running civil war occupies much of the Eastern DRC. The Democratic Republic of Congo–roughly the size of Western Europe– was colonized by Belgium and suffered terribly under occupation. The DRC is landlocked and bordered by jungle (the same area near Goma that Jane Goodall did her research and where the Jane Goodall Institute is today). In colonial times that meant there were few routes of passage in and out and so unchecked terror dominated the people. Many were enslaved and worked to death in the ivory trade or rubber plantations, later in mineral mines, or out rightly murdered. To this day the DRC holds some of the most profitable natural resources (including coltan used in mobile phones, diamonds, gold, copper and so on) which has led armed groups to compete for the wealth of the land. In 1960 the DRC was granted independence from Belgium and elected Joseph Kasavubu as President and Patrice Lumumba as Prime Minister. Nearly immediately the country was consumed with intense political fighting aligned along ethnic lines. As was common in the colonial era, Belgium claimed land without regard for the people living there and their warring factions. Through the fighting and aided by the United States Colonel Joseph Desire Mobutu (later changed his name to Mobutu Sese Seko) over threw Kasavubu and Lamumba installing himself as dictator of the DRC (at this time it was called the Congo then the Congo Free State then Zaire later changed to the DRC). The U.S. intervention here attempted to remove anyone sympathetic to communism, which Lamumba may have been. Mobutu’s 32-year reign deteriorated into a kleptocracy and was tainted with corruption, political repression and violence. Mobutu continued pushing foreign nationals out of DRC until the 1994 Rwandan Genocide when Hutus and Tutsis began pouring into the DRC. This flux in population set off ethnic tension and Motubu began an ethnic cleansing campaign targeting the Tutsi minority and the Banyararyanda at large. In this process he armed rebel groups in addition to the use of the military. The violence spiraled out of control and in 1997 he was overthrown by General Laurent Kabila. Kabila received support from nations in the regions due to Motubu’s nationalist policies. He was criticized for being too close to foreign governments as ethnic tensions in the DRC (called Zaire at this time) came to a boil. In a move of self-preservation he decreed that all foreign nationals should leave the DRC and the government would take over their businesses. Rwandan and Ugandan forces were outraged by his sharp turn against them and invaded in August 1998. Additionally internal groups began to rebel against Kabila backed by Rwanda and Uganda. Kabila then called on Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia for support effectively destabilizing the region and creating essentially a 3-way deadlock between coalitions of national and rebel armies. In 1999 a tentative peace agreement and cease-fire was signed, all foreign troops left the DRC and a UN Peacekeeping operation deployed into the DRC. The Peace Keeping Operation could not effectively protect civilians and was harshly criticized for it’s humanitarian failures. Despite the UN failures and tensions boiling just below the surface, this agreement held a tentative, relative peace until 2001 when Laurent Kabila was assassinated. His son Joseph Kabila was instated as president. Joseph Kabila survived the instatement of a new constitution and won a contested election in 2006 to become a legitimate president. Over the course of the last decade and a half various peace agreements have been signed, but none actually brought peace to the DRC. Armed groups in the DRC include the national army of the DRC, M23, Allied Democratic Forces, Mai Mai Militias, Coalition of Congolese Patriotic Resistance, the Lord’s Resistance Army among others. Rebel groups continue to occupy Eastern Congo and Kabila sought revenge against ethnic and political groups perceived to have been involved in the assassination of his father. Corruption and violence have prevailed during his presidency. Rebel groups and the military have been criticized for using child soldiers, stealing children and trafficking them, dealing in arms and drugs, pillaging and raping entire villages, and other violations of international law. The UN at one point called the DRC the “rape capital of the world.” Please also note that 53% of Congolese refugees are children.  Some of Joseph Kabila’s closest advisors had to step down when the UN discovered there was evidence they profited from the war and had secret deals with Zimbabwe, though Kabila was never directly implicated. Kabila finished his 2nd term (the constitution bars a 3rd term) in November of 2016, but has yet to step down citing the DRC does not have enough money to fund an election. The government cites the need to register some 30 million voters throughout the country with poor infrastructure ravaged by war. He estimates it will cost 1.8 billion that the DRC simply cannot mobilize. Many critics see this explanation as a way to remain in power without violating the constitution. Eastern DRC remains unstable with ethnic-based violence and self-serving armed groups pillaging the wealth of the nation.

The UNHCR’s page on the DRC

A BBC Profile on Joseph Kabila

A senior from the Honors College at Eastern Michigan University wrote an interesting  thesis on the Conflict in DRC

The World’s Worst War by Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times Sunday Review (Decemeber 2012)

BBC Country Profile

UNHCR Regional Response on the DRC interesting data in this one.

A SERIES ON REFUGEES: Who They Are, Where They Come From, and Why They Had to Leave: Overview

“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark” – Warsan Shire, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth

When we talk about refugees we are talking about people affected by widespread violent persecution. It is important to begin at the very beginning of these stories. That is, we need to know why people are fleeing their homes to arrive in camps or cities seeking refuge. I’ve heard criticism of refugees to the effect of “They need to fight for their country or no one will.” But, before we get to the specific countries and situations people are fleeing, which will hopefully address the criticism, there’s some important information we need to go over. I am attempting brevity on incredibly complex and decades-long conflicts so bare with me, know that at times I may oversimplify things, feel free to leave corrective or explanatory comments, and I am attaching a lot of links so if you want to learn more please do so.

While I encourage you to read each overview of the conflicts in the countries we are taking refugees from there are some things they all have in common:

  • The U.S. has worked and continues to work in destabilizing many countries we take refugees from. Our foreign policy often creates  the refugees we refuse to take.
  • Some people invest heavily in maintaining war. People profit from war. Think of the factories in which military items are made, the fuel to power the war machines, the added need for recruiters, and so on. Think of governments who skim off of smuggling. Think of the smugglers and traffickers who can raise prices during conflicts, and so on. The economy of war preys on the average human. Aid organizations, sometimes inadvertently or intentionally, simultaneously alleviate and inflict harm onto people caught in conflict. There is money to be made, political gains to won and conflict is the catalyst to make it all happen. So while most the world wishes for peace, some do not.
  • Fleeing is a life or death decision that no one wants to make, ever. Because they are alive, they are in danger. Refugees face the condition, in which their existence is controversial and they woke one day to find that strangers want to murder them for some intrinsic part of their identity or because they exist in a certain space.
  • Refugees are over 50% children. Many are elderly, women or have medical conditions that make it difficult to defend themselves. And even if they are all young, strong, healthy men, they are human beings. Every single last one is a human being entitled to safety, dignity and human rights.

American Perspective Observations:

  • Sometimes we have a hard time understanding modern civil war. The American Civil War ended over 150 years ago meaning that we are generations removed from anyone who lived through the Civil War. In the late 1800s weapons were much less devastating. New technology included hot air balloons used to get an aerial view of enemy positions, muskets taking 20 seconds to reload (for perspective Usian Bolt can run more than 200 meters in that time), swords and knives were still used and men rode horses into battle. We only know our civil war in a historical, academic way. Technology and the level of damage modern warfare inflicts goes beyond what we can gather from our own war. Our war was also straightforward in that there was little foreign involvement, and the sides were clearly defined with clear motivations. Emancipating the slaves would destroy the agricultural South. The South resented the Federal Government for dictating to the South. The North fought for Unity, Emancipation and Federal Oversight. The South fought for Independence, Slavery and States’ Rights. To compare our Civil War to the civil wars generating the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II insults the people caught in the middle and belittles so many people who have died and suffered. The civil wars in Burma, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo along with other nations have far more sides. It is not us vs. them. It’s us vs. them vs. them vs. them and by proxy them and them and them—some of whom are not actual coalitions more like armed obstructionists or outright terrorists.
  • We have never had a modern war on our soil, so living in a war zone is difficult to understand. Perhaps my friends in the military can elaborate on this, but war is really really unfathomably terrible. Our belief systems as human beings nearly universally go against taking the lives of others. Many religions talk about the body as being a temple or sanctuary—the vessel of the divine in some way or another. Only in war are these beliefs suspended. Look at the struggles of our returned veterans. While some have peace, some certainly have mental trauma that shows up as homelessness, suicide, PTSD, random shootings, a disconnect with loved ones and so on. Our military is not compulsory which means our veterans signed up because they believe whole-heartedly in the need to protect and serve our nation. And, though I am a pacifist to my very core, THANK YOU for your service and sacrifice. Our soldiers at least intellectually understood what they signed up for, and yet, even the bravest heroes in our midst return affected by the horrors of war. Now imagine what that does if you are not a soldier, but just a child or a civilian who wants to live the only life you know.  It’s very hard for us as adults to conceptualize living in war zones, and it’s important that we try. To understand the need for refugee resettlement in the U.S. we have to try to understand what living in an active war zone means.
  • The Constitutions of other countries either do not protect people, cannot be enforced or do not offer checks and balances on power. So far, the constitution has kept us from allowing presidents to act like dictators. Power is divided to ensure no one can destroy the union or pass extreme legislation without consent of multiple branches. Not all countries enjoy this protection. Some have a singular leader whose word is law, or a rogue military that takes over the country, or terrorist groups show up one day to slaughter and rape an entire village or other situations where average citizens hold absolutely no power. A Syrian friend of mine said that when she casts her first meaningful vote in Syria we will dance from one end of Jamaica to the other in celebration.

So we will go into what each refugee is actually fleeing. The countries listed in the following posts are the countries the U.S. takes refugees from in order of numbers entering the country for 2016 based off of Pew Research. The most recent available statistics from the State Department are for the fiscal year 2015. The world of refugee resettlement in the U.S.  has drastically changed from 2015 to today so I will list the data from the State Department in addition to the 2016 statistics from Pew because 2015 saw a dramatic shift in bringing more people from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria, and less people from Burma. Special Immigration Visas (SIVs) are not counted in the totals only those coming to the states on I-94 refugee visas. As a reminder, SIVs are Afghani and Iraqi interpreters for our U.S. troops recommended for resettlement by military officers. Click the links to see the history of the program in statistics and read specific stories from the UNHCR. I will cover the history of the program in a coming post in this series.

A SERIES ON REFUGEES: Terms & Technicalities

“It’s not easy to start over in a new place,’ he said. ‘Exile is not for everyone. Someone has to stay behind, to receive the letters and greet family members when they come back.” -Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying

Like any specific process Refugee Resettlement in the U.S. comes with it’s own language and facts specific to this unique process. This will be the most dense and least interesting segment I write, but entirely necessary in understanding refugee resettlement and by extension invalidating the misinformation that exists in our politically charged public. We need to start with defining the word “Refugee” in context of resettlement. “Refugee“ colloquially refers to “a person who has been forced to flee his or her country in order to escape war, persecution or natural disaster.” This definition comes to us from googling “define refugee.” Using that definition the UNHCR (United Nations High Chairman for Refugees—the global authority on refugees) gives us a figure of 65.3 million people who have been forcibly displaced as of December 2016. This number continues to grow.

However “Refugee” also refers to legal status as well. The UNHCR and the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency body that registers Palestinian Refugees) registered 21.3 million refugees by the end of December 2016. This number continues to grow. This number is significant because registering with the UNHCR gives a person legal right to flee their country. This status does not grant anything permanent, but identifies and legally legitimizes fleeing a person’s home country due to a credible threat. In practical terms registering with the UNHCR or UNRWA means that a person fled because of a real threat of irreparable harm as opposed to leaving a home country for other reasons. It is also important because this is the pool of refugees who may eventually come to the United States.

And lastly USCIS (A division of the Department of Homeland Security, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services—the agency in charge of granting visas and other immigration benefits) grants I-94 “Refugee” visas. All refugees coming into the United States are granted an I-94 visa through a 18+ month screening process. Less than 1% of the refugees registered with the UNHCR or UNRWA are granted what is called 3rd country resettlement in the U.S. More on that later. The President sets the number of refugees admitted into the country annually starting at the beginning of the fiscal year in October. Under President Obama it was 110,000 and now under Trump is 50,000. Refugees are allowed to stay in the United States Permanently once admitted. After a year in the country they are able to apply for a permanent resident card (greencard) and after 5 years apply for citizenship. I will cover requirements for citizenship later on.

I want to draw the distinction between refugees entering the U.S. on I-94 Refugee visas and those pouring across the border in Europe and other countries. Due to geography people fleeing civil war, terrorism and persecution in the Middle East are entering Europe without first being registered by the UNHCR or undergoing additional screenings. The boats of people from North Africa and the Middle East cross perilous stretches of the Mediterranean and arrive in Europe where they hope to seek Asylum, register with the UNHCR and then get the legal status of refugee. This is a point where the colloquial “refugee” versus legal status “refugee” has caused great confusion and fear within the U.S.

I also want to draw the distinction between refugee status and asylum in the United States. ALL REFUGEES COMING TO THE STATES HAVE UNDERGONE A 18+ MONTH SCREENING PROCESS. Asylum seekers arrive in the U.S. and then file for Asylum. This process is much more complicated in that Asylum seekers did not file for Asylum before entering the country. Asylum seekers may come on a temporary visa like a student, work, or travel visa and then apply to stay for well-founded fear of persecution or having actually experience persecution. There are 2 processes for seeking Asylum Affirmative or Defensive. Defensive is filing to prevent being sent back to the person’s country of origin whereas affirmative is filing in advance to be granted indefinite status. Asylum seekers may live freely in the U.S. or be detained pending the results of hearings, and factors like sponsors, families, etc. In 2014 (the most up-to-date reliable stats I could find) list China, Egypt, Syria, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Mexico, Nepal, Haiti, and Guatemala,  as the top 10 countries for Asylum seekers to the U.S. with nearly 50,000 asylum applications.

Additionally, USCIS admits people at discretion on humanitarian grounds through Parole. Commonly confused with convicted people leaving prison on parole, USCIS can “use its discretion to authorize parole. Parole allows an individual who may be inadmissible or otherwise ineligible for admission into the U.S., to be paroled into the U.S. for a temporary period.” Essentially this is a status given to people in immediate need of shelter but does not give them the indefinite status of Aslyee while waiving screening process of the refugee visa. Until January 2017 people from Cuba fell into this category when President Obama ended “Wet-foot, Dry-foot.” Haitians also fell into this category until September of 2016. There are also special Parole programs (family reunification for Haitians and Cubans, the Central American Minor Refugee/Parole Program and the Filipino World War II Veterans Parole Program), but I will not go into those at this time, and you can click here if you’d like to read about it on the USCIS website.

And lastly there is a program called SIVs (Special Immigration Visas) these visas are granted to Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who help serve U.S. troops overseas and are recommended for resettlement by the U.S. military. This visa is essentially an expedited Refugee visa.

My point in sharing these different statuses with you is to say that 1. These are the legal statuses granted on a humanitarian basis and knowing the difference is crucial in understanding exactly who we are talking about in refugee resettlement, 2. Immigration to the U.S. is extremely complicated, and 3. We are talking about people, human beings with unique circumstances and unique visas that denote differences in their backgrounds.


I have a few other facts and revelations to get us talking about refugees. They do not flow together quite as well as legal statuses and definitions do so I am going to simply list them:

  • Refugees in the United States, though sharing a singular legal status, are not a homogenous group. A businessman from Aleppo has nothing in common with a rural Karen farmer from Burma. While I occasionally will reference refugees as a single segment of the population each group entering the U.S. is unique and within each nationality exist different ethnic and religious groups and within those groups exist people with different genders, sexual orientations, family structures, perspectives, education, histories, values, personalities, ages and aspirations. To group all refugees together severely under represents the individuals making up the whole.
  • Refugee camps are considered international land. If a person is in a refugee camp, they are not considered admitted to a country instead the camps exist as holding place where people are registered and can wait to return to their home country when it is safe, apply to resettle in the country they fled to, or hope to be selected for 3rd country resettlement. As a stateless land zone there are not necessarily schools, jobs, higher education, quality health care, medicine, police, etc. Corruption, rape and other forms of violence are well-documented in camps. Each camp functions slightly differently. You can read about individual stories here and scholarly articles here. I will also recommend a book here: City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp by Ben Rawlence. The point is that refugee camps offer safety compared to the circumstances necessitating people to flee i.e. genocide, terrorism, civil war, etc. but do not necessarily offer a safe space especially for the most vulnerable—women, children, the elderly, those with medical conditions and those with disabilities. When we talk about refugee resettlement in the U.S. we are talking about the most vulnerable cases that are not safe in refugee camps.
  • The United States is not the only country who takes refugees through 3rd country resettlement. The list of countries accepting refugees has grown from 14 in 2005 to 37 in 2016.
  • Americans enjoy privileges of unrestricted travel that few others in the world do. Americans can travel to the entire world relatively easily. Most countries do not require a travel visa or grant travel visas at port of entries to Americans for small fees. Some countries such as Brazil, and China require Americans to submit travel itineraries and prove they have enough money to purchase round-trip airfare as well pay for a visa, but even these requirements are fairly easy to meet and visas are granted to all who meet these requirements. There are few countries Americans cannot go like North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, but even these countries have exceptions. There is another set of countries it may not be safe to travel to such as Syria, Iraq, parts of Somalia, etc., but we can easily, legally travel to most corners of the globe. This right and ease to travel do not extend to the majority of other countries. I remember venting frustrations to my dad about a client who was terminally ill, too sick to travel and desperately wanting to say goodbye to family members, but the visa process was taking too long and his or her family would likely not be granted admission to the U.S. in time to say goodbye. The process for family reunification takes a minimum of 3 years and usually takes more like 5-7 years so almost 3 years into the process it looks as if it might be too late. He was surprised to find out people cannot even visit the U.S. without visas and those visas are not granted simply, cheaply, universally or easily, especially from some countries. I wanted to touch on this to illuminate the reality of families who will never be reunited and to highlight the need for specific humanitarian visas.
  • Being a refugee is a temporary identity. Refugee status is an indefinite status meaning you could stay in the U.S. forever on refugee status, but most people transition to permanent residents and then on to citizens after 5-10 years in the country. Many of my friends will say things like, “I came over as a refugee, but see myself as a Burmese-American” or “Iraqi-American.” Some will drop their home country and not look back considering themselves entirely American. Others will never quite see themselves as fully American, and hold tightly to their home country identity. Some do return to their home countries when it is safe. Many go back and invest in their home communities, but still live in the U.S. Being a refugee is essentially being internationally homeless in a sense. The home a refugee left does not exist in a recognizable form anymore, and their new home feels foreign because it is. Being a refugee more accurately marks a transition period than a lasting identity. I bring this up because we often speak of refugees as if that is an all-encompassing identity and it really isn’t. I again will urge you to read stories written by refugees or this set, or these children’s books explaining refugees because I am not a refugee and therefore cannot properly explain it, and we should support our refugee friends who write, and because representation is important.
  • And lastly immigration in the U.S. needs overhaul. All sides agree to this, but differ in the application and correct route to pursue. Due to Americans having fewer children than the generations before us, we need immigrants to sustain and grow our populations at desired levels. When we talk about undocumented immigrants, we talk about a huge variety of cases. We are talking about victims of human trafficking to drug smugglers to people who have done everything in their power to remain legal, but have been taken advantage of or are tied up in infuriatingly slow processes or simply refuse to leave their loved ones or truly do not understand the complex system. Immigration also has a HUGE impact on things like national security, the messages we send our allies and enemies, our economy, the underlying social issues in our society like racism and the identity of what it means to be an American. I bring this up to say again that we are talking about human beings who cannot be marginalized to singular identities. We are talking about families and while we like to think that government does not dictate how we treat people, in the case of immigration it definitely does. In all the complexities of sorting people through our semipermeable immigration membrane it is easy to lose the humanity in it. The more we speak about refugees and immigrants coming into the country, the more it starts to sound like a simple unit of import, and that is hauntingly dangerous. So as we go through refugee resettlement and the issues surrounding it, let us keep the people in the story and be ever cognizant that we are talking about real people with real families and real life or death consequences.

In the interest of transparency and information sharing here are the sources of information I used. If you are interested or do not not agree with what I have written, please read them! I have not listed some of the links to books mentioned above because they are linked and do not provide substantial information.  I have tried to stay as close to the original source as possible when citing facts and processes.

  1. UNHCR Resettlement Data
  2. UNHCR Figures at a Glance
  3. USCIS Refugee and Asylum Page
  4. American Immigration Council Fact Sheet on Asylum
  5. USCIS Humanitarian Parole Page
  6. Refuge Council USA 7 Largest Refugee Camps
  7. Smithsonian Magazine: Where are the 50 most populous Refugee Camps
  8. Special Interest Story on a Refugee in Indianapolis by Indianapolis Monthly 
  9. Story of a Young Syrian Entering Canada
  10. UN Peace Keepers role in General and as it Relates to Refugees
  11. Refugee Stories from the UNHCR
  12. UNHCR US Family Reunification Page
  13. US State Department’s SIV information Page
  14. UNHCR Page on 3rd Country Resettlement


“Recognize yourself in he and she who are not like you and me.” -Carlos Fuentes

In the coming weeks I intend to right a few posts on refugees and refugee resettlement in the U.S. I want to stress that I should not be considered an expert on the topic, nor do I represent my former employer while I am writing this. These are my own thoughts, observations, research and conclusions. This is a wordpress blog, which means you should ABSOLUTELY FACT CHECK ME, and let me know if I get something wrong via comments. I will be doing my research for this and cite as much as I can. I will also rely on books I have read on the subject like The Middle of Everywhere: Hepling Refugees Enter the American Community by Mary Phipher, Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman’s Quest to Make a Difference by Warren St. John, Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help by Larissa MacFarquhar, among other books and materials including academic materials from sociology and political sciences classes from college. I will also rely on my experiences working with refugee resettlement first in special medial case management, then reception and placement and the youth program, the stories of my friends (here and abroad), coworkers, and clients. Though I will not use specific examples as that breaches a good number of confidentiality agreements and personal boundaries, I will relate the ends and outs I’ve learned. And lastly I will use true, factual media articles—meaning I will stay between the Washington Post and Fox on the media left/right media balance.

While I 100% all-day will fight for refugees and refugee resettlement in the U.S., this series is not meant to be a partisan political piece. I seek to share the information that leads me to conclude refugee resettlement is good for America, a moral mandate and poses no risk to our national security. In a sense, the existence of refugees, and by extension those of us who work in refugee resettlement has become political. Every time I answer the question: so what do you do for work? my answer raises emotions and politics. It is unavoidable. Many people applaud working with this segment of the populations others have raised questions of safety, and a few even feel the need to get loud and angry. While answering the phones at my former employer we got calls from all sides and confusion exists for those in support and opposition, hence the motivation for this mini series. All aspects of immigration are dense, complicated, difficult to access in their entirety and ever-changing so I do understand needing more information and hopefully I can add to the truth.