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A child sleeps as her mother, a recently-arrived refugee from Iraq, learns how to receive food stamps during a class held by the Arizona Department of Economic Security. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Unrelenting horror

For many refugees, the vetting process to migrate to the U.S. is intolerably traumatic

By Zainab Salbi on October 24, 2016

Refugees are the most vetted immigrant population that enters the country. The process takes years and applicants have to go through rigorous interviews with government officials multiple times before even being considered for approval. The process itself can be traumatic.

Becca Heller, the director and co-founder of the International Refugees Assistant Project has had to to bring in an American psychiatrist to assess an Iraqi family that escaped the war in Iraq and its ability to withstand the multiple interviews. The family experienced unrelenting horror: a son was killed, a daughter was abducted and survived the kidnappers’ attempt to slit her throat. The girl managed to escape. Another  daughter witnessed the killing of her teacher in front of her, and the father is ill.  The psychologist determined that the family was too traumatized to handle the multiple investigations needed for their refugee application.  They stayed behind, and their whereabouts is unknown.

According to Donald Trump, no Muslim asylum seeker should be allowed to enter the U.S. but in Ms. Heller’s view, Mr. Trump’s proposal is at odds with US law. “The foundation of our democracy articulates the right for freedom of religion. What he is [proposing] is against the First Amendment of the American constitution.”   Heller explains that the refugees coming from the Arab world are escaping the very violence they are accused of bringing. “Islam means a lot of things to a lot of different people. To say Islam is a terrorist religion is a bastardization of the teachings of Islam,” she says.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 20: Director & Co-Founder, International Refugee Assistance Project Becca Heller speaks at the 2016 Concordia Summit - Day 2 at Grand Hyatt New York on September 20, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit)
International Refugee Assistance Project Director and Co-Founder, Becca Heller, in New York on September 20, 2016. (Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit)

Heller, who is Jewish, grew up in an upper middle class neighborhood in Oakland, California, and graduated from Yale Law School. She has been a Fulbright Scholar and the recipient of many awards for her work in providing legal support to asylum seekers.  She started paying attention to the issue after an internship in Israel. With her professor’s help, she managed to go to Jordan and stay with six Iraqi refugees in 2008.  “My visits to Israel for my brother’s bar mitzvah entailed the luxury of air-conditioned buses for upper middle class American visitors,” she notes.  When she crossed the border, she encountered a different reality faced by the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees who sought protection in Jordan after the Gulf War.

“When people talk about human rights they assume belonging to a nation state that provides these rights.  In the case of refugees, it is the U.N. that would take the role of the nation state, help people to resettle, give them ID cards . . . But that does not give you any rights that a nation state gives and refugees are lost in this process.”

In fact, refugees have no legal rights and no right to work until they are resettled and legally accepted in a country.

Heller brings her legal expertise, passionate advocacy, and concrete proposals for solutions to the crisis. She explains that refugees no longer have any right to legal representation when they are being interviewed by officials. At a minimum, she argues, that right, which they were allowed in the 1980s, should be restored. Though supportive of the security vetting of refugees, she argues that it is insufficient, redundant, and does not allow for complex cases.  “The vetting process is too slow, and more resources need to go into security procedure to expedite the process,” she says.

“The refugee issue is not new. What is new is that people are paying attention to it,” Heller explains. “People choose to be afraid of refugees but that does not solve the problem,” she continues. “If you are a terrorist and want to enter the U.S., the hardest thing to do would be to enter as a refugee. It is much easier to enter in other ways.”

I ask Heller how she answers those who say the refugees should just stay in other countries like Jordan or Lebanon rather than come to the U.S. or Europe.  She is quick to say that Jordan, Lebanon, and even Syria before its wars took the largest numbers of refugees, even though they have limited and weak infrastructure to manage the volume of people, and high unemployment rates — as high as 50 percent in countries like Jordan. To give refugees the right to work would create social unrest in a country that is barely managing to get all refugee kids in schools.

“If we had a better system of resettlement, we would not have a refugee crisis,” says Heller, referring to the refugee crisis in Europe. “Fewer people would have taken matters into their hands and made the boat trip to Europe.”

The U.S. took about 85,000 refugees this year. Of that number, 24,000 are from what is identified as the Near East, which includes countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The rest are from all over the world — from Africa to Europe to Latin America and East Asia. Refugees are not identified by their religion. As a matter of fact, it is illegal in the U.S. to identify them by religion. Still, Heller explains “Every day we lump all Muslims together, ISIS wins.  They win their propaganda war when they show no tolerance in American society. We feed into their narratives when we do that and empower them out of our fear.”

I ask Heller whether she encountered any discrimination against her for being Jewish in her work with Middle Eastern refugees. She dismisses the idea.  She may have found more challenges for being a woman working in the Middle East.  “People pay attention to my male colleague rather than notice that I am his equal, if not sometimes his superior.”  As for being Jewish, she explains that most people just need help. They are desperate to get it, she says, from anyone who is  in a position to give it.

Watch Becca Heller, Zainab Salbi and other refugee advocates speak at the 2016 Women in the World Summit:

Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit


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