I have been quiet during the lead up to tomorrow’s presidential election. I haven’t been posting political articles on social media or canvassing for a candidate. There is no yard sign on my front lawn. Mostly, I have been just trying to hold onto my sanity until the barrage of political ads cease.
But when Donald Trump came to Minnesota yesterday for a campaign rally and said that my home state had “suffered enough” because of our Somali refugee population, that “faulty refugee vetting” was allowing “large numbers of Somali refugees” to enter our state “without [our] knowledge,” I snapped out of my stupor.
I am speaking out because I have firsthand experience vetting refugees. And I can tell you: Those who make it to the United States are subject to higher levels of security checks than any other traveler to our country.
When I heard Trump’s comments, I flashed back to Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya, to the interview room in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) compound. Five days a week, I would sit in that tiny cell-like room with men and women who fled their homes to seek safety in the sprawling, dusty refugee camp — which, at the time, was home to an estimated 85 thousand people. (Today, the numbers are more than doubled due to increased conflict in Southern Sudan).
My job was to ask individuals why they had left their home country and determine whether they met the UN definition of “refugee.” Some of the people I interviewed had been in the camp for 14 years — yet for some, I would be the first UN officer they spoke with since their arrival.
Yesterday, I imagined I was back in that room: I could hear the humming of the air conditioner in the wall, I could feel my skin prickling as I typed stories of gang rape, murder, and political imprisonment, stories refugees told me through an interpreter. On my desk, I could see the thick files on Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan, filled with country timelines of coups d'état and student protests, as well as Human Rights Watch reports on common torture techniques. I would read these files daily, using the information to carefully verify the stories the refugees told me. After each interview, I checked a box: Yes, this person is a refugee and therefore eligible for resettlement; No, this person is not a refugee and therefore ineligible for resettlement.
Months later, after my initial screening, the refugees would be interviewed again by another UNHCR officer. The careful testimony that I had recorded would be cross-checked with the refugee’s story in the second interview. If they made it that far, UNHCR would refer the case to the United States Refugee program, requiring another interview with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and various security and medical screenings. (This process varies slightly based on the country — in the case of Syria, an additional “Syria Enhanced Review” is administered.)
By the time a refugee gets on the plane to the United States, their story has been told and retold numerous times.
Donald Trump’s misleading statement that Somalis come to Minnesota “without [our] knowledge,” and his intimation that refugees who enter the United States are not carefully screened before they are resettled, is insulting to all the men and women who work with UNHCR, DHS, and other organizations that process refugee cases. His comment not only undermines the most thorough vetting program that exists for entrants to the United States, but it also inflames xenophobia against the fewer-than-one percent of refugees who make it through that arduous process.
So instead of finding security, the few refugees who are finally, successfully permitted to enter America are experiencing heavy backlash and suspicion.
Somali refugees have been my co-workers and students and employers. I care about my friends and worry that this political rhetoric will endanger them, just like it did last month in Kansas where three men planned a domestic terror attack targeting Somalis. Trump’s words have huge implications in places in St. Cloud, a mid-sized city in Minnesota where anti-Somali sentiment runs high (as recently featured on NPR’s This American Life).
My neighborhood in Minneapolis is sometimes referred to as “Little Mogadishu” because of the large Somali refugee community that lives there. Somalis play a huge role in the economic vitality of my city, with dozens of small local businesses: restaurants, henna stalls, barbers. My next door neighbors came from Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, which is home to over 350,000 refugees, mostly Somalis. They were resettled to the United States nearly five years ago, their case expedited because their eldest daughter needed heart surgery. The United States Refugee Program and skilled American surgeons saved their daughter’s life.
For years after my experience working with UNHCR, I struggled with secondary trauma, with the heavy weight of so many terrible stories swirling in my mind, causing flashbacks, numbness, and anger. As a UNHCR resettlement worker, I made decisions about the lives of war survivors and afterward I couldn’t shake the weight of power I wielded in that tiny interview room. But simply being a neighbor, a person who returns wrongly delivered mail and waves from across our picket fence, a person who delivers cookies at Christmas time and receives piping hot sambusas in return, has been healing for me. I count it as one of my life’s greatest joys to live next door to my Somali neighbors.
This year, my tiny Mennonite church signed up with a local resettlement agency to befriend a new refugee family. When the organizer made the announcement during our Sunday service that the refugees matched with our congregation were coming from Kakuma refugee camp, I grinned. I was thrilled that another family made it through the interviews, the fingerprints, the security clearances, the medical exams. I knew just how many high bars they had to scale to get this far.
In mid-October, an airplane touched down at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International airport. A small group of white-haired Mennonites stood at baggage claim, waiting to welcome the refugee family after their long journey from Kenya. I feel proud to be part of a church that showed up to welcome newcomers during an election where so many refugees and immigrants have been made to feel unwanted.
In the weeks since their arrival, members of my congregation have visited the newly arrived family, driving them to appointments and assisting with grocery shopping. The family of five were in Kakuma refugee camp for nine years, waiting and waiting for the chance to set down roots, to have a country they could call home again.
I, for one, am so glad they made it here. In the many stories I’ve heard from refugees, I have learned something about their values: survival, resilience, grit. Anyone with the stamina to clear the careful vetting process has my admiration in spades. Now, I have the pleasure of being a neighbor, of seeing the good that the refugee resettlement program can do.
Minnesota isn’t “suffering” because of Somali refugees. We are better off for them.