Every week in the refugee camp, people walk to the bulletin boards to check for their names. Crowds gather around after new pages are posted, enshrined in a cage of blue metal. Everyone is jostling, hoping that someone close enough to the board will see their name and then, sliding a finger down the line, a corresponding interview time and date.
That interview date is the first of many in the refugee resettlement process, followed by security clearances and medical screenings and cultural orientations. A million things can snag along the way — a refugee resettlement case might stall for medical reasons or derail all together because something in their interview doesn’t check out. But those few who make it receive a priceless gift: a final date to leave the camp for good. A chance to begin again, to have a permanent country to call home, to raise their children in relative security.
Once the travel date is scheduled, refugees start saying their goodbyes. They sell their homes, cooking pots, spoons. They might borrow money to buy new clothes — winter jackets and hats for the cold Midwestern winters. Those with a travel date know they are the lucky ones. They get to go, leaving behind hundreds of thousands that remain warehoused in the camp.
At the transit center in Nairobi, refugees bound for resettlement stay a minimum of five days to receive preemptive treatment for common communicable diseases. International airline tickets are purchased in their names — routed through Brussels or Amsterdam or London — to eventually land at their final destinations of Columbus or Dallas or Minneapolis.
What must it feel like, to walk to that bulletin board week after week, year after year, decade after decade, searching for your name? In Dadaab refugee camp, the largest in the world, a researcher recorded a Somali term for that feeling: buufis, which was described in the book City of Thorns as the “longing for resettlement,” or “a kind of depression rooted in an inextinguishable hope for a life elsewhere that simultaneously casts the present into shadow.” Buufis has also been called a mental disorder.
Buufis is both blessing and a curse; it gives a shred of hope to the 12 million people living in protracted refugee situations globally like in Dadaab, people who spend decades stuck inside the perimeter of a desolated refugee camp in the corner of nowhere, Kenya. But it also can feel like a sickness when that hope goes unfulfilled.
I’ve witnessed that longing. I interviewed refugees for resettlement in Kakuma refugee camp as an United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) intern. People wore a nervous energy — hand tremors, overly broad smiles, fingers fidgeting, toes tapping — as I asked them screening questions through an interpreter. My job was to ask why they left their home country and to record their stories of political imprisonment, torture, rape. Most of the individuals I interviewed had never spoken to an United Nations representative face-to-face, even after a decade in the camp. So much depended on how they answered the questions I asked. People rightly felt anxious.
A few weeks ago, 10 years after my stint with UNCHR in Kenya, I sat in my idling car after returning home from the preschool pick-up line, my two kids still buckled into the backseat. I was glued to the radio. This American Life, a radio program on National Public Radio, was airing interviews with people from Dadaab refugee camp, the same place where the term buufis was coined. The refugees interviewed had been turned back at the last possible moment following the executive order travel ban, their final departure date erased like a puff of smoke.
“Everyone was in their rooms with their blankets pulled over their faces,” the reporter said, describing the scene at the transit center.
“There were a lot of people who were going to the clinic, a lot of people who were refusing to eat, a lot of people who were refusing to take their medication. There were concerns at the center that people might try to kill themselves.”
The reporter interviewed a man who had missed his final departure date by a few days. He was considering returning to the camp, his home already sold, his cooking pots, his spoons. He would have to go back to the crowds of people who had never had their name on the bulletin board in the first place.
Roughly 200 people were at the transit center operated by the International Office of Migration in Nairobi on the day the EO was signed. The staff provided counseling to those left stranded, helping sort through their options to either wait and hope, or return to the camp. America, the place so many refugees had hoped to make a stable home, had just slammed its doors shut.
After the EO was signed and enacted, the 9th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals placed a stay on the refugee travel ban, which propped open that door a sliver. Many who were stuck in transit centers have since had their flights rescheduled; U.S.-based resettlement offices will continue to receive refugee arrivals through the end of February. The State Department, however, has said that no new refugees will come after March 3, and the president is reportedly retooling that executive order on immigration and refugees. Resettlement agencies are closing and laying off staff, and the total number of refugees admitted has been cut from 110,000 to 60,000. The whole process remains very much up in the air.
“I think the hope of refugees...turned into anxiety the moment they received the news of the EO,” said Pablo Traspas, country director, Center for Victims of Torture in Kenya. “I can imagine what refugees build in their minds when they start the resettlement process...and now, how can they reconnect with the reality?”
Those somewhere along the resettlement pipeline — the refugees who’ve completed their first interview or made it past medical screening — continue to wait with uncertainty, holding on to fragile hope.
Back in November 2008, Barack Obama made his first speech as president-elect in front of thousands at Grant Park in Chicago. The crowd was joyous at the election of our first African-American president; it was said that thousands of babies were conceived that night. Of all the excitement and jubilation, I remember only one thing about that speech. In his address, Obama spoke not only to the Americans who were gathered to celebrate, but “those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces, to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world.”
In addressing those beyond America’s shore, Obama drew a wider circle in his remarks, acknowledging what America represents to people around the world. He saw those gathered in the refugee camps, huddled around radios, listening to the new American president.
I spent formative years outside of the United States as a child and young adult where I encountered many people eager to talk about American politics. The world watches America, and not just politically; our entertainment industry is among our biggest exports. Some young men in Egypt incorrectly drew ideas about my sexual mores from their study of Britney Spears and Madonna. In Kakuma refugee camp, people asked me if I listened to Justin Timberlake and Michael Bolton. In the camp, there was a bootleg cinema where people could catch grainy reproductions of Die Hard or Air Force One. A few years later, when I traveled across Peru and Bolivia, I watched Machete and The Blind Side on the bus’s video screen alongside Quechua women and children in traditional dress, carrying baskets of tiny purple potatoes.
When living and traveling in the Middle East in the mid 2000s, I often felt nervous discussing American politics. The Abu Ghraib scandal was in the public consciousness, as well as reports of torture and suicides at Guantanamo Bay. In one memorable exchange, a cab driver in the West Bank of Palestine told me how much he hated George W. Bush while taking turns in the taxi at breakneck speed on a road with steep cutoffs. I uttered small prayers as we pummeled along the blacktop. “So we don’t like your president,” he said, swinging the steering wheel to the side, “but we like American people.”
Most everyone in the world has an opinion of our country; many can distinguish between a ruler’s policies and the nature of the citizens. A former professor of mine was traveling in the Democratic Republic of Congo last week, and he wrote about the political conversations he had with people there. Most often the comment he heard was: “Now your country is becoming a Third World country just like us."
America, the Promised Land
In the United States, politicians have long described America as a city on a hill. It has been conflated with the promised land, flowing with milk and honey. It is a bright light, a beacon of freedom. It is Lady Liberty, her hand wrapped around a gleaming torch, her arm extending out in welcome to those escaping religious persecution and despair.
As an Anabaptist, I take special issue with American nationalism co-opting biblical imagery. At the same time I feel indebted to this country that admitted my Mennonite predecessors who sought religious freedom. I am deeply suspicious of the syncretism of empire and religion; I have seen the American myth of welcoming the stranger up close and personal and know it is often just that: a myth. Only a small minority of refugees worldwide are granted resettlement every year in our country and we routinely turn away people seeking security on our southern border.
Our resettlement program is paltry in comparison to the burden secondary countries have long borne – places like Kenya, Lebanon, and Pakistan, who continue to house hundreds of thousands of refugees. They host the camps, they absorb the costs of policing, they must sort through the complicated politics of allowing integration or hoping that the refugees can go home sometime soon. Eighty-six percent of refugees, according to 2015 report from Amnesty International, live in developing countries and many stay for five years or longer.
And yet, in my conversations with refugees, this image of America as a place of hope and freedom has held. One former colleague in Kakuma refugee camp messaged me recently, describing the devastation so many feel - unable to move freely and make a life for themselves in Kenya, unable to return back to Somalia or Sudan or Ethiopia where their lives would be in danger. The United States was the one place many could imagine calling a permanent home.
Simone van der Kaaden, country director for the Center for Victims of Torture in Jordan, said that “refugees in the process of resettlement to the U.S., after the initial shock, focus all their hope that this is only a temporarily situation... This appears the (only) way of coping for now for many refugees, and demonstrates how strongly resettlement processes influence people’s life and overall well-being.”
The long-ranging impact of EO banning refugee arrivals will be psychological, and not just for those who are warehoused in refugee camps around the world. Those who came to the United States as refugees, already through the resettlement process, also feel the ramifications in the form of increased harassment by those emboldened by Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric.
Simon McMahon, Research Fellow at Coventry University in the U.K., said that he has seen the mental and emotional ramifications already, with “people feeling that the U.S. is not a place that they will be welcome” to study or visit relatives. He believes that policies like the EO refugee ban aren’t “just about stopping people crossing borders…[but] about telling people already here that they’re not welcome any more. This is deeply problematic for people who are trying to make a new life and find their way in our societies and is more likely to create division rather than solidarity.”
Refugees, by very definition, have endured trauma. They were forced to leave their home country because of a well-founded fear of persecution on five grounds: race, religion, political opinion, member of a social group, or ethnicity. Many live with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and experience recurring symptoms. Even for refugees who have successfully been resettled, gaining U.S. citizenship and integrating into American culture, the travel ban has retriggered feelings of fear. After all, most refugees have lived under an authoritarian regime. They know what can happen when a people group is scapegoated for all kinds of societal evils. Many have lived it before.
In psychiatrist Judith Herman’s model of healing after trauma, the first stage of healing is safety and stabilization. In this stage, trauma survivors are no longer insecure; their environment is predictable and protected. They can engage in healthy behaviors; getting quality sleep and exercise, practicing breathing techniques when they experience stress. The EO has rocketed people into insecurity — even those already within the U.S. — causing many to slip backward from this initial stage of recovery from trauma.
Chol Jok Deng (pseudonym), a refugee from South Sudan living in Ethiopia, told me that the EO has caused a lot of panic among the refugees he knows. “Trump is also engaging in rewriting global norms and rules is great worry to me and my family,” he wrote. “What future hold for me and my family is unclear.”
I keep returning to the term buufis. At times I feel a longing bordering on sickness for the true Kingdom, the city on a hill Jesus spoke about — not the one that politicians conflate with America. Yet unlike so many warehoused in refugee camps, I have some agency to act for the object of my longing: To lament as I join public protests in my city, and to call my political representatives. I am an American citizen, and so I try to channel my despair into action.
This month I put a sign in my window. It says “Refugees Welcome.” And while it has no power to overturn whatever executive order comes down the pike next, it’s my small way of resisting the message my country is broadcasting across the oceans to those watching America from afar. I’ve heard from some refugees that all the signs of solidarity — the protests at the airports, the marches through our city parks — have been heartening.
My neighbors are originally from Dadaab refugee camp, and they don’t say much about the EO. I can tell they don’t want to talk about it, so I don’t push. But when I stood on my front porch a few days ago, I saw my neighbor drive by, his window rolled down in the uncharacteristically warm February breeze. He was waving his arm and grinning.
“Hey,” he shouted. “I like your sign.” I smiled and waved back, even though I know it’s not enough.