Who are the refugees?

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The word “refugee” gets tossed around the media quite a bit these days, but not many people actually understand what a refugee is and why so many of them are coming to the United States.

The International Institute of Minnesota, a non-profit organization that helps refugees and immigrants adjust to American life came to speak at St. Cloud State about refugees and why the country is taking in so many of them.

Emily Hipps, a communications personel, and advocate for the organization explained that many of the refugees are coming to America not because they want to, but because their original home is war torn, or poverty stricken. Countries that Minnesota takes refugees from are Russia, Iran, Iraq, Ethiopia, and Somalia — just to name a few.

“They often feel persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality or political opinion,” she said. “It is often difficult for them because the country that they’re fleeing doesn’t want them to leave and their new country often doesn’t want them to stay because they think they’re an economic burden.”

People often hear about the Syrian refugees that are fleeing Syria because of the civil war currently happening, often running to places like Europe — which are closer in proximity, but there is a large amount that come to the United States and while many Americans think that getting into the country is fairly easy, Hipps says the U.S. has some of the toughest immigration standards in the entire world — making their journey more challenging than thought.

Refugees are often forced to flee their sovereign nations and have very limited time in order to do so, only being able to travel at night to avoid being caught and sent back to their homes. If they make it out successfully, the United Nations then has to identify them as refugees in which they are given extensive examinations to make sure the individual qualifies as a refugee. They then get referred to a country of residence — in this instance, it’s the U.S. Then refugees must go through security screenings where law enforcement officials determine the motives of the refugee for entering the country — attempting to detect any potential threat. If passed, the refugee goes to a Department of Homeland Security interview where they are examined again. Another screening for level of health is done to make sure the refugee doesn’t have any type of contagious disease such as AIDS that they could bring into the country. Then there are resettlement agreements where the U.S. government looks for potential housing along with U.S. cultural orientation, a final security screening, and then finally getting settled into America.

Hipps says this process in the United States takes 17 years in order to complete.

“While waiting for the citizenship process to be complete, they live in refugee camps,” she said. “Often times the families expand and there are three generations of families living in small tents.”

When refugees migrate to their new country, they are not always welcomed with open arms. Hipps says that often times they get bad press from political figures. Donald Trump being a pioneering voice in anti-refugee rhetoric has sparked outrage on both sides across the country, but that many Republican states are actually taking in a fair number of refugees, such as Texas.

“When we are working with them, we always make sure to tell them to ignore any negative attention they might get. Refugees are beneficial to our community because they take jobs that most Americans don’t want and add diversity to our country,” she said. “They would like to stay in their own, but don’t really have a choice.”

Ahmed Ali, a Lead Staff Organizer with Greater Minnesota Workers Center, was a refugee over 10 years ago, migrating from Somalia. He said he is grateful for the opportunities given to him by services like the International Institute of Minnesota and SCSU for helping him achieve his goals.

“This presentation reminded of the great work these people do and how they give those like myself opportunities to succeed.”

For more information about refugees and how you can help out, you can contact the organization at limn.org.