Bosnian-American tweets recollection of coming to the U.S. as a refugee

Bosnian-American tweets recollection of coming to the U.S. as a refugee


Amid a heated national debate over Syrian refugees, one young woman has offered a personal look at the grueling experience of seeking asylum in the United States.

Arnesa Buljusmic-Kustura was 12 years old when she first came to the United States, in about 2002, as she was one of 169,000 Bosnian refugees who resettled in this country starting in the mid-1990s, during Yugoslavia’s brutal civil war.

In a series of 45 tweets Wednesday, Buljusmic-Kustura, who identifies herself on Twitter as a Bosniak-Turk Muslim writer and activist, detailed the lengthy process through which she was admitted to the U.S.

“Keep in mind that the process to admit Syrian refugees to the U.S.A. is even more complex,” Buljusmic-Kustura urged her followers.

As of last month, the U.S. had accepted only 90 of the more than 2 million refugees fleeing Syria. And in the wake of last week’s terror attacks in Paris and Beirut, as well as subsequent threats of terrorism, a number of politicians are challenging the Obama administration’s plan to take in 10,000 more Syrian refugees over the next year. This week, Republican presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul announced plans to introduce a bill that would “suspend visa issuance for countries with a high risk of terrorism.” At least 27 governors have pledged to refuse entry into their states for any Syrian refugees, despite not having any real legal standing to do so.

In Tennessee, one Republican state lawmaker has proposed enlisting the National Guard’s help in rounding up recently settled Syrian refugees and preventing others from entering the state “by whatever means we can.”

Buljusmic-Kustura told Yahoo News that she decided to share her personal experience with the hope “people will read this and realize that the process for refugees is long and strenuous and that the vetting process is very thorough.”

That first step alone took nearly a month, Buljusmic-Kustura wrote.

Thus began the first of several interviews the 12-year-old Buljusmic-Kustura and her family would have with U.N. officials.

"Because Yugoslavia was a socialist country," Buljusmic-Kustura said her parents were asked a lot of questions about their political affiliations,"Were they communists, dissidents?" She said the U.N. officials wanted to know whether they supported the war or served in the military, as well as how religious they were.

After about 18 months, Buljusmic-Kustura wrote that she, her parents and her younger brother, who was 7 years old at the time, had each been asked to tell their story countless times to a variety of U.N. officials.

Buljusmic-Kustura says that the interviews were followed by nearly six months of waiting before her family got the call notifying them that they had been approved for refugee status — approximately 2 years after they began the application process. At this point, they could officially start planning to make the trip to the U.S.

But the exciting news was met with the reality of leaving their home country behind.

Buljusmic-Kustura and her family were sent to Iowa, where they had relatives. But even after arriving in the U.S., the interviews and exams were far from over.

During her first month in the country, Buljusmic-Kustura recalls her family being assigned to a refugee case manager and another case manager from the Department of Homeland Security, who asked to hear their story yet again. Provided with limited access to Medicaid and food stamps and some donated furniture, she says her parents went in search of work and soon both had two full-time jobs.

School was difficult and her parents were barely home, but eventually Buljusmic-Kustura learned to speak English and her parents earned enough from their jobs to buy a house and a car.

But the fragility of their new life continued to loom large.

Seven years after fleeing her war-torn home, Buljusmic-Kustura graduated college in the United States. 

Now 26, she is the executive director of the Bosniak American Association of Iowa, a nonprofit organization that, according to its website, “represents the 20,000 strong population of Bosnian-Americans within the state of Iowa” and “seeks to promote and foster Bosnian-American heritage and activism both within the state of Iowa and abroad.”

Not only had Buljusmic-Kustura’s story been widely shared on Twitter as of Wednesday afternoon, but she’d inspired others like Laila Alawa to share their stories. Alawa is CEO and founder of the site Coming of Faith, which covers feminist issues and news affecting Muslim women. She was not a refugee when she came to the United States from Japan in 1997, but because her father is Syrian, Alawa says, immigrating to the U.S. was particularly challenging for her family. 

“With all the fear-mongering going around, I think it’s important for people to understand that refugees really are just regular people seeking a safe place,” Buljusmic-Kustura told Yahoo News. “And when they're granted that status and the ability to escape the horrors that face them, they become contributing members of our society.”