I am going to tell you guys the process of how I became an refugee admitted to the United States of American and how long it actually is.— Arnessa (@Rrrrnessa) November 18, 2015
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.”
Okay so first things first you apply for refugee status with a U.N agency. The application process isn't just a piece of paper.— Arnessa (@Rrrrnessa) November 18, 2015
That first step alone took nearly a month, Buljusmic-Kustura wrote.
Over the next 12 months they will review you the information you provided, check the validity of your documents and check your references.— Arnessa (@Rrrrnessa) November 18, 2015
If your story is true, if the documents are valid and everything checks out against their databases, then you get called in for an interview— Arnessa (@Rrrrnessa) November 18, 2015
Thus began the first of several interviews the 12-year-old Buljusmic-Kustura and her family would have with U.N. officials.
You tell them your story. Your mother tells them your story. Your father tells them your story. Your 7 year old brother does as well.— Arnessa (@Rrrrnessa) November 18, 2015
They split you up so you tell your stories individually. Then you tell your story together. You tell them about the war & after the war.— Arnessa (@Rrrrnessa) November 18, 2015
"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.
They ask you, a child, the same questions they ask of the adults. It doesn't matter that you don't know what the words "treason" mean.— Arnessa (@Rrrrnessa) November 18, 2015
They ask you to submit more proof. You have to do a retina eye scan. You have to get a medical exam. You do another interview.— Arnessa (@Rrrrnessa) November 18, 2015
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.
They tell you what you can bring and can't bring to America. The documents they need and how much the ticket costs.— Arnessa (@Rrrrnessa) November 18, 2015
By the way, the process for these interviews, application and proof all cost money. Thousands of dollars to get to a safe place.— Arnessa (@Rrrrnessa) November 18, 2015
But the exciting news was met with the reality of leaving their home country behind.
You pack whatever you can. You have a 100 dollars in your pocket from some family heirloom you had to sell.— Arnessa (@Rrrrnessa) November 18, 2015
You say goodbye to your country, your people, your home, your friends, your family. Everything you knew. You cry the entire flight.— Arnessa (@Rrrrnessa) November 18, 2015
Everyone speaks a language you don't understand. The humidity sticks to you and you can't breathe. Welcome to your new home.— Arnessa (@Rrrrnessa) November 18, 2015
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.
You get to sleep for the night and in the morning you go to the immigration & refugee center. More questions.— Arnessa (@Rrrrnessa) November 18, 2015
You tell them your story again. You provide all the documents again (even though they have them already). You answer more questions.— Arnessa (@Rrrrnessa) November 18, 2015
You have to do another medical exam. You have to get 7 shots in one day. Your little brother screams b/c he's a baby & shots hurt.— Arnessa (@Rrrrnessa) November 18, 2015
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.
Your first day of class you get called a terrorist. The kids tell you that you are dirty and probably have lice.— Arnessa (@Rrrrnessa) November 18, 2015
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.
You are thankful. You have a bed now. You never see your parents but you have food, a place to sleep and even a car. You're grateful.— Arnessa (@Rrrrnessa) November 18, 2015
But the fragility of their new life continued to loom large.
The DHS and the immigration/refugee officer still continue to check on you to make sure you are abiding by all the rules.— Arnessa (@Rrrrnessa) November 18, 2015
Seven years after fleeing her war-torn home, Buljusmic-Kustura graduated college in the United States.
You're thankful for the fact you got a chance to survive that you spend all your free time volunteering and giving back to the community.— Arnessa (@Rrrrnessa) November 18, 2015
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.
Growing up, I have memory after memory of calls with lawyers, lawyer bills, and countless visits with officials. My father is Syrian.— Laila Alawa (@lulainlife) November 18, 2015
He is Syrian, he's an engineer, &his name was similar to one of the names on America's watch list. That meant the whole process slowed down.— Laila Alawa (@lulainlife) November 18, 2015
People who say refugees will just flood into the US without background checks are privileged and frankly slightly stupid to say that.— Laila Alawa (@lulainlife) November 18, 2015
It hurts my heart when I see the thousands of children like me now being dehumanized and discussed as though they're simple collateral.— Laila Alawa (@lulainlife) November 18, 2015
“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.”