Building new lives in the U.S.

It isn’t quick or easy. But each year tens of thousands of refugees fleeing their homelands begin new lives in the United States, which welcomes as many (or more) refugees from around the world as all other countries combined.

By the United Nations’ count, there are 21 million refugees in the world being hosted and supported by neighboring countries until they can safely return home or look to start over elsewhere.

Some seek asylum and stay in the country to which they fled. A small number — fewer than 1 percent — are resettled in the U.S. or other third countries. Before coming to the U.S., refugees go through stringent security and background checks. (In fact, refugees are the most extensively screened of any travelers to the U.S.)

Most refugees to the U.S. are referred for resettlement by the U.N.’s refugee agency, called the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Working through nongovernmental organizations, the State Department operates Resettlement Support Centers in nine countries to handle and expedite refugees’ applications. The centers are in Amman, Jordan; Bangkok; Damak, Nepal; Havana; Istanbul; Moscow; Nairobi, Kenya; Quito, Ecuador; and Vienna.

The centers collect personal and background information before the refugee meets with an officer from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Line of people carrying luggage and belongings up a sandy desert hill (© AP Images)
Thousands of Syrian refugees flooded across the border into Iraqi Kurdistan at Dahuk in August 2013. (© AP Images)

The agency’s officers fan out across the globe to where the refugees are, whether in camps or major cities. They conduct interviews to determine whether refugees meet the definition of refugee under U.S. law — have they demonstrated a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country because of their religion, race, nationality, political opinions or membership in a particular social group?

The officers also manage the rigorous security screening of every refugee who will be settled in the United States. Also, refugees undergo medical exams to check for TB or other communicable diseases.

From start to finish, it typically takes 18 to 24 months for a refugee’s application to be approved and for the refugee to arrive in the U.S.

The State Department partners with one of nine U.S. charitable organizations to find a new refugee (or refugee family) a place to live. Refugees find homes in every state. If they have relatives in the United States, the charity tries to settle them nearby.

The charitable organization’s local affiliate will be sure that a new home is stocked with essentials — some furnishings, clothing and food — on the day refugees arrive.

When refugees step off a plane, someone from the charitable organization is there to meet them. Families waving signs and carrying flowers often greet refugees too. It’s because community groups, churches, synagogues and mosques often organize welcome parties and arrange for volunteers to “adopt” new arrivals, looking in on them regularly and helping with food, transportation and everyday matters.

Young people sitting on bleachers watching a game (© AP Images)
Lewiston, Maine, has welcomed thousands of Somali refugees, including these secondary school students with classmates at a basketball game. (© AP Images)

The State Department also helps refugees through local nonprofit groups for a short period of time after they arrive, assisting the local organizations in procuring housing, food and clothing.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides additional financial and medical assistance, as well as help with learning English and finding a job for up to eight months after the refugees’ arrival.

After a year, refugees must apply for green cards establishing their permanent residency, and after five years, they can become U.S. citizens.

The U.S. has always been a world leader in providing new beginnings to those affected by violence, persecution and displacement. Since 1975, the country has resettled more than 3.2 million refugees. The U.S. will resettle 85,000 refugees — including more than 10,000 from Syria — during the fiscal year that ends September 30.

On September 20 President Obama will host a Leaders’ Summit on Refugees in New York to encourage countries to do more to address the global refugee crisis.