In August 2015, just three months after arriving in the United States, Qasim Hello received news that ISIS had massacred and displaced all the people in his native city in Iraq.
“ISIS murdered 7,000 people that day, forcing thousands more into the mountains without clothing, food or water,” recalls Hello.
A refugee from Kurdistan, a historically and violently persecuted region in Northern Iraq, Hello knew he had to escape the country before ISIS executed him for aiding the U.S. military. As a translator for the U.S. Army, Hello had a more fluid means of leaving Iraq, safely moving himself and his wife and daughter to Houston, Texas.
The Refugee Act of 1980, signed by President Jimmy Carter, was the first comprehensive amendment of U.S. general immigration regarding refugees. The intention of the act was to raise the limit of the number of refugees entering the United States from 17,400 to 50,000, with emergency procedures to accommodate an additional 5,000 refugees. In previous years, the ceiling was always treated as a goal or a quota.
Under the Trump administration, the ceiling has been set at 30,000, a historically low number since 1980 that far fewer than the previous low of 75,000 under the second Bush administration. In addition, an expanded vetting process means entry could be delayed well past the 18 months to three years it typically takes, says Jenni Glynn, former immigration staffer under John Kerry.
Glynn also suggests that when the United States doesn’t fulfill its moral obligations by granting safety to those in danger, other countries could potentially follow suit.
“The new ceiling is no longer a goal but a mere maximum,” Glynn says.
U.S. State Department data shows more than 21,000 refugees were approved during the 2018 fiscal year. But, the obstacle of living a new life doesn’t stop at being granted asylum, says Jason Roberts, co-advisor of the Global Connections Club at Salt Lake Community College.
The Global Connections Club is SLCC’s comprehensive approach to providing a community-based means of support for immigrant, refugee, and underrepresented students.
“Typically, when refugees arrive in the U.S. they’re given a ‘starter package’ with documentation, work permits and housing,” Roberts says.
Even so, for someone abruptly dropped in a new environment, with a new language and unfamiliar social expectations, a new life doesn’t come effortlessly, adds Roberts. Reaching out to some within the refugee population can also be difficult.
In many cases, says Roberts, former refugees want to avoid the label or simply aren’t aware that they fall within this category. This poses a significant obstacle when outreach centers and organizations can’t appeal to those they aim to assist.
Another obstacle is evident in acclimating to a new life, says Dr. Kamal Bewar, success coordinator for the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs at SLCC. With a considerable spectrum of educational, professional and social backgrounds, assisting those within the refugee population can be extremely nuanced, says Bewar, a former Kurdish refugee himself.
Bewar, who works with immigrant, refugee and underrepresented students, says the largest hurdle he sees for refugee students are social and academic.
“Many arrive in the U.S. with college degrees and established professions or work experience, but have to start from scratch,” says Bewar.
Citing a story of a close colleague, Bewar tells of a young Kurdish man who held a master’s degree but couldn’t find employment beyond working for a local cable company. While working, the young man returned to school to study computer engineering.
“Now, he works as a consultant and makes more than any of us ever will,” Bewar says jokingly.
Patience and grit, however, are the backbone of successfully adapting to a new environment, Bewar notes. It took him about three years before he had a sense of normalcy in his life, and even then, it wasn’t smooth sailing.
As a former Kurdish refugee who grew up facing persecution and degradation by Saddam Hussein’s regime, Bewar is unfazed by the rhetoric espoused by the Trump administration.
“From time to time, I still face cultural insensitivity, but it doesn’t matter to me. I call those incidents the ‘small things,’” says Bewar. “If you really have a dream, those small things mean nothing.”
Contact the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs at the South City or Taylorsville Redwood campuses to learn more about resources for refugees.