America's selectivity on refugee resettlement

America's selectivity on refugee resettlement
Feature: Humans of New York founder, Brandon Stanton, argues that the refugee resettlement programme in the United States is unjustly selective against refugees.
6 min read
20 December, 2015
'The Scientist' lost seven members of his family in Syria [Humans of New York]

After years of photographing, interviewing and blogging about the lives of strangers on the streets of New York, the founder of Humans of New York has now focused his efforts on the stories of refugees.

Brandon Stanton partnered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in September, where he met refugees travelling across Europe to seek asylum after fleeing the wars in their countries.

"The population of people that I have been most drawn to are the stories of refugees," Brandon Stanton told CNN.

"The tragedy of their stories, learning what they experienced in Syria and Iraq, has been completely eye-opening to me."

Most recently, the photographer travelled to Turkey and Jordan, where he interviewed 12 families who had been approved for resettlement in the United States.

But Stanton believes that the US refugee resettlement programme is unjustly selective, and that the country must accept more refugees.

"There are millions of [Syrian] refugees, and the US has taken 10,000," Stanton said.

"They all either had an extreme physical handicap in the family, or a PhD. That's how selective we're being."

Stanton added that the US had the "luxury of saying no" to everyone without the need to give any reason.

"They don't need for someone to be a security threat to say no," he said. "They can say no for anything."

Two particularly moving stories of refugees interviewed by Stanton have resonated with people across the world; a Syrian scientist and a young Iraqi girl named Aya.

The Scientist


In a series of seven posts, Stanton brought the story of an unnamed Syrian scientist to the world.

His moving story quickly went viral on social media, capturing the attention of hundreds of thousands of people.

The scientist lost seven members of his family in Syria after a government anti-personnel missile tore through his house.

Following the devastating loss, the scientist took his only remaining son and daughter to Turkey, where he could barely make ends meet.

"I have a PhD, but I'm not allowed to work without a residence permit," he said. "There is a university here that is teaching with a book I wrote, but still won’t give me a job."

Shortly after his arrival in Turkey, the Syrian scientist was diagnosed with cancer, from which he suffers internal bleeding in his stomach.

"I've gone to five hospitals here. They tell me there's nothing they can do, especially because I have no insurance and no benefits."

"I still think I have a chance to make a difference in the world," he said, adding that he had several inventions that he hopes to patent once he arrived in the US.

"I just want to get back to work. I want to be a person again. I don't want the world to think I'm over. I'm still here."

The life of Aya

Aya's case was particularly moving for Stanton, who brought her story to the world in 11 posts on Humans of New York.

The young Iraqi refugee was only seven-years-old when America invaded Iraq in 2003.

Aya learned English by listening to American songs and watching Hollywood movies.

"I'd practice talking to myself in front of the mirror every night. I'd even give gum to American soldiers so I could have conversations with them," she said.

Aya described her time in Syria, where she moved when she was 14-years-old, as "the best two years of [her] life", until the war broke out.

"It began for me as a bomb threat at our school," said Aya. "Then people began killing each other in the street."

"So again we became refugees. We put everything we had into six bags, and we left."

After arriving in Turkey, Aya had to work as an interpreter for an NGO to pay rent.

"We started at zero and I built us up to a six, all by myself, and I'm very proud of that."

Things soon started to get worse for Aya and her family, with the influx of Syrian refugees into the country.

The young girl was hit by a car at some point, and her sister lost two teeth after getting hit in the face at school.

She even started receiving Facebook messages from strangers telling her to leave the country.

"They tell us to leave. But we have nowhere to go."

Aya's family were among those who applied for resettlement in America.

Their application was accepted at first, but their joy soon collapsed, after the US Citizenship and Immigration Services sent them a letter saying their application had been rejected due to "security related reasons”.

"I'm getting tired. I'm a warrior and I'm strong and I've fought so much but even warriors get tired."

On the brink of tears, Stanton said that because of America's selectivity, people like Aya were denied resettlement in the country, despite doing everything right and applying legally.

"She has no where to go, and they're telling her no," he said. "What's going to happen to her?"

Solidarity and donations

Inspired by the scientist's moving story, President Barack Obama wrote a welcome note to the Syrian scientist in the comments section.

"As a husband and a father, I cannot even begin to imagine the loss you've endured. You and your family are an inspiration," the President said.

"I know that the great people of Michigan will embrace you with the compassion and support you deserve."

"Yes, you can still make a difference in the world, and we're proud that you'll pursue your dreams here. Welcome to your new home. You're part of what makes America great."

Donations have been pouring in for the scientist and his family, as many people were inspired by their story, launching several crowdfunding campaigns for them, especially to cover medical bills.

US actor Edward Norton has set up a crowdfunding page to raise donations for the Syrian family.

Norton's campaign has raised more than $440,000 so far.

"This man has suffered profound loss that would crush the spirit of many people and yet he still passionately wants a chance to contribute positively to the world," he told Stanton in an email.

"If we don't welcome people like this into our communities and empower his dream of making an impact with his life, then we're not the country we tell ourselves we are."

Norton also called for rejecting the "anti-human voices" that tell people to "fear refugees".

Daniel Kang, a university student in Troy, Michigan, where the family is going to be resettled, has also launched a crowdfunding campaign for the family, raising more than $16,000 in five days.

"I really can't comprehend the trauma that his entire family had to go through," Kang told Fox 2 TV channel on Friday.

"There's really no such thing as fair, but I would like to give him a head start in his new life."

Aya's story has also inspired hundreds of thousands of people to reach out and attempt to help.

More than 800,000 people have already signed a petition addressed to Obama to "Bring Aya to America".

The petition is close to reaching its goal of one million signatures.

Selective resettlement

The United States currently accepts around 70,000 refugees a year from all conflicts around the world, but it has been particularly slow to accept Syrians.

More than 62,000 Americans have signed a petition calling on President Barack Obama's administration to resettle at least 65,000 Syrians by 2016.

In September, the Obama administration announced plans to accept about 10,000 Syrian refugees next year, in addition to the 2,500 who have settled in the country since 2011.

However, the approved refugees will be subject to the strictest form of security screening before they are allowed to enter the US, with extensive background, security and health checks.

When asked about the risk of Islamic State group (IS) extremists infiltrating the Syrian refugees coming into the US, Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey said that it was a risk to be worried about.

"We have to make sure we understand who is coming in... because there is a risk here," he said.

Each refugee and their family is interviewed by the Department of Homeland Security and names are checked against government databases.