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‘A Lot of Questions, Over and Over Again’ — A Look at One Maine Refugee’s Vetting Process

N. Omata
Refugee Studies Centre | Flickr/Creative Commons
A market at the Kyangwali refugee settlement in Uganda, where Charles spent almost half his life.

The number of refugees, asylum seekers and other foreign-born people who settled in Maine last year was the largest in recent years.

As President Donald Trump prepares a new effort to restrict immigration — possibly to include what he calls “extreme vetting” of refugees from some countries — we wanted to learn a bit about how refugees are screened and processed before being resettled here. This is the account of one refugee who came here from Africa this past September.

When Charles fled the ethnic violence that killed his parents in his native city of Bunia, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he was around 11 or 12 years old — he doesn’t remember exactly. Now 20, he spent almost half his life in the teeming Kyangwali refugee camp in Uganda.

“It was safe. And it was not good. It was safe but not good. It was very hard life,” he says.

He traveled with his aunt, Love, and his grandmother, Cecile. It was a relief to get to the Uganda camp, he says, but it wasn’t really a home.

“Things were not very good - food, shelter, water. Shelter was sometimes — you were put in a room without a roof, so most of the nights we used to sleep when it was raining on us,” Charles says.

It was safe, at least relative to the Congo — and that was the paramount consideration for Charles, who asked that we not use his last name due to continued concern about safety for himself and family. Within the first three months, Charles says workers from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees interviewed him and his family for certification as refugees and as potential candidates for resettlement abroad.

Credit Refugee Immigration Services-Catholic Charities Maine
Refugee Immigration Services-Catholic Charities Maine

The U.N. only refers for resettlement a small percentage of the world’s refugees, those it considers most vulnerable to war, violence or other harms. Refugees themselves can not make the applications — it’s the U.N.’s choice, based on the information they can confirm about the refugees.

Charles says local U.N. staff sought to determine the truth of his story, matching it to records from the Congo and crosschecking it against what his relatives and others told them about what happened there.

“Where you are from, where exactly you ran from and what are the causes that made you run? From what reason did you run from where you were for where you ran, and who were you living with, what happened to them, where are they, how old are you, in what time, what date, what hour of the day that the circumstances that happened, and all that. I mean there are a lot of questions, over and over again,” he says.

Charles says he was interviewed by the U.N. three times in the first nine months. They took fingerprints and did medical checks as well, a process repeated at least once a year, for eight years. It wasn’t until 2014 that the High Commission for Refugees decided to recommend him and his relatives for resettlement.

As with most international refugees processed through the U.N., Charles had no say over what country he would be recommended to. And, he says, he didn’t hold a preference, as long it was a safe place to build a new life.

As he learned, it would be the U.S.

Credit United Nations High Commission for Refugees
United Nations High Commission for Refugees

“And they told us, like you know, if America accepts you … we will have a lot more interviews for you, we will have a lot more paperworks for you, we will have a lot more fingerprints for you, we will have a lot of injections and all medical stuffs for you, so get ready for it,” he says.

And Charles says that’s exactly what happened, as a U.S.-funded Resettlement Support Center started up its own vetting regimen from scratch. That meant interagency screenings, with Charles’ biographical information reviewed and checked against databases kept by the National Terrorism Center, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department.

According to guidance originally put out by the Obama administration, and still available online, refugees from Syria go through several extra screens, and the information for all potential refugees is rechecked as databases are updated.

If no evidence emerges that the applicant is a security risk — no connections to known bad actors, for example, or outstanding arrest warrants — the applicant is cleared for the next step. More interviews, by the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services.

“But they told us, ‘We’ve interviewed you, you’ve done everything, but we are not the ones making decisions. It’s made by the big people beyond us, they are the ones to decide whether you’ll be coming in or not,’” he says.

Once the biographical information checked out, Charles says he and his family went through a new round of fingerprinting to be screened against various databases for potential terrorist watch-list information, previous immigration encounters and data captured during military operations overseas. Those screens include databases run by Homeland Security, the FBI and the Department of Defense.

Any doubts raised along the way can derail a refugee’s admittance to the U.S. But for Charles, Love and Cecile, there were never any red flags, and one day an agent delivered them a letter.

“We had been accepted. And after they have done all their reviews and then we knew that we were going to America,” Charles says.

Late last summer, they arrived at JFK International Airport, then headed to a place they’d never heard of — Maine. As with most refugees to the U.S., Charles’ case was turned over to a nongovernmental organization - in his case, Catholic Charities of Maine, which spokeswoman Judy Katzel says spends three months helping families adapt.

“How to go shopping, what the money, the currency is, how to ride a bus, if there are English classes where people need to be enrolled. If there are young children, do they need to be enrolled in the school system? Our goal is to help refugees become self-sufficient within that 90-day window,” she says.

Later this week, Catholic Charities takes over all stateside administrative responsibility for refugees resettled in Maine as the state drops its share of those duties. Charles, meanwhile, has taken a job at Catholic Charities, and he plans to go back to school.

Charles’ aunt and grandmother are taking English classes. In a year, they must apply for green cards, which will require a fresh security review.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.