In the language of refugee resettlement, there are two kinds of cases: free cases and tie cases. In free cases, refugee individuals or families do not have any immediate relatives in the United States. Alternatively, tie cases are often when new Americans reunite with loved ones.
As a practitioner, I often sympathize with people associated with free cases. The reality is that as much as any resettlement agency strives to provide refugees with a warm welcome and orientation to the United States, the value of having unique connections in a new country is unmistaken. At least this is how I feel arriving in Amman, Jordan for the first time.
For the past year, the International Institute of New England (IINE) has been expanding our partnerships with universities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire to advance the study of refugee resettlement and immigrant integration. One of our strategies is to strengthen relationships between academics, policy makers, and practitioners because while one might imagine that people from these disciplines connect often, the fields are often quite siloed.
As a step forward, IINE launched a new four-part learning series in 2017 called Intersections: Syncing Policy, Practice, and Personal Experience. The first lecture focused on the Syrian refugee crisis and featured, among others, Denis Sullivan, a political science professor at Northeastern University and Director of the Boston Consortium of Arab Regional Studies (BCARS). Six months later, what began as a conversation is developing into a more formal collaboration between IINE and BCARS, including comparing the integration of Syrian refugees in Jordan with New England’s newest refugee population.
This is how I come to be in Amman in advance of World Refugee Day on June 20th, an annual event that honors the challenges and contributions of refugees worldwide. Traveling with staff from BCARS, one of our shared goals is to identify related experiences and transferable lessons in refugee protection. For example, Jordan wrestles with the same paradox as the United States whereby many residents want refugees to work and be self-sufficient, but at the same time accuse newcomers of “taking their jobs.”
It’s one thing to understand peripherally that the economy in Jordan is challenged, but it’s another to arrive and learn that while officially unemployment hovers at 30%, the unofficial data suggests that as many as 60% of the population is underemployed. Compounding this challenge is that Jordan currently hosts nearly 1.2 million Syrian refugees in a country of an estimated nine million residents and growing. This is compared to the approximately 20,000 refugees that the United States has welcomed since 2015. Often pundits will extol that the Arab nations are not doing enough to respond to the Syrian crisis, but this is simply not true. Currently, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey host more than five million Syrian refugees, with more arriving each day.
It’s also important to note that Jordan does not just host Syrians; there is also a large Iraqi refugee population, some of whom have been displaced for more than a decade. I discovered this first-hand when I had the opportunity in Amman to visit the relatives of my colleague Farouq Ali, a refugee IINE resettled to Lowell in 2011. Farouq works as an Arabic interpreter for the International Institute, and he and his family have been instrumental in welcoming and supporting hundreds of refugees from the Middle East in Lowell – a mission motivated in part by his family’s experience as a free case.
Sitting in an apartment surrounded by three Iraqi refugee families, one mother touches my arm and says that there must be something I can do. She is worried for her children’s future. She and her husband registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in 2007 but ten years and two children later, their future is still uncertain. The family applied for resettlement to the United States years ago, but the waiting list is very long. With the anticipated reduction in refugee resettlement in the United States, combined with the competition with applicants worldwide, I tell her honestly that I wouldn’t get my hopes up, a statement I painfully repeat to the additional two families. The mother responds, “There is always a little hope.”
Meanwhile, their lives in Amman are stunted by their inability to secure work legally and funds are depleting. Despite their personal risk, a few of the fathers return to Baghdad to work as contractors where their paychecks are not always guaranteed. When I casually and perhaps inappropriately ask two teenage sisters what they do other than study, they reply, “nothing, we have no money.”
As BCARS highlighted in a policy report, the Jordanian government recently extended a new work permit program for refugees, but it only applies to Syrians. The program offers up to 200,000 refugees the opportunity to work in certain sectors that many Jordanians often refuse. This reminds me of our clients in Lowell, Massachusetts who fill positions at manufacturing and textile companies that many Americans find unattractive. To date, a little over 50,000 Syrians have registered for the permits, but even then, employers will often pay them less than their Jordanian counterparts.
Leaving the Iraqis’ homes, I feel somber and concerned for the mother and her young sons, one of whom reminds me of my nephew with his boundless energy. Unable to work legally in Jordan or return safely to their country as a family, their immediate solutions are bleak. It’s hard not to compare their lives with those of Farouq’s children who have flourished in the United States since their resettlement. Two talented college students, they have seized their opportunity to make the most of their move to Massachusetts. However, only one percent of refugees are afforded the same opportunity; the remaining 99% like Faroqu’s relatives must merely wait and hope for a better future.