The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently shared on its website the story of a Syrian refugee family who was resettled from Jordan to Dallas. The 30-year-old mechanic, Firas al Ahmad, his wife Samira and their three children fled to Jordan at the end of 2013 when the fighting intensified near their home. The family struggled there for over three years due to the "lack of legal work opportunities" and welcomed UNHCR's offer to resettle in the United States. Once their application approved, they sold their furniture and moved out from their apartment to stay with Firas' dad in the Jordanian city of Irbid.
The family is filmed there the day before departure. Firas explained on camera: "I'm leaving because of my kids, for their future. I hope they can get a good education, and have a better life than the one we had ... The hardest thing is leaving family members behind. All of them but especially my father." (Firas's brothers, aunt, and father left Syria with them.)
Samira too was emotional: "Syria is everything. They say, a nation is like a mother. What's our worth without our mother?" She then burst in tears. Firas reiterated: "Syria is everything, it is everything to me. The minute the war is over I will go back. Even now I wish it would end today, before we leave, so that we could go home."
In the text, UNHCR underlined the following: "Resettlement programmes in the United States and other developed countries are designed to offer a lifeline to the most vulnerable refugees, including children at risk, survivors of torture and those with medical needs."(Emphasis added)
How does this apply to Al-Ahmad's family? As far as we can tell they do not seem to suffer from any specific vulnerability. By their own admission, they fled Syria because the fighting was getting closer; and they accepted the resettlement offer to give a better life to their children, not because they could not stay in Jordan.
As a reminder, the refugee resettlement program was set up to provide "resettlement to a third country in situations where it is impossible for a person to go back home or remain in the host country." (Emphasis added.) Also, resettlement is one of UNHCR's "durable solutions" – resettled refugees in the U.S. are required by law to apply for a green card (permanent residence) in the United States one year after arrival. They can apply for U.S. citizenship five years from entry.
But does the Al-Ahmad family want to stay in the U.S.? Do they wish to become American citizens, or is their loyalty first and foremost to Syria? If their true will is to go back home "the minute the war is over," why resettle them in the U.S. to begin with?
And why them, and not others?
Eight days before it published the story above, UNHCR shared the story of another Syrian refugee family who had fled to Lebanon. The family (Abdel Moein Al Abed, 37, his wife, Fatima, 31, and their three children) were resettled in Tampa.
When he heard from UNHCR they were being considered for resettlement to the United States , Abdel Moein recounts in a video posted online: "I was mostly happy for my children. I want them to have good education, a good future."
Abdel Mouin feared they would not be able to leave following President Trump's Executive order that paused the U.S. refugee resettlement program: "I was told that my departure date was on the 7th of February. So we prepared ourselves and I quit my job. We packed our things and I notified the landlord that I was going to move out. I sold most of my household goods and electronics." But he was quickly reassured: "‘The ban was revoked and you can now travel', they said."
As the family was getting ready for the trip, friends and family came to say goodbye, all were kissing and crying. Fatima described the scene: "They were telling us, lucky you, you are traveling, going to a new life, your children will get an education, life is different there. When will we get a chance to travel like you? We hope to have the chance to follow you, God willing."
In this story, once more, UNHCR underlined the necessity of resettlement: "UNHCR field staff identify and refer the most vulnerable refugees for resettlement, such as people needing medical assistance, survivors of torture and women and children at risk."(Emphasis added) How do the Al Abeds fit any of these categories and why were they chosen for resettlement and not others? Abdel Moein had a job, an apartment where he lived with his family, apparently, safely. Others, friends and family, allegedly in similar circumstances, also wanted a chance for a better life. Why were they not picked?
I asked similar questions about Al-Abbouds, the first Syrian family to be resettled in Kansas city from Jordan last April under what was called a "surge operation". Forty-five-year-old Ahmad Al-Abboud, his wife, and five children had fled the Syrian city of Homs and stayed in Jordan for three years. Ahmad could not find a job there, the family surviving on food coupons. The Al-Abbouds were finally resettled in the United States.
Again, resettled refugees are supposed to be the ones who are the most vulnerable, those in need of special care or protection they cannot find in their country of refuge. Perhaps we missed something, but how does this apply to Al-Abbouds? Why were they selected and not others from the millions of Syrians outside their country who are also suffering from unemployment, destitution, and despair? What about Al-Ahmads and Al Abeds? How are they more vulnerable than others? Or are they?
UN staff should not be randomly picking for resettlement a "lucky few" out of millions who are undergoing common hardships. And if it isn't, it should make clear (at least to State Department officials) why one particular family or refugee was referred for resettlement and not another.