A year has gone by now, and even though I still can’t talk about it without choking up, I can write about it. This happened when I was a consular officer in Bangladesh.
The Rohingya are an ethnic minority in Burma. Because of religious violence against them, one million of them have fled into Bangladesh. This is a festering humanitarian crisis. Bangladesh is a poor country that is barely able to feed its own people. The addition of a million additional people in need of basic life support is a burden that the country can’t endure. Humanitarian aid is keeping them alive, but no one has been able to offer a workable solution yet.
The issue of refugee resettlement is political and emotional. If I were a refugee, I’d want to return to my home country. But that isn’t always possible. In the case of the Rohingya, the government of Burma refuses to acknowledge their citizenship. They are literally stateless.
The United States, like many countries, allows reunification of refugee families if one member of the family has resettled legally in their country. I was able to help a Rohingya refugee join her husband in America.
It might surprise you to know that the United States isn’t even in the top ten among countries that accept refugees. Would you believe that Iran and Ethiopia each accept more than ten times the number of refugees that the United States does?
Even though there’s a legal mechanism to resettle refugees in the United States, there are all kinds of legal and bureaucratic obstacles. The Rohingya crisis created some political obstacles as well, which I don’t want to try to explain, since I barely understood them at the time, and still don’t. Long story short, we had to get the Bangladesh government to agree to allow this one refugee to exit the country and get on an airplane to the United States. Getting one person out took more than a year. It took emails, phone calls, Congressional inquiries, in-person meetings with local government officials, security checks, medical examinations. The United Nations was involved, of course. I learned a lot from the experience, but all through the process, we were communicating with this young woman, and that put a human face on the process. This was a human being, and we were trying to help her get out of hell, and to build a new life.
Finally the day came when all the pieces came together. We had the entry visa, the medical and security clearances, coordination with the local authorities, and the airline. Even though everyone involved had given their approval, there was no guarantee that there wouldn’t be complications. I and a local staff member went to the airport with her, to help her navigate all of the steps. We went six hours before the flight was scheduled to leave. We got special airport passes that let us go through security, and right up to the boarding gate. I wanted to see her get on the airplane, and watch it take off, before I could relax.
Airlines in general don’t know what to do with refugees’ resettlement paperwork. Stateless refugees don’t have passports. The U.S. government uses a special form, but it isn’t the passport and visa that the airline is required to verify. Luckily, I had a good relationship with the airline, after working closely with them on the evacuation flights earlier in the year. I had given them the heads-up that this was happening. Still, the people working the airline counter hadn’t been informed. We explained the situation, but they had to double-check with their supervisors, because they’d never encountered a case like this. I think it helped to have an American officer there to explain the situation and assure the airline that she had permission to enter the United States. The check-in process proceeded.
Her luggage was overweight.
There was a $65 charge for the excess baggage.
Stateless refugees don’t have credit cards.
I was sure as hell not going to let a $65 luggage charge derail the 18 months of work to get that far along. Without hesitation, I whipped out my credit card and covered that charge. This was not an authorized expense, and I will never see that money again. But it was a very, very tiny price to pay to make sure that we could see this though, and reunite this woman with her husband.
The next step was passport control. That required another side trip to the airport police office, and several long phone calls with the higher-ups. I had my phone out, ready to call my contacts in the foreign ministry in case they needed to remind the airport authorities that she had permission to leave without a passport. But eventually they got it worked out. Seeing them stamp her paperwork was a huge relief. A stamp on the paperwork meant that the political obstacle was overcome.
Waiting in the departure lounge until boarding time and wheels-up was a stressful experience. Boarding the plane required another passport check, which required the gate agent to be aware of this special situation. But finally, she was allowed onto the plane, and I waited until wheels-up before leaving the airport.
This was the first time that a Rohingya refugee was allowed to be resettled to the United States in years. The process was an enormous lift, that took international and interagency coordination. My diplomatic skills were put to the test. It was a long, long day in the airport. For me, though, it was worth it. We didn’t just help a person that day, we changed her life.
The next steps are hers, and they will be hard. She now has to learn yet another language, adapt to a new culture, and accept the fact that she will probably never see her home country again. She isn’t a refugee any more, but she’s still an exile. But there’s no doubt in my mind that her life will be better. Because of what I and my team did. I am as proud of the work we finished that day as anything that I’ve done as a Foreign Service officer, and maybe as a human being.