Issue June 21, 2011

Delayed departure

Refugees bound for Kentucky held up by extra security

Meena Kharel rarely finds herself alone. She shares a two-bedroom apartment with her sister, parents, 90-year-old grandfather and a 4-year-old niece who shadows her, convinced the two are sisters.

“Sister! Sister!” she’ll plea when Kharel slips from sight. At meal times an uncle and brother will stop in. Still, even with loved ones usually only inches away, the 24-year-old is lonely. Her husband remains 8,000 miles away in Katmandu. This despite being approved by the multiple agencies who screen refugees: Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, International Office of Migration, and U.S. Department of State. While it’s unclear exactly what the hold-up is, new security measures implemented by Homeland Security could delay unification even further.

Kharel’s family is of Nepali descent, but she spent her first five years in Bhutan. In the early 1990s, the ruling party orchestrated a cleansing of southern Bhutanese, who are primarily Hindu, from the majority Buddhist country. According to Human Rights Watch, citizenship was stripped, protestors were tortured, villages were raided.

Kharel’s family landed in a rural refugee camp in Nepal, as did about 100,000 other Bhutanese refugees. Dust, hunger and poverty saturated the camp. It was her family’s home for 18 years. So in 2006 when the U.S. agreed to take in 60,000 Bhutanese, her family seized the opportunity. And by 2009, they were cleared, news that brought both excitement and heartache.

Kharel had fallen in love while studying in Katmandu. She and her husband decided to marry four days before she boarded the plane for America.

Catholic Charities, who helped resettle Kharel and her family, is trying to help her figure out why her husband’s case now sits frozen, untouched. They helped her draft a letter to U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, in hopes some political muscle would induce movement.

But patience may be Kharel’s only avenue to a reunion, as thousands of refugees have gotten stuck in a bureaucratic backlog. Just before the first of the year, Homeland Security swiftly enacted additional security screening measures. According to a spokesman, Matt Chandler, the Department of Homeland Security is often tweaking the process to make it more thorough. The latest change involves a pre-departure check that happens right before a refugee is scheduled to travel to America.

“It is intended to identify whether any new derogatory information exists since the initial checks were conducted,” Chandler said via email. Another step, however, inevitably demands extra time and manpower.

The Department of State, realizing the ripple effects of the major policy switch, has scaled back its 2011 planned refugee arrival total from 80,000 to 55,000.

“It’s inconvenient but necessary,” says Carol Fouke-Myopo, a spokeswoman for Church World Service, one of 10 national resettlement organizations. CWS disperses refugees to local agencies across the country, like Kentucky Refugee Ministries.

Fouke-Myopo and other refugee advocates say they stand behind whatever security measures protect both U.S. citizens and the resettlement program.

“We know how important the program is to bona fide refugees,” Fouke-Myopo says. “Even though it’s been frustrating to have refugees slowed down, we want an airtight program.” After all, she knows when a breach occurs, a torrent of headlines and political frenzy follow.

Just a few weeks ago, for example, two Iraqi refugees who came to the United States in 2009 and resettled to Bowling Green were charged with terrorism for attempting to send missiles to al-Qaida. The FBI quickly flagged the men and began monitoring their activity.

According to various news reports, Homeland Security officials didn’t know the military had lifted one of the men’s fingerprints from a bomb intended to hurt U.S. troops in Iraq. Chandler would not say whether this particular case inspired the new pre-departure check.

Regardless, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has vociferously argued for congressional hearings looking into possible gaps in the resettlement program.

Fouke-Myopo understands the concerns. But she cautions against letting two men represent the tens of thousands of refugees invited into the country every year, not chasing the American dream, but escaping nightmarish conditions. And the need for asylum is great. According to the United Nations, there are 10.5 million refugees worldwide, and only 1 percent is processed for resettlement every year.

“This is very rare to have someone slip through,” Fouke-Myopo says. “I think that’s why we’ve been patient and have tried to work very hard with the U.S. government to get things rolling again now that the security checks are in place.”

Arrivals are picking back up. Still seven months into the resettlement year, which started in October, Church World Service had received roughly 1,400 fewer refugees than they’d planned. That means agencies like Kentucky Refugee Ministries and Catholic Charities are also behind on their totals, and their budgets have taken a hit.

Local affiliates, like KRM, receive about $700 for every refugee they resettle. It helps pay for the services offered to new arrivals. KRM and Catholic Charities of Louisville both budget for the year based on anticipated resettlements. Fewer refugees result in a budget shortfall. Elizabeth Kaznak, KRM’s executive director, says in the last few months she’s had to cut back hours and not fill vacant positions due to the drop in arrivals.

Last month brought some relief. The government agreed to funnel money to each of the 10 national resettlement agencies as a way to avoid dramatic monetary deficits. Kaznak isn’t sure how much Church World Service will filter out to KRM and other local affiliates, but it should float them through this year.

“The bottom line is we will not have to absorb 100 percent of the lost arrivals,” she says. “But closer to 25 percent.”

As a refugee advocate, Kaznak knows temporary financial turbulence is a meager price to pay when compared to the residual loneliness refugees like Kharel face.

Much has changed for Kharel in the last two years: She’s now a nurse. She speaks some English and has made friends. She is content, but she longs for the day when talking with her husband won’t require calculating time zones and calling minutes.

Catholic Charities hosts World Refugee Day on Friday from 9 a.m.-noon at the St. Anthony Campus, 2234 W. Market St.