The smell of fire mixed with fumes fogged the air and the sound of gunshots echoed afar. The midday sun was shining down, pressing against Chapter Doh’s skin as he looked toward the direction of his village.
He knew that Burmese soldiers had attacked his village. He scrambled to put all the supplies he brought for school that day into his bag and immediately dashed toward his aunt and uncle’s house, which was closer to the school than his own home. He did not return to his home and his parents for 15 years.
“When I got to (my aunt’s) house, we ran to the jungle and we stayed there for couple of weeks. I didn’t know any(thing) … I was a kid,” Doh said.
His aunt and uncle hoped to return to their homeland, but their home — now a war zone — was too dangerous. The group fled to Thailand where they learned about refugee camps on the border. There, they found shelter.
Doh is one of 60 million people worldwide who have been driven out of their homes because of wars, poverty, gang violence, genocide, famine, natural disaster, religious persecution, political upheaval and more. Of that number, approximately 21.3 million are refugees and more than half are under age 18.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, a refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country to find protection because of persecution, war or violence. One in every 122 people worldwide has a story similar to Doh’s. The number is increasing yearly, which means more and more refugees are reassigned to live in other nations, including the United States.
Helping refugees became a hot topic for students at BYU after several leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints addressed the issue in their April 2016 General Conference talks. Elder Patrick Kearon of the Quorum of the Seventy encouraged members to pray about how they could help refugees.
“This moment does not define them, but our response will help define us,” he said in his talk.
Relief Society President Linda K. Burton asked the women of the church to consider, “What if their story were my story?”
Fleeing their homelands is just the beginning of life as a refugee. Many stay in refugee camps in neighboring countries for years while waiting to finally relocate abroad.
Doh stayed in Mae La refugee camp in Thailand for more than seven years. The one square-mile camp hosted 58,000 refugees at the time Doh and his relatives arrived. It was located next to a freeway and surrounded by barbed wire because the refugees were not allowed to leave.
“It’s like a prison … we had to stay there and we cannot leave,” Doh said. “We are not legal to go to different places in Thailand, because we are from different country (sic) and we are illegal people also at the same time as (being) a refugee.”
In 2006, Doh applied for and received refugee status from the United Nations. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has the mandate to provide international protection for refugees and work toward the best possible permanent solution for each individual.
The refugees are first reviewed by the UNHCR as to whether they meet the legal definition of a refugee. Once the UNHCR determines an individual is a refugee, they select one of three pathways for the refugee: repatriation, or being sent home after the political situation stabilizes; nationalization, or staying in the country to which they fled or third-country asylum or resettlement.
For the latter option, UNHCR contacts departments of resettlement in various countries. A representative in that country conducts an interview with each refugee at the Migration Processing Center to determine resettlement eligibility.
The United States resettles more refugees than any other country. More than 3 million refugees have come to America since 1975. Although UNHCR reports that less than 1 percent of all refugees are eventually resettled in third countries, the United States welcomes more than half of these refugees — more than all other resettlement countries combined.
A total of 58,179 refugees were admitted to the United States during 2012. Since then, the U.S. has accepted and resettled as many refugees as promised, though the number has decreased by more than half since 1990. This fiscal year, the U.S. plans to accept 85,000 refugees, including 10,000 Syrians. The number of refugees admitted each year is set by the president.
A refugee must meet four requirements to enter the U.S.: 1) be of special humanitarian concern to the United States, 2) meet the refugee definition in 101(a) (42) by the UNHCR, 3) be accepted by the Immigration and Nationality Act and 4) not be firmly resettled in any other foreign country prior to admission to the U.S.
The eligible refugees are separated into three priority groups: Priority One, those who are referred by UNHCR; Priority Two, groups of special humanitarian concern and Priority Three, family reunification cases. Then Resettlement Support Centers conduct a prescreening interview with the applicant to complete and submit their application to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Immigration may conduct another interview with the refugee to determine eligibility for resettlement in United States. The refugees must undergo security checks and submit medical exams prior to admission.
Utah Refugee Services Office director Gerald Brown explained that the U.S. State Department decides who is admitted. Those who are approved are assigned to one of two volunteer resettlement agencies: the International Rescue Committee (IRC) or Catholic Community Services (CCS). At that point, each refugee meets with a caseworker to begin the transition to life in Utah.