Immigration

Refugees Are Incredibly Well-Vetted, As This Woman’s Story Shows

CREDIT: AP Photo/Michel Euler

Refugees form Bosnia-Herzegovina flee their hometown of Livno on tractors over the mountain pass near Vaganj, Tuesday, April 14, 1992, after the Yugoslav federal army attacked the region. Despite the latest ceasefire, fighting continued in Bosnia-Herzegovina today. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

Since the deadly terror attacks in Paris and Beirut, at least 30 governors have objected to the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States. Many political leaders claim that the vetting process is too lax — as though the labyrinth of application documents is a long-con invitation for terrorists to turn up in America disguised as refugees.

In response, at least one former refugee is pushing back, turning to social media to explain what the legal process was really like for her and her family.

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CREDIT: Arnesa Buljusmic-Kustura

Arnesa Buljusmic-Kustura, 26, and her family spent four years gathering documents and completing countless interviews to successfully apply for refugee status in Bosnia to enter the United States in 2002. Since then, Buljusmic-Kustura has gone through additional application processes to become a legal permanent resident and eventually, after proving that she’s a “contributing member of society,” a U.S. citizen.

Buljusmic-Kustura’s frustration built up after the leader of her state, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R), objected to the resettlement of Syrian refugees. She told ThinkProgress that she hopes using dozens of tweets to share her personal experience with the refugee process may “open up people’s eyes a little bit to highlight an exhausting — both emotionally and physically and mentally — process.”

“I’m a refugee and all of my friends are refugees from either the Balkans or Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, everywhere,” Buljusmic-Kustura, who’s currently the executive director of the Bosniak American Association of Iowa, said in a phone interview. “I know these people, what they’re going through, how they are when they actually get to America. These are good people, they’re hard-working people. They just want a chance to survive.”

To begin her series of about 50 tweets, Buljusmic-Kustura noted that her application process required many steps such as submitting documents like birth certificates, report cards from school, identification cards, driver’s licenses, passports, and old utility bills. She recounted being asked multiple times about her life story and to prove different aspects of her story along with her family, both individually and separately.

In her tweets, Buljusmic-Kustura also recounted that she had to submit biometric information like fingerprints and a retinal eye scan. Her family was eventually able to prove that they had been displaced by the war in Sarajevo after Bosnia and Herzegovina split from the former Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s. Once that happened, their application was finally approved and they were sent to Iowa because they had family there.

“Everything costs money and I remember they had to sell their car just to pay for the process and get the necessary documents,” Buljusmic-Kustura said. “That period of my childhood — I just remember my parents crying so many times about not being able to leave and being so scared about the future of the country, not having a place to go, not having a home, but also feeling that Bosnia is our home and not our home.”

“I can tweet about it, I can talk about it,” she added. “But unless you go through it, you don’t realize how emotionally taxing this is.”

Inspired by Buljusmic-Kustura’s tweets, Laila Alawa, the CEO and founder of the site Coming of Faith, a group dedicated to feminist issues and other concerns surrounding Muslim women, also tweeted her own journey. Though she wasn’t a refugee, she said that her father’s Syrian background made it difficult for them to immigrate into the United States. Like Buljusmic-Kustura, Alawa’s process also involved a lot of documents and interviews.


Both Buljusmic-Kustura and Alawa had to undergo a long process, but it’s likely that the process to admit Syrian refugees is even more grueling, particularly since it will be under heavy scrutiny in light of the recent terror attacks.

Though refugees are already vetted using information taken from agencies like Interpol and the Treasury Department, incoming refugees from so-called “high-risk” countries — including Muslim-majority countries — are vetted through the government program known as Controlled Application Review and Resolution Process, or CARRP, according to Buzzfeed News.

In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union found that the CARRP program “cast extremely wide nets, rely on discriminatory profiling, and yield imprecise, inaccurate, and often absurd results that disproportionately impact [Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian] applicants.”

Buljusmic-Kustura said she’s disappointed about the current attitude of suspicion toward refugees like herself.

“It’s almost a reflection on all of us current refugees that are here and that’s painful to see,” she said. “If you think that these Muslim-Syrian refugees are terrorists, do you think the same about Muslim-Bosnian refugees? Or Iraqi refugees? Or Afghan refugees who are living in this state and helping our economy? Or are helping our state be this amazing place. It’s painful.”