Solidarity With All Refugees
In this episode of Solidarity Is This, host Deepa Iyer is in conversation with Homayra Yusufi, Deputy Director of Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans (PANA) in San Diego, about the challenges affecting refugees, how refugee policy can become more equitable and just, and how to practice meaningful solidarity.
LEARN MORE ABOUT PARTNERSHIP FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF NEW AMERICANS (PANA)
PANA is a research, public policy, and community organizing hub dedicated to advancing the full economic, social, and civic inclusion of refugees in the San Diego region, throughout California, and across the country.
“We need a movement. We need more people who can really restore welcome and who can make sure that people who have already lost so much are able find safety and security and stability in rebuilding their homes here."
Deepa Iyer: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Solidarity Is This podcast. I'm your host, Deepa Iyer. Thank you so much for subscribing, listening and sharing this episode with your networks of colleagues and friends. Now, we've all been hearing about how countries are around the world are welcoming Ukrainians, who are fleeing the war and devastation there. In fact, the number of refugees worldwide in 2021 was at the highest point in 75 years since the end of World War II. This is maybe not so surprising, as we reflect on why people are being full forced to leave their countries. Displacement is occurring for a range of reasons, from hunger and poverty, to climate disasters, to persecution due to gender or faith or some other reason. But the process of being recognized as a refugee and then being resettled into a country like the United States, is an arduous path. The journey from temporary camps to stable homes isn't easy, particularly for Black and Brown refugees.
And even after refugees arrive in the U.S., for example, their access to a social safety net is limited and many face the same problems that other immigrants deal with, from lack of housing to mental health needs to discrimination. In this episode, we're taking a deep dive into the challenges affecting refugees and how to practice effective solidarity, especially when refugee policy is often inconsistent on the basis of race. Joining me to shed light on all of this and more is Homayra Yusufi, the deputy director of the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans in San Diego. At PANA, Homayra leads a team of organizers and advocates with a community driven approach to advanced policies that directly impact our refugees. Homayra, herself, became a refugee at the age of two. Homayra, welcome to Solidarity Is This.
Homayra Yusufi: Thank you. Happy to be here.
Deepa Iyer: So I want to start by asking you what inspired you to get involved with social justice work and in particular with immigrant and refugee communities?
Homayra Yusufi: Well, my family became refugees when I was two years old. We had to flee up Afghanistan because of the Soviet invasion after a bomb hit the street that we lived on and shattered all our windows. And my parents had been contemplating leaving for many years. But at that moment, when glass was all over my brother's body, my mom just made a decision, she was seven months pregnant, that we had to leave and we could no longer stay. So when I was growing up, I feel like I had a really big question about what caused my family to leave home. And so once I began to understand the political and structural systems that affected me personally, I knew that I had to become a part of creating social change, to make it better for not only myself and my family and my community, but for everyone else.
Deepa Iyer: I actually didn't know the details of your personal situation, so thank you for sharing that with me and for all of us. And I think so many people I do have on this podcast, folks say that it is something from their childhood that motivated them to pursue social justice, but that it's also this conviction that they can change, not just their situation, but the situation of others. For folks who don't know enough about PANA's work, if you could just tell us a little bit about what the organization does and what drew you to the organization.
Homayra Yusufi: PANA, Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans was established because of the need to center refugee voices. For too long, people add refugees to the end of the immigrant rights sentence. We fight for immigrants and refugees, but our needs are not centered. Our communities are not represented in policy discussions. And in San Diego, we have a really diverse refugee community. We have a really historical refugee and Ramla Sahid, who's our executive director and founder recognized that there was this need. And so our organization fights to advance the full economic, social and civic inclusion of refugees, not only in San Diego, but throughout the state and across the country. And what really drew me to this organization was just like I mentioned, my own family's experience. And when there was an opportunity to come on board as the deputy director and really co-create, what does it look like for refugees to resettle with dignity, to resettle in a way that ensures their success long term, I really was excited to take that on and to work with our really, really diverse communities at PANA.
Deepa Iyer: I have a real soft spot in my heart for you and Ramla. And of course, PANA, because I had the fortune of coming to PANA a number of years ago. I did a community talk around my book on Muslim Arab South Asian and Sikh communities in the U.S. post 9/11, and what I realized about PANA is one that yes, you're located in San Diego. There's this vibrant community space that you all operate, where it was so intergenerational. And I was just moved by the interactions between young folks and our elders. But then the second piece of it is the diversity of the refugee population that actually comes through PANA. It's just such a multi-ethnic, multi-faith community of refugees that PANA serves and advocates for, not just like you said, in San Diego, but across the country. I'm curious to know a little bit about what are the pressing challenges that refugees are dealing with, especially the refugees have come through your doors and that you're advocating for?
Homayra Yusufi: Like you mentioned, the communities we serve and the historical refugee community that's been here in San Diego, spans from Vietnam to Somalia to Burma to Afghanistan, right? And our issues are also diverse. However, refugees have key challenges that persist past that initial refugee resettlement phase. And one of the things that we've seen time and time again, when we interview our communities in these really in-depth surveys, but also discussions is that the primary challenge is access to safe, stable, affordable housing. Refugees are not afforded housing as part of the resettlement package. They get some basic services and basic benefits when they arrive. However, housing is a huge challenge because refugees, when they come here, they're fleeing for their lives. They're fleeing for safety. They don't get to bring their homes. They don't get to bring their community networks.
They don't get to bring their banking histories and we're seeing longer and longer time spans in which refugees are in temporary housing, like motels, hotels, AirBNBs. The incoming Afghan community is spending up to four months in these kinds of temporary housing situations. That's really harmful for their mental health and their ability for their children to go to school and all of those things, because as soon as they arrive, their first thing was I have to afford rent. And so they find the very first kind of job they can, that means that they're often in the service economy, they're not able to upskill into better paying jobs. They're not able to get the certification they need to get the equivalency of what they did back home. And this is really personal for me because I've seen it in my family. My uncle, who was a doctor in Afghanistan, became a taxi driver for 30 years in America, just because he wasn't able to get the certifications that he needed to, to be able to practice here and didn't have the financial ability to. So the challenges are vast.
Deepa Iyer: Let me actually ask you a couple of questions, because I think there are so many misperceptions and misunderstandings when it comes to what refugee communities even receive. We're talking about a limited number of months that refugee communities receive assistance from the United States government. But when that runs out, they're sort of on their own. Can you share in particular, now that we've had, I guess, Afghan refugees for a bit of time in the U.S., what's the second phase of needs that are coming up for Afghan refugees, once the United States humanitarian benefits run out?
Homayra Yusufi: The benefits that refugees receive within our refugee program is really limited. They receive an initial reception in placement dollars. This looks like $1,200 per individual that is resettled. And then they receive this refugee cash assistance. And that's generally within the federal program, about eight months of limited, cash support. Then every single Afghan has been resettled will have to adjust to their status. Either to seek asylum or if they're illegible for the special immigrant visas, SIVs or TPS. But basically each one of them actually needs an attorney. And there is not the immigration resources right now available for them to be able to get the resources that they need. In addition to that, I can tell you every single Afghan I have spoken to, those who've been here for a while, like my family and the newcomers, our main fear are the people we left behind and Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is facing one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. And while we were on the news for a little bit, we no longer are. And in the midst of this, millions of people are facing starvation and are dying. And our main challenge is how do we support our families back home and the people we left behind? An example is I volunteer with some kids at a unaccompanied shelter that are Afghan. And when I asked them, how are you doing? One of the boys last week, how are you doing? He said, "I have eight siblings back home. There's no food to feed my family. I can't even think about my own immigration case because all I can think about is my parents don't have enough money to be able to feed my siblings."
Deepa Iyer: Yeah, that's a child. Right? I can't imagine kind of carrying that burden on top of everything else that they're facing, but I'm appreciative that you're talking about what's back home because I think that a lot of times folks are focused on, okay, well what happens to refugees once they get here? But they're not disconnected right from home and family members and networks of people that they're leaving behind, especially when the home country is going through a period of tremendous transition or some cases, violence, or even natural disasters, as we've seen. So another misunderstanding that I think that people often have is that when refugees come here, that over time that they'll automatically become United States citizens. Can you kind of break that down in terms of the trajectory it takes for something like that to happen?
Homayra Yusufi: First in becoming a refugee, this is at minimum, if everything goes well, you are in a state of crisis, you are a refugee, you're living somewhere and you're seeking refugee status in the United States, at minimum, you're spending two years within that process.
Deepa Iyer: You're doing that somewhere else.
Homayra Yusufi: Yes. You are not doing that in the United States. Absolutely. For my family, living in Pakistan, waiting for that process, you're in a refugee camp. You are waiting for this process. You are going through biometrics in interviews and it is a very, very long process to even come to the United States. Once you arrive in the United States, the way that the program generally works is that then you are eligible for a green card.
And so you go through the medical tests and all of those processes that you have to go to in order to receive a green card. What most people don't know is if you are afforded a green card, it doesn't mean you're going to get citizenship. We have many, many people who, because of surveillance of the government FBI and DHS, who have come here as refugees have still not received their citizenship. For Afghans who came here, they were not afforded refugee status. Many of us were advocating for an expedited refugee resettlement process, so that Afghans who were evacuated could receive refugee status. But that was not the case, unfortunately. They are in on a temporary humanitarian parole status, which means, like I mentioned, that they all have to actually go through an adjustment of status period. So these kinds of immigration relief are actually completely outside of our refugee resettlement program.
Deepa Iyer: Thank you for clarifying that. So let's talk a little bit about race and immigration policy. And I ask this because a lot of people have been pointing out that U.S. policy towards refugees has been inconsistent. And the Biden administration has announced plans to welcome a hundred thousand refugees or more displaced by the war and extended temporary protected status or TPS. And a lot of people are pointing out that these are the types of measures the U.S. should be taking in response to the needs of all of refugee communities. But the policy response does not reflect that value. When it comes to Black and Brown refugees, many are pointing out that the U.S. does not respond in the same way, whether it's of Afghanistan or say whether it's Cameroon. And so from your vantage point at PANA, where you are seeing refugee of all racial backgrounds come through, do you see these inconsistencies? And if so, what do you believe are the reasons for these inconsistencies?
Homayra Yusufi: Absolutely. We are at the U.S. Mexico border. So we are seeing these inconsistencies on a daily basis and the structural racism that exists within our immigration system. We initially saw this with the Ukrainian situation with the media and public opinion polling, these people look like us, they're Christian, they're not Muslim. They're not coming from these countries that are terrorists, right? They aren't Black, et cetera, et cetera. And we definitely have seen it translate into policy.
In San Diego, one of the major issues we've had is that the Trump administration used Title 42 as a way of basically halting our asylum process in the United States. We have thousands of people on the U.S. Mexico borders, trying to seek asylum and are not able to do so at our borders. And at the same time, we've seen over the past few weeks, about 10,000 people from Ukraine who have been processed at our U.S Mexico border and paroled into the United States. My hope is that everyone who is seeking safety, who is coming from violence, from humanitarian disasters, from economic disasters, right, and environmental are able to be treated equitably. But unfortunately, what we are seeing in terms of the policies being passed is that it's definitely tiered, it's segregated. And it depends on the color of your skin and what the perceived notions are about the people arriving here.
Deepa Iyer: And I want to point out that I've also seen immigrant and refugee rights advocates sort of use these inconsistencies, which I think are very clear now to expose the anti-Black racism, to expose the Islamophobia.
Homayra Yusufi: Absolutely. I think that there is an opportunity and I think that the administration is being forced to contend with these varied responses. For example, the Black immigrant rights groups have been asking for temporary protected status for folks from Cameroon for over six years, right? This has been a big call to action from so many different groups. One that has garnered so much solidarity from across movements and they were still not awarded that. And then we saw Ukrainians get TPS within the first month of the war, right? And there was these real calls to action as to the discrepancy that we were seeing as to the racial biases of our administration in making these decisions. And I think it really forced the administration to contend with that. We did see TPS granted for Afghans. And unfortunately, while we had been asking for TPS for Cameroonians long before anyone else, they got it, the most recent, they got it last week, but that was a big win.
Deepa Iyer: Right.
Homayra Yusufi: I am concerned however, as to how the administration is like you get TPS, you get humanitarian parole, you get categorical parole. There's all of these various immigration relief programs that are happening, rather than looking at an equitable process for all of the people who are coming, who are seeking asylum. And I think that our program in the United States and all of these kinds of short term measures is utilizing the system of fear and scarcity, right. We're seeing that the Afghans, well, we let them in, but, we can't give them per minute status. We don't know if they're terrorists because they came from Afghanistan and they're Muslim, right? We can't give a long term status to Cameroonians because, oh my gosh, there's going to be everyone coming to our borders. And I think we really need to think about what's an equitable process.
Deepa Iyer: Let me go on solidarity because that's the core of this podcast. One of the things that I have been also appreciative of is the messaging that's been coming out from Black immigrant groups and other refugee groups, because the messaging has been very humane. That it's actually said, we recognize and want Ukrainian people to receive refugee status. And then it says, at the same time, we want to point out that folks from Cameroon or Afghanistan and other countries are still waiting. So that, to me, is a solidarity message because it doesn't actually undermine one community's needs in order to amplify another community's needs and also focuses attention on the system and the structure, rather than the people and the biases, as you mentioned, that are at the root of some of the policies. So I'm curious to know, how can we be in true and meaningful solidarity with refugee communities? What are some of the actions, systemic changes that we should be talking about and advocating for?
Homayra Yusufi: It really just depends on where we're at and where our spheres of influence are. Right? In terms of standing in solidarity with refugee communities and supporting each other. So for PANA, we're not only talking about address housing for refugees, we're talking about tenants protections and affordable housing for all San Diegans. We saw with the Afghan community, especially here in San Diego, but I know from all over the country is refugee resettlement agencies were kind of tapped and they were stretched really thin and they didn't have people who spoke their languages.
There were so many different barriers and the Afghan community had to step in. So here we were, making food for folks who were staying in hotels, because otherwise they would be hungry or making culturally competent food, right? Bringing halal meals to their doors. We're the ones who are helping them register their kids for schools, things like that. But we need a movement. We need more people who can really restore welcome and who can make sure that people who have already lost so much are able find safety and security and stability in rebuilding their homes here.
Deepa Iyer: I think you're right. Regardless of where you work or if you're in a neighborhood or if you're a teacher, there are so many different ways in which folks can be in solidarity with refugee communities that yes, includes service and mutual aid, but also includes advocating for systemic and structural reform of policies. And so wherever you are on that trajectory, try to do as much as you possibly can. So what advice might you have for folks who want to advance social change in their communities?
Homayra Yusufi: Change does not come easy and it doesn't come fast. And I think that for so many of us who came into this work really passionate, we see so many others who fizzle out, who have to leave, who have to step out. And I took a moment to step out in my career, right? I took out about three years and became a stay-at-home mom.
And I think that one of the things that I reflected on coming back into this work was what were those things that were most draining? And some of it was actually my expectations, I think. And I came back into it kind of more opened, with open eyes. Right. And recognizing that solidarity does not mean no conflict.
Deepa Iyer: Right.
Homayra Yusufi: And this work has a lot of conflict in it. Right?
Deepa Iyer: Yeah.
Homayra Yusufi: And that, to do this work is that commitment, right? It's that commitment that we are going to grow, that we are going to learn, that we're going to try our best to support one another in this work, but that conflict will exist and that's okay. That's just part of the process. Right? I think that's something that I now try to remember every day in my work and to appreciate others in this space, especially others who are doing this in the long haul and who are committed to that.
Deepa Iyer: I love what you said because I do think a lot of us want our social justice spaces to be everything, to be our political home, our personal safe space. And we realize quickly that is a really high bar to set for an institution. And I really like how you said that you've perhaps opened yourself up to understanding that it's not always going to be easy.
Homayra Yusufi: Absolutely.
Deepa Iyer: Thank you Homayra.
Homayra Yusufi: Thank you. I appreciate it.
Deepa Iyer: I'm so grateful to Homayra for joining me to discuss solidarity and refugee communities. Please visit www.panasd.org to support the organization's critical work. And for more on refugee communities, please check out the episode notes that accompany this podcast. If you're listening to this episode in May, we hope you'll also check out our Asian Pacific American Heritage Month playlist with a curated list of podcasts, that feature issues affecting a API communities. You can find that on www.solidarityis.org. Finally, thank you so much for being here and for listening, please take good care of yourself and your communities. This is Deepa Iyer, and you've been listening to Solidarity Is This.
A few key facts* about refugees in the U.S.
- In 2020, more than 1.4 million refugees were in urgent need of resettlement worldwide and only a fraction of them - approximately 2.4 percent - were resettled.
- As of September 2021, the number of refugees who resettled to the United States was 11,411. The 2021 fiscal year cap for resettled refugees was 15,000 - but was later increased to 62,500.
- In 2021, the U.S. welcomed refugees from 50 countries, with the vast majority arriving from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Myanmar.
- Refugees have resettled in every state, with California, Texas, New York and Kentucky resettling the most refugees in 2021.
Reflection questions after listening to the podcast:
- Homayra talks about being drawn to PANA’s work because of the opportunity to help refugees resettle with dignity and in a way that ensures their success for the long-term. What would it look like to help refugees resettle with dignity?
- Standing in solidarity with refugee communities can mean mutual aid as well as pushing for systemic and structural changes. As Homayra said, we need more people in this movement. Where can you tap in to support this work in your community? If you’re based in the U.S., you could start by looking for organizations in your state. And, if you want to help but don’t know where to begin, mapping your role in the social change ecosystem can be one place to start.
- Southeast Asian immigrants and refugees are disproportionately targeted by ICE. Learn about the health impacts of direct transfers from prison to ICE: "Stop ICE Transfers: Promoting Health, Unifying Families, Healing Communities” a research brief from Human Impact Partners, Asian Prisoner Support Committee, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus.
- Haitian Bridge Alliance, Inc. advocates for fair and humane immigration policies and provides migrants and immigrants with humanitarian, legal, and social services, with a particular focus on Black migrants, the Haitian community, women and girls, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and survivors of torture and other human rights abuses. Learn more about their work, from connecting with asylum seekers in immigration detention centers to creating a COVID-19 rapid response program, on their website, and follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for ways to support.
- Refugee Council USA promotes efforts to protect and welcome refugees, asylees, asylum-seekers, and other forcibly displaced populations. RCUSA was formed in 2000, recognizing the need for increased coordination and cooperation among resettlement agencies. Over the years it has grown into a coalition of 27 US-based non-governmental organizations. Learn more and get involved here.
- Fighting for co-liberation: a solidarity story with Patrice Lawrence, on the shared and unique challenges of Black and Asian immigrants and refugees.
*These data points come from the UN Refugee Agency