The importance of family and the costs of a slow asylum procedure

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Somali immigrant Fartun Hirsi (center) during a May 2022 graduation ceremony at the University of Southern Maine School of Nursing. Photo by Roger McCord.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared in Amjambo Africa, a print and digital publication that serves new immigrants to Maine. It is republished with permission.

In May, I had the honor and pleasure of attending a number of graduation ceremonies and hearing the stories of many students from Maine’s immigrant communities who have successfully completed college. despite the myriad challenges they face – language barriers, years of separation from loved ones, and financial difficulties, among others. The courage and resilience shown by these young graduates inspired me and touched my heart.

On May 7, I was invited to the graduation ceremony of a community member of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University University of Maine. I found his story particularly inspiring. For five years he studied hard full time while working full time, in order to support himself and his mother in Maine, and also to support his father and four siblings. younger, who were still living in their country of origin. and waiting to be allowed to enter the United States. The young man said that the loneliness of those years of family separation was very hard.

But at her graduation party, joy and happiness filled the room – her father and siblings had arrived in the United States and were at graduation! Their speeches touched the hearts of everyone present. The young man’s parents said the graduation experience was one of the best things that had ever happened to them – something they had always prayed for and felt lucky to see become a reality . They had never had the chance to go to college themselves, but had encouraged their son to go to college. And now the family was finally reunited and celebrating together. It was a remarkable moment to see.

Current U.S. immigration policy and years of asylum backlogs mean that many immigrants to Maine must live apart from their families for years, without the opportunity to participate in significant events in the life of their loved ones – graduations, weddings, births, etc. funerals. Mainers need to understand that behind the term “immigrant” are human beings – people like them – whose happiness depends on closeness to loved ones, as well as acceptance by the community as a whole.

And those involved in the immigration process – officials, immigration officers, judges – should understand that behind the files on their desks and the foreign numbers they give out are people like them, with mothers, fathers , siblings and children. . We all know that isolation and loneliness are detrimental to health and cause serious problems. We should all recognize the importance of reuniting families. It is time for the United States to think creatively about ways to avoid the current and unnecessary delays in processing immigration applications.

When I came to Maine from DR Congo 20 years ago now, it only took me a year to get my asylum status. The average wait was then three months. Today, the average wait for an asylum case to be decided is more than four years, and some asylum seekers in Maine say they have been waiting ten years for their case to be decided. During all this time, they could not see their family members at home.

Certainly, now that Maine employers are in desperate need of workers, it makes sense to reform the system quickly. And while we talk about reform – if we really want to make a difference that will help families – the United States should seriously invest in promoting peace in the countries where the refugees come from, so that they are not forced to leave their homes and loved ones and seek refuge elsewhere.

My prayers and thoughts go out to those who have lost their homeland. June is World Refugee Awareness Montha moment for all of us to stop and take stock of what it really means to suffer the fate of being separated from loved ones – and losing everything we knew and held dear.

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