The Long Search For A New Home

An individual is 13 times more likely to gain admission to Harvard than to the US as a refugee. The following journey takes you through the many grueling steps a typical refugee seeking resettlement to the US must endure.

There are nearly 20M refugees across the world, more than we have ever seen before.

Forced from their homes

A refugee is someone who has fled from his or her home country because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on:

  • Religion

  • Race

  • Nationality

  • Social Group

  • Political Opinion

More than a third of the world's refugees come from three countries

These countries have been plagued and destabilized by years of wars and violence.

Map of Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia
  • Syria
  • Afghanistan
  • Somalia

Resettlement is a rare opportunity

Most refugees fleeing their home country first take refuge in an asylum country. Then, they have three options: to return to where they came from, to remain in their asylum country—most probably living in a camp—or to resettle in a third country. The majority of refugees will remain stateless and without a permanent home.

of worldwide refugees were referred for resettlement by the UNHCR in 2015.

Resettlement is the transfer of refugees to a country that agrees to grant them an opportunity to start over in a safe place. It is a rare opportunity.

Of the world’s nearly 20,000,000 refugees, UNHCR referred 134,000 for resettlement in 2015. Only 82,000 were resettled.

The US is the world’s top resettlement country, accepting 53,000 refugees in 2015. Canada, Australia, Germany, and Scandinavian countries also accept many refugees every year.

The US refugee resettlement process is the most selective screening process for any person seeking admission into the country.

There are two ways to gain refugee status.

Interview & register with UNHCR

UNHCR interviews and screens individuals to confirm they were persecuted and qualify as refugees under international law.

Photo: Y. Barbera/IRC

Gain Prima Facie Status

In cases of mass exodus from a country due to conflict, catastrophe, or war, UNHCR will grant blanket prima facie refugee status rather than screen individuals one at a time. This approach acknowledges that those fleeing harmful circumstances are within the applicable refugee definition. Refugees with prima facie status still undergo the same rigorous resettlement screening process as refugees registered by UNHCR.

Photo: IRC
Refugees do not get to choose which country they resettle in.

There are three priority groups for refugee admission to the US.

Processing priorities are established annually

  • Priority 1

    High-need cases, including women at risk and victims of torture or violence, referred by UNHCR, a US embassy or a specially trained NGO.

  • Priority 2

    Groups of special concern identified by the US government, such as the Bhutanese in Nepal, Iranian religious minorities, or the Congolese in Rwanda.

  • Priority 3

    Reunification cases in which one person already based in the US petitions to reunite and resettle his or her family.

Background Check

Each applicant undergoes a biographic security check conducted by four US agencies.

All refugee applicants undergo background checks through the National Counterterrorism Center, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and State Department.

They will search for information that ensures the applicant:

  • is not a security risk
  • has no connections to known bad actors
  • has no outstanding warrants or criminal violations

Complex cases require one-on-one attention.

Application requests come in from all over the world

Because of the complexity and particularities of each case, The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), under the DHS, has committed to interviewing every single applicant that makes it to this phase.

Photo: J. Echevarria/IRC

The DHS' Refugee Corps is made up of specially trained officers who travel across the world to interview applicants. They are briefed on specific population and country of origin information as well as any fraud trends or security issues.

Photo: S. Demian/IRC
Through its specially trained Refugee Corps officers, USCIS handled refugee resettlement requests from more than 65 countries last year.

Biometric markers are like passwords that can’t be forgotten or stolen.

Checked against three different databases

Applicants’ physical traits, such as fingerprints and iris scans, are screened by three different agencies’ biometric databases, one after the other:

  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • Department of Homeland Security
  • US Department of Defense (DOD)

The applicant’s fingerprints are screened against government watch lists and checked for previous immigration encounters—including cases in which the applicant previously applied for a visa at a US embassy.

Photo: leezsnow/Getty Images

Throughout the process, the US coordinates with international governments and Interpol, the international criminal police organization, which has a database of more than 10,000 suspected terrorists.

USCIS has started piloting social media vetting as yet another way to screen refugee resettlement applicants.

USCIS has started piloting social media vetting as yet another way for security screening refugee resettlement applicants.

The overseas medical examination ensures that applicants comply with US public health regulations.

Ensuring the safety of the American public

This screening ensures that the applicant does not have any communicable diseases that could pose a public health threat.

The medical examination is conducted by a panel of US Government-appointed physicians. In cases of mass exodus (as with prima facie refugees), the International Organization of Migration conducts the screenings.

Photo: P Biro/IRC

Unless they are fully treated, applicants are barred from entering the US if they have:

  • Mental disorders

  • Communicable diseases

  • Drug addiction

Refugees do not get to choose where they resettle in the US.

A new home

Most refugees are resettled close to existing networks of family or friends or in non-major cities that have a low cost of living and high employment opportunities.

Approved applicants get a loan from the International Organization for Migration to cover the cost of their travel.

Learning about life in a different country

Many refugees base their ideas of the US on unrealistic TV shows, movies and popular media.

To give refugees a better idea of what real, everyday life is like in the US, they attend a three-day cultural orientation class. The classes cover:

  • Cultural adjustment

    How to deal with culture shock as well as changing family roles and find mental health resources.

  • Rights & responsibilities

    How to navigate US law as well as citizens’ rights and responsibilities, pay bills, file taxes and more.

  • Employment

    How to search for a job, prepare for an interview and get information about employment benefits.

  • Money management

    How to determine a monthly budget, set up a bank account and save money.

  • Transportation

    How to drive and own a car and how to use public transportation.

At first, refugees struggle to make cultural adjustments in the US. A lot of them have owned their own businesses before and have never had to interview and explain why they should be considered for a job.

Everything changes as families board their flights.

The most significant journey of their lives

The US government pairs every arriving refugee with a resettlement NGO, which sends a representative to meet and greet them at the airport. Refugees are escorted to modest but comfortable temporary housing. When they walk through the door, they will be offered a warm meal as close as possible to what they might eat at home.

Photo: A. Raasch/IRC
The five most welcoming states to refugees are North and South Dakota, Idaho, Nebraska and Vermont.

Refugees build their American dream from scratch.

90 days of support from the US Government

The US government’s goal is to help refugees become self-sufficient as quickly as possible.

After they arrive, the government offers a range of support to make sure families can land on their feet:

  • Modest, functional furniture and household items
  • Short-term food stamps and assistance with applying for additional benefits
  • Seasonally appropriate clothing for all members of the family
  • Assistance applying for a social security card
  • Enrollment in English language programs and school for kids
  • Job services

After 90 days, a local refugee resettlement agency will assist refugees for up to two years and even beyond, helping them settle into their new lives and integrate into their new communities.

Photo: M. Cohen/IRC

Resettlement is fundamentally life-changing. For many families, it is an incredibly trying and painful experience that requires patience, healing, resilience and optimism. But in time, it yields a new life full of opportunity and possibility.

After the initial shock, resettled families begin looking for jobs, learning English and enrolling in training programs. They start saving money and paying back the loans that financed their travel to the US.

Photo: M. Cohen/IRC

Refugees eventually apply for their green cards and many become Americans—one of us. They are part of the fabric of American life, whether restocking shelves at the grocery store, driving taxis, starting businesses, creating thought-provoking art and music, or leading groundbreaking scientific discoveries.

You may pass a refugee in the street or interact with refugees on a daily basis without ever realizing what they’ve survived and endured before starting a new life in the US.

Welcome Home

America is a country founded on the contributions of immigrants and refugees. It’s not about us and them. We’re all the same.


  1. Figures at a Glance. (n.d.). UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency. (n.d.). Retrieved June, 2016, from
  2. Resettlement. (n.d.). UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency. (n.d.).Retrieved June, 2016, from
  3. Facts and Figures about Refugees. UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency. (n.d.). Retrieved June, 2016, from
  4. The UN Refugee Agency. (n.d.). Retrieved June, 2016, from
  5. Country Resettlement & Asylum. (n.d.). Zoho Report. (n.d.). Retrieved June, 2016, from

Chapter One

  1. Guidelines on International Protection No. 11: Prima Facie Recognition of Refugee Status, 5 June 2015. (2015, June 24). Page 2. UNHCR. Retrieved June, 2016, from

Chapter Two

  1. Consultation & Worldwide Processing Priorities. (n.d.). The United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Retrieved June, 2016, from

Chapter Three

  1. Hearing on Refugee Admissions Refugee Admissions Fiscal Year 2016. (n.d.). Us Citizen and Immigration Services. Retrieved June, 2016, from

Chapter Four

  1. Infographic: The Screening Process for Refugee Entry into the United States. (2015). The White House. Retrieved June 16, 2016, from
  2. Bruno, A. (2015, November 19). Syrian Refugee Admissions and Resettlement in the United States: In Brief. Page 4. Retrieved June, 2016, from

Chapter Five

  1. Refugee Health Guidelines. (2013, November 12). CDC. Retrieved June, 2016, from

Chapter Six

  1. Kornfeld, J. M. (n.d.). Overseas cultural orientation programmes and resettled refugees’ perceptions. Forced Migration Review. Retrieved June, 2016, from
  2. Overseas CO. (n.d.). Cultural Orientation Resource Center. Retrieved June, 2016, from

Chapter Seven

  1. Guo, J. (2015, September 11). Where refugees go in America. Washington Post. Retrieved June, 2016, from

Chapter Eight

  1. FY 2011 Reception and Placement Basic Terms of the Cooperative Agreement Between the Government of the United States of America and the (Name of Organization). U.S Department of State. (2011, January 6). Retrieved from


  1. Opening photograph. UNICEF/UNI195510/Klincarov (Photographer). (2015, August). Macedonia, The former Yugoslav Republic. Retrieved from
  2. Closing photograph. Rassch, Samuela Ashley/IRC (Photographer). Esraa and Nihad Rameed walk out of the Tucson airport with a family friend. (2013, October). International Rescue Committee (IRC).