Becca Heller

Liberty or Death

Air Date: March 25, 2016

Becca Heller, founder and director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, talks about the global migration crisis.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Today, we turn our attention to the Syrian refugee crisis that has swept the Middle East and entire globe. Considering the blowback from US intervention in Iraq, the creation of ISIS, how are we to define America’s responsibility to the refugee and her plight? How have nations successfully integrated refugees into their populations? And on, and on what scale is cultural immersion realistic? To answer these questions, we’ve invited Becca Heller, Director and Co-founder of the International Refugee Assistance Project, and a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School. The project is now confronting not only massive human suffering, but also a hot button political controversy. So, I asked Becca to begin, how do we quell legitimate fears, among western countries in particular, in the aftermath of Paris and San Bernardino, that these refugees are a plot against liberalism, or a plot against American values.

HELLER: I don’t actually think the fears are particularly legitimate, and that’s not to downplay the severity of the Paris attacks, or of San Bernardino, and the Paris attacks have turned out that nobody involved was actually a refugee. They found one passport from a refugee, but determined that it was a false passport, and the refugee process for the US is actually the hardest way to get in. So, if you’re a terrorist who’s at all worth your salt, frankly, you’re figuring out some alternative to coming in as a refugee, because you literally are going to go through usually two to three years of vetting through multiple agencies, every intelligence agency we have. It’s an incredibly grueling and arduous process, and I, I do not think that concerns that this… There’s some kind of plot to utilize the refugee system to infiltrate the US are legitimate.

HEFFNER: Fair point, and especially in the context of the massacre that was the most severe terrorist attack in our lifetimes, 9/11, those hijackers, they weren’t refugees.

HELLER: No. They came in on visas.

HEFFNER: Right. So, in, I want to ask you a whole lot of questions, based on your experience in the trenches, on the ground, where you started doing this in Jordan, and now learn about the experience of refugees from Syria, who are in Turkey or Greece or some of the islands around them.


HEFFNER: As you confront this issue, what is the most serious imperative?

HELLER: Yeah, I think Canada has also really stepped up recently since the election of Prime Minister Trudeau. Canada’s taken in more Syrian refugees in the past three months, than the US has since the Syria crisis began by a factor of something like 12, so I think the US really needs to step up its leadership role on this. Traditionally, the US plays a huge role in helping resettle refugees from all over the world. We take 60 to 70 percent of total resettled refugees. In the case of the Syria crisis, the United Nations has asked for 130 thousand refugees to be resettled, and so far the US has resettled about 2,000 of them. So, I think on a country by country level, there’s certainly a lot more that the US can and should be doing. I think fear mongering is getting in our way significantly. I also think that it just hasn’t been a priority for us.

HEFFNER: You highlight the, maybe the most essential point. It’s not a priority for us. Is that a failure? I think it might be a failure, because it hasn’t been cast in historical context or perspective that we see these refugees, migrants, whatever you want to call them, these human beings as a parallel to those escaping Nazi Germany. And, and I want to throw out a hypothetical, and feel free, as you did with legitimate fears, to knock it down, but that is that there is not a, a belief, that there’s a consensus within the refugee population that they want to moderate Sharia law, Islamic tradition to fit into this modern context.

HELLER: I think the, the pro-refugee contingent, and I think that that’s not just sort of your traditional humanitarian do-gooders, I think there’s a really strong religious pro-refugee contingent. I think there’s a pretty interesting libertarian pro-refugee continent coming together, but I, I do think that we’re failing, um, the narrative debate. Um, I don’t think that it’s really relevant what religion refugees want to practice when they get here. I think that, you know, the very first right that we have attached to the constitution is freedom of religion, and that’s something that the United States is based on, so saying that you can’t practice your religion if you come here, um, you know, to me is not a, a reasonable expectation for assimilation, and kind of, um, undermines Democratic values, but I think the other thing is that, you know, there’s all sorts of ways to practice Islam, and most of the refugees who are fleeing from Syria are fleeing the Islamic state. They’re fleeing the same actors that, you know, all the fear mongering is, is against. So, these are people who are practicing a form of Islam, or maybe practicing another religion entirely, or not religious, um, but who are suffering at the hands of the people who embrace this radical idealist of like an Islamic caliphate. So, I, I don’t think that they pose a threat in coming here of kind of importing, like ISIS-based religious ideology.

HEFFNER: And moreover, do they view as a fight for their liberty, for their freedom, for their right to, to be, to live in a peaceful society, or do they view this as an internal battle within Islam?

HELLER: I think it really depends on the person. I mean, there are, you know, six million Syrian refugees. Every single one of them has a different individual story, a different individual motivation. Some of them have fled because they’re religious or political activists, and they’re being persecuted for that reason. Others have fled because they’re gay, or they’re, um, single women who are survivors of sexual assault, and, and I don’t think those people are looking for some kind of broader, symbolic message that they’re signaling by, you know, voting with their feet. I think they’re, they’re just trying to be safe, and live their lives as who they are.

HEFFNER: Is there at all a consensus over… The… How we should forge ahead in creating safe environments in the country of Syria, in, in the region that has been so, uh, ravaged?

HELLER: You know, they just came out of a new round of Syrian peace talks. Allegedly, there’s this cease fire. Two days after they announced the cease fire, they announced that they weren’t sure if it was going to hold. Even if it does hold, there’s no infrastructure, so you see these pictures and just entire blocks and streets are bombed out. People don’t have medicine. I… I’m missing the point of your question.

HEFFNER: No, no, no, no. Go ahead.

HELLER: Oh. [LAUGHS] Oh. Sorry.

HEFFNER: No. Please.

HELLER: You know, I, I think that people aren’t going to be able to go home any time soon, and I think rebuilding Syria is going to take a long time. I think part of the reason why the international community was so slow to act on this was this hope that the so-called Arab Spring was going to take down Assad. You’d see this peaceful Democratic revolution in Syria, and refugees would be able to go home, and I think, for the most part, that’s what the refugees themselves wanted. Syria was an amazing place and people, you know, in America, um, maybe you can trace your family roots back 300 or 400 years. In Syria, people are saying, you know, my family’s been farming this piece of land for 3,000 years. So, to, to remove yourself from your homeland is, is heart wrenching, and people wanted to go home, and I think now are realizing that they can’t, and that’s why you’ve seen this recent exodus, um, over the past eight months or so, is I think people finally coming to the realization that they’re just not going to be able to go home, and I think the international community is also finally coming to that realization just a little bit late.

HEFFNER: They’re not going to be able to come home because Assad is going to remain in power and there, for the foreseeable future, will not be a political rec… reconciliation?

HELLER: I think regard… I, I personally, it seems to me that Assad is going to remain his grip on power. I think Russia is kind of making sure of that, but, regardless of who comes into power in Syria, it’s hard for me to imagine a secure Syria any time soon, or a Syria with any kind of infrastructure that can support, you know, vulnerable people with special needs, not to mention that if you were tortured in a Syrian prison, or you were raped, there’s all sorts of trauma that attends returning back there. You may never feel safe going home again, and the international community needs to recognize that.

HEFFNER: So, take us through the process, through which a refugee, let’s say who gets to Turkey or to… Who gets to one of the Greek islands, will then be positioned to apply to seek refugee status here in the United States.
HELLER: So, actually, if you, if you get to a Greek island, you can’t apply to come to the US. Um, the only people who are eligible to apply for a settlement to the US are people who have left Syria but not yet reached another country where they will be safe. So, you’re mostly talking about people in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. The first thing that you do is you register with the United Nations. That, in and of itself, is almost impossible. Um, in Turkey and Lebanon, those countries have banned the United Nations from registering Syrian refugees, I think in an effort to deter more of them from coming. Um, if you do get an interview with the United Nations in Turkey—right now we have clients going in, asking for interviews and getting assigned dates in the year 2023, because the waiting line is so long. Um, and then after that, in order to come to the US, you have to basically win a lottery where you have something like a one in thirty shot of being selected by the UN, and then you go through this series of four to five interviews and two years of background checks before you can arrive.

HEFFNER: That’s vetting.

HELLER: That’s vetting. It’s something. [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: Well, what about the European countries, because that, that process has been fast tracked to an enormous degree.

HELLER: Yeah, so the Europe… I mean, you know, there’s two different ways that you can get to a European country. One is applying through the United Nations from Lebanon or Turkey or Jordan. The European countries have been moving much more quickly than the United States. They’ve really narrowed down the vetting process. I assume they’re still doing security vetting, but they’ll do fewer interviews. Um, they’re more willing to sort of take the word of the United Nations that a case is urgent or needy rather than doing their own wholly independent evaluation, which can take, you know, six months to a year on the US side, and then on the flip side is if you can actually get to Europe, you can apply for asylum, which is different, because instead of saying, I’m outside, please let me in, you’re saying, I’m in, please let me stay.

HEFFNER: And what about the difference between the refugees who were in camps versus those who are in those, uh, the shadows of those countries?

HELLER: There are very few refugees who are in camps. Um, there is a camp called Zaatari that’s on the border between Jordan and Syria. Um, the, the count is unclear because people are sort of going in and out, but there is roughly 130,000 people in that camp compared to about 4.7 million Syrian refugees in the region. So you are really looking at an urban – as you said, you know – “shadow” refugee population.

HEFFNER: One person who has been unfazed by this crisis seemingly is, uh, the Chancellor of Germany, Time Person of the Year. Um, Angela Merkel, um, uh, presents herself as a strong leader; um, someone who is, um, up for a fight here. Uh, the, the egregiousness of the atrocity that was the Holocaust is, is in the backdrop. There is, uh, no doubt a, um, mindfulness, because of that experience. Um, what does that convey to you, or what should that convey to the American public?

HELLER: I mean, you would hope that it wouldn’t take a Holocaust to make a country mindful of its humanitarian commitments. [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: But that’s the reality of, of this experience thus far. As you said, Australian, and here now in Canada, are stepping up to the plate in some ways. But, um, but I, but I, I guess the impetus is in the consciousness of that electorate of that citizenry in a way that in – at least in the near future, Becca – it doesn’t seem like that is gonna be achieved in the American mindset.

HELLER: Well, yeah, I don’t, I don’t…

HEFFNER: But you are, but you are trying to change that…

HELLER: Well, I don’t know that the Germans… I mean, there is a bunch of answers to that, [LAUGHS] ‘cause there is a bunch of questions to that…

HEFFNER: So, so let me, let me, let me hear them all.

HELLER: Sure. Uh, sure. I mean, number one, I, I don’t know that the German public supports the Chancellor. I think that she is facing some pretty severe backlash. So, you know, I am, I am not sure that the consciousness of the Holocaust in Germany has so much pervaded the mindset of the public. I think there is certainly people who are willing to help. You see these amazing pictures of, you know, refugee organized football games and so on. Um, but I think that’s an example of where strong leadership can overcome some public resistance, and I hope she is able to retain office.

Um, you know, what it takes in America, I think, is an open question. I think… You know, you mentioned “storytelling” and the “narrative” at the beginning of this. I think, um, everyone is surprised at how the GOP primary has turned out and the fact that, you know, a candidate suggesting a ban on all Muslims immigrating to the U.S. is leading so many polls and seems to be galvanizing so many people. But I think that’s in part a factor of the, the fact that primaries tend to bring out the “fringe elements” of parties. So I think we’ll have to see if – once it comes down to the presidential election – people are willing to sort of dialogue more reasonably on the issue.

I also think there has been a lot of really amazing grass roots work being done to try to get communities to be more welcoming to refugees. I think most people in the United States have at least one recent immigrant in their family. You know, you have heard it said, “We are a country of immigrants.” And I think helping people to understand that refugees are humans – and they are individual humans with stories and jobs and a desire to make things better and not this sort of faceless, scary, mass of people coming in that – that that will help.

HEFFNER: Are you placing Syrians now in, in the U.S. of what’s, uh…? What is your role in, in this transition as far as immigration to this country is concerned?

HELLER: We have had some Syrians come to the U.S., but a much larger number have gone to Canada or Europe. So we are operating on the ground, looking for really vulnerable cases who have maybe fallen through the cracks of the U.N. system and helping them navigate re-settlement. And our interest is in getting desperate people to safety as quickly as possible. And for the last few years for Syrians, that hasn’t meant going to the U.S.; that’s meant going to other countries. We are definitely doing advocacy to try to get the U.S. to take more Syrian refugees; um, but even more than that, to improve its processing so that Syrian refugees can be admitted. The U.N. has referred something like 16,000 Syrian refugees to the U.S. in the year 2015, and we admitted fewer than 2,000 of them. So there is this question of like, “Well, what happened to the other 14,000 files, you know? Where are the other 14,000 people? And, and why haven’t we been able to act on their applications?”

HEFFNER: And what’s the answer to that?

HELLER: Uh, uh, [LAUGHS] it depends who you ask… I think… You know, to me, it, it, it’s an issue of motivation. Um, I think even if we want to keep this really heavy vetting process, we need to allocate the resources that allow us to undertake that vetting process in a reasonably timely manner, where people aren’t just getting stuck in the system.

I think the other problem is that, you know, we… The U.S., the U.S. never invaded Syria, um, which means a couple of things, but one of them is that we don’t have the level of “on the ground” intelligence that we had in Iraq. So when we are vetting Syrian refugees, there is this question of what we are vetting them against.

And we don’t know which militias we like and which militias we don’t. Um, we have these really insane laws about providing “material support” for terrorists, where even paying ransom to get your kidnapped child back can make you inadmissible to the U.S., absent a special waiver. So if you live in Syria, and you are in an area that’s under siege by 20 different militia groups and you go to the local market and you buy a carton of milk, technically you are supporting terrorism if any kickback from that carton of milk you bought is going to the occupying militia. So we need to sort out those laws as well.

HEFFNER: It’s definitely a confusing situation there. And the United States military and intelligence have not provided the American people – much less necessarily themselves – with an accurate presentation of what’s going on there…

HELLER: And I don’t think they have it… I don’t think they are holding back; I, I think we really…

HEFFNER: Well, they supposedly are, have deployed intelligence officers more than they had in, in previous years…
HELLER: Right.

HEFFNER: I presented, Becca, this possibility that we have lost the narrative in this conversation in terms of resurrecting a moral argument for why we should advance the interest of, of these refugees. And if, and as you suggest, if it’s true that they are not in these camps, there would have been a major implosion of terrorist violence if such a huge number of these people, uh, uh, was intent on harming, um, whether it’s Turkish, uh, Europeans. But there would have been more proof in that pudding, uh, in, in my estimation.

But really the, the, the point that I want to stress here is – which I think is the most maybe important point in the American political context – the burden has been placed on non Muslim majority countries in such a way that it seems unfair. Where are the Sunni majority countries? They are nowhere. Why, and how can we get to, get them to the table?

HELLER: I think it depends what you want to get them to the table to do. I definitely think that, that Gulf countries in particular should be stepping up their funding efforts and giving aid to the kind of frontline countries – um, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey – who are losing infrastructure bearing a huge amount of this population. I don’t really think you want Gulf countries re-settling people because of the way that citizenship laws work there and the way that their economies are set up. I am not sure that if you are a Syrian human rights activist fleeing Assad that, that your best chance to start a new life is gonna be in like Bahrain.

HEFFNER: Expound.


HEFFNER: Expound on the nature of employment practices that basically preclude…

HELLER: Sure. I mean, the…

HEFFNER: It’s almost as if – and, and we… [LAUGHS] I, I wish the word “segregation” was used because that’s so potent. But it, it is a “segregated” culture. In, instead of “black and white,” it’s, uh, “Shia and Sunni,” right?

HELLER: I mean, or it’s, or…

HEFFNER: Is, is that not reflected in the, in the plight and experience of these refugees?

HELLER: Or, or it’s, you know, just Gulfies who can claim some tie to the government, versus migrants from other countries – not even of a different religion, but from places like Nepal or Liberia who have been brought in to do menial labor jobs.

HEFFNER: And they are the serfs in the economy that is the…

HELLER: Yeah. It’s a very segregated economy.

HEFFNER: …Arab Emirates, or Qatar…

HELLER: Right, exactly. So you go to Doha and you are walking around and it, it looks very diverse. [LAUGHS] Um, but then it turns out that you have this incredible sort of schism in the economy with no middle class whatsoever. And I think that when you are looking at what we call “durable solutions for refugees,” you want them to go to a place where they are on some kind of path to citizenship; where at some point they can become part of that country and part of that culture. And the way that citizenship laws and the economy is set up in Gulf countries, that’s not a possibility for re settled refugees. So I think that the way that Gulf countries should come to play is by, you know, committing more foreign aid, in particular to other countries in the region whose infrastructure is sort of crumbling under the refugee burden because they certainly have an interest in regional stability. Um, but I, I don’t know that we want to be pressuring them to actually be re settling refugees to those countries.

HEFFNER: How do you see Iran and Iraq playing a role in rectifying this problem?

HELLER: Well, right now, I think they are doing the opposite. [LAUGHS] Um, I… You know, uh, uh, Iraq regaining stability would be helpful… I think the level of religious and political infighting there has really prevented them from combating the Islamic State. You know, many millions of Syrian refugees have fled; but also in, in the summer after Mosul fell to ISIS, you had a million Iraqi refugees flee, which was half as many has fled from 2003 until 2015. So I think the religious infighting that’s happening there and their support of different factions within Syria, um, has really detracted from a peaceful solution coming into play. You know, that said, the Iraq border with Syria is essentially open, um, so a number of Syrian refugees are fleeing into Iraq. But then you are in a bit of a, you know, “out of the frying pan and into the fire” situation.

HEFFNER: Mm-hmm. Because Iraq is, is, uh, controlled in certain regions by ISIS elements…

HELLER: Right. In particular, the… You know, regions near the Syrian border are, are very dangerous.

HEFFNER: And, and as we finish up, Becca, the human face – as we discuss of this crisis – is in post traumatic stress disorder being diagnosed in communities where these refugees have re settled. Can you tell us about that?

HELLER: Yeah, I think there is a… There is really a Catch 22 when you are applying to be a refugee, which is that… You know, the definition of a “refugee” is someone who is “persecuted” on account of something about them. So when I talk about all these interviews that you go through, the focus of that interview is gonna be on the worst thing that ever happened to you. “So tell me in detail about the time that the militia came to your door and stormed into your house and killed your child in front of you.” That’s, that’s not an exaggeration; that’s a typical story that happens to people. And you usually don’t have proof of that, in part because it, you know, what proof exists, and in part because you fled in a hurry and you didn’t have time to bring much with you. So the only thing you have to go on to prove that you should be treated as a “refugee” as opposed to an “economic migrant,” um, or a liar is, is kind of the believability of your own narrative, um, and how much the person sitting across the table from you believes your story. And the paradox is that: If what you are saying really happened to you, there is a pretty good chance that you have post¬ traumatic stress disorder… and the most likely way that that is going to be manifest is in difficulty sort of recalling the details of the traumatizing event. So refugees face this paradox where they are being interrogated about the worst thing that’s ever happened to them, and their ability to keep straight the details of that event is, is what their lives depend on, because it, if they confuse details or if they lose memories, they are gonna get rejected because they are gonna be deemed liars and we are gonna think they don’t have a refugee claim.

HEFFNER: Do the refugees, uh, feel as though they are being interrogated?

HELLER: Yes. It’s a terrifying experience. When you interview with the United States in a lot of these countries, it’s through a pane of bulletproof glass. Interviews can last anywhere from one to seven hours… You show up at 7:30 in the morning and you wait in a waiting room all day where there is no food, sometimes there is water and sometimes there isn’t.

HEFFNER: Where are these being conducted?

HELLER: Um, it…

HEFFNER: Major cities within Europe?

HELLER: Yeah. No, major cities in the Middle East.

HEFFNER: In the Middle East?

HELLER: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Where, where specifically?

HELLER: Uh, Amman, Beirut, Ankara. Um, and you, you sit across from this person that’s, that’s questioning you pretty harshly…in a language that you don’t speak…through an interpreter who maybe you don’t know or don’t trust ‘cause they could be from your same community, so you don’t want to say in front of them, you know, “I am gay, um, and I was sexually assaulted,” or “I was a human rights activist.” Um, and yet, if you, if you can’t keep your story straight, that’s it for you.

HEFFNER: Is there any kind of public record of these exchanges that – in the same way we have freedom of information requests being made – that could be made so that in months or maybe years from now we can really assess what’s been going on?

HELLER: No. Not only is there no “public record,” but, we have actually sued under the Freedom of Information Act and been told that they won’t provide the transcripts. In addition, refugees are the only population applying to immigrate to the U.S. who are both barred from having a lawyer represent them at the interview and have no means to appeal. So we treat them worse than anyone else trying to come here or trying to stay here.

HEFFNER: You did say you wanted to culminate on a message of optimism. So I want to give you a, an opportunity to do that…

HELLER: Yeah, I think that a lot of people look at the refugee crisis and they hear huge numbers – 60 million. They, they have these sort of faceless masses. And they, they think that there is no hope. Um, and we found that it’s really difficult to get people to engage in this, um, as anything other than kind of a, a messaging debate about who is a terrorist and who is not.

But I think that, um, actually what this is is an opportunity. You know, I don’t think that the refugee crisis is new as of last August; I just think that’s when people started voting with their feet and going to Europe, and that the West started paying attention. So to me there is an opportunity here for the United States and other Western countries to step forward and address something that’s been a major humanitarian crisis really since 2003 or earlier. And there are a lot of policy changes that we could make that would be inexpensive, that wouldn’t endanger our safety, and that would help a lot of people. And I really hope that the U.S. administration will take advantage of this window to do that.

HEFFNER: Thank you, Becca.

HELLER: Thank you for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.