By: Tracy Geibel
Home. It’s the one place where you can relax. It’s the place you look forward to going at the end of a long day.
Now imagine you didn’t have your home, your safe haven.
People come to the United States for a variety of reasons, but in 2015, nearly 70,000 people moved to America to find a new home, one located thousands of miles from their native land. They didn’t come because they wanted to, but rather because they had no choice to stay in their home country.
These people are refugees.
Where Refugees Are From:
For 33-year-old Ferki Ferati home was Bare, Kosovo, a country south of Poland and Hungary and north of Greece. Ferati lived on a farm, where his father supported his wife and six children, by working in the mines.
“Life was simple. It was a good life. I had a pleasant childhood. I had a lot of friends. I had good schooling,” Ferati said. “Just imagine a life in rural America with less television and less electricity.”
Ferati’s father, who now lives in Erie along with his mother, was forced to leave the job at the mines. The family, living on a farm, was able to provide for themselves for some time, but gradually it became more difficult.
The family moved to Sweden for more than a year, returning to the farm afterwards, but only until the situation escalated further.
It was 1996. In Kosovo conflict was growing worse. Slobodan Milosevic rose to power in the late 1980s, but now the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) began random, “sporadic” attacks against Serbs in the country. The entire timeline can be seen on PBS.
Graphic: Migration Policy Institute
That was over a decade ago, but in 2016, refugees continue to look for a new home in America.
In 2015, over a quarter of refugees come to America from Burma. According to Human Rights Watch, Burma began a transition from military to civilian rule in 2011 but since then, this trend has lost traction and reversed in some areas.
While freedom of expression and freedom of the press are better established than they once were, Human Rights Watch fears that other human rights are not being as successfully protected. In particular, the Muslim minority is confronted with threats and faces what Human Rights Watch calls “stateless and systematic persecution.”
In the previous two years, 2013 and 2014, Burmese refugees were second only to those from Iraq. But in 2015, the United States accepted nearly 4000 more refugees from the war-torn country.
The number of refugees coming to America from Iraq increased by a few hundred from 2013 to 2014, but then fell by over 7000 in 2015. Part of the reason behind this is that the United States set the maximum number of refugees at 70,000 in the past several years. By accepting more refugees from other countries, it accepts less from others.
Despite the drastic decrease in refugees from Iraq, it remains one of the countries with most refugees fleeing to America, second only to Burma.
The Islamic extremist group, ISIS executes civilians and forces women to serve as sex slaves, according to Human Rights Watch. Yet, “pro-government” militias aren’t guilt-free, as they often destroy homes and shops following battles. Both ISIS and the militias recruit and use children as soldiers.
When they want to leave, civilians often have difficulty doing so. ISIS and even the government sometimes makes them stay in unsafe areas by denying them the opportunity to flee dangerous, conflict-centered areas in the country.
Becoming a refugee:
Ferati’s father knew his family was in a dangerous situation and something needed to be done. They couldn’t stay there any longer. The farm where Ferati lived was in the family for over 300 years, but they packed their belongings and planned to leave it behind. Their destination: the United States of America.
At that time, Ferati’s two older brothers were in Germany and his sister was in Poland, all living in asylum.
“It was three of us who made it here, three of them were left behind,” Ferati said.
When migrants decide to come to America, that person begins a process that takes an average of 18 to 24 months. There’s a 50-50 chance of being admitted they won’t be able to come to the United States as they hoped.
The registration process includes background checks, interviews, biological screening and more. Then, those who pass the testing are considered for placement. Asylum seekers who are seen as most needy are placed first, even if others have been waiting longer. These people might have suffered torture or sexual violence or be in need of medical attention. Single mothers with children receive priority as well.
If an individual is a candidate to be placed in the United States, further screening is done and factors like medical conditions and employment opportunities are considered when placing a refugee or family of refugees. If the migrants have family already living in the United States, that too is considered.Graphic: Migration Policy Institute
Ferati’s family was lucky to only spend a short amount of time in a refugee camp. They first arrived in Fort Dix, NJ in 1999. They spent six weeks there before they were relocated.
What they knew about the United States was that it was much different than life in Kosovo. The family had first got a color television in 1989 and their first phone a few years earlier. The first road through their town appeared in the 1970’s, only shortly before Ferati was born.
“We watched a lot of Miami Vice,” he said. “It’s just about all we knew about America. There were nice beaches in Miami, and there was a lot of money.”
His “map of America” consisted of New York City, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago. He didn’t study American geography in Kosovo. They focused on Eurasia and touched on African geography.
“And there was not much in between. So did I know where Erie PA was? Absolutely not.”
His family asked to be near New York. They were happy when the head of the Erie National Institute informed them that Erie was only 20 minutes away.
“We meant New York City. He meant New York state,” Ferati explained. “That’s why I’m in Erie.”
Making a home:
When he arrived in Erie, Ferati was shocked.
“Where are the skyscrapers?” he wondered. “Who’d have thought that America doesn’t have skyscrapers everywhere?”
The family was first placed in a small apartment. Ferati described it by saying it “was not to die for.” But shortly afterwards they upgraded to a “fairly decent” apartment.
He attended Mercyhurst Preparatory School where the faculty helped him in any way possible. The principal was frequently checking in on him, and one teacher even stayed after classes to work with him.
“The teachers weren’t sure what to do with me. They were surely ill-prepared to deal with a refugee, but they really tried,” he said.
Ferati continued his education, first attending Mercyhurst University for a Bachelor’s degree and later attaining a Master’s degree from Gannon University. He is currently working towards a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh while serving as the vice president of the Jefferson Educational Society, an Erie nonprofit institution working to “promote civic enlightenment” through presentations, courses and research.
Three of his siblings still live outside the United States. One sister lives in San Diego. One brother lives in North Carolina. They arrange reunions and are better able to keep in touch thanks to advances in technology. His parents remain in northwestern Pennsylvania with Ferati.
“You know, they did a pretty good job,” he said about his family’s placement.
Perhaps Erie wasn’t what he expected, but it has become his home.