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Basma Alawee

Florida Immigrant Coalition, State Refugee Organizer | USA

Basma Alawee came to the U.S. with her husband as a refugee in 2010, leaving behind her career as an engineer with the Ministry of Oil within the Government of Iraq. As a refugee and activist, her stories and activism have been featured in the media. Most recently, Alawee was nominated to be one of the Athena40 women in the world who are leading change and was the recipient of the 2019 OneJax Humanitarian Award. She was also elected the Florida delegate for the UNHCR Refugee Congress and is a board member of USAHello. Currently, she is the State Refugee Organizer with the Florida Immigrant Coalition. Basma Alawee discussed the challenges that COVID-19 posed for the refugees. Sharing the specific situations that make refugees vulnerable during this global health crisis, Alawee underlined that refugees have a higher risk of being exposed to COVID-19 due to the overcrowded housing underlying health conditions, lack of access to health care, and serving as the essential workers. Alawee also put a strong emphasis that when refugees are involved in the decision-making positions, they propose practical solutions to tackle the barriers that they face during the pandemic.

The Refugee Congress was founded in 2011 on the 60th anniversary of the Refugee Convention to convene and resettle refugees from all 50 states. Today, the Refugee Congress is the only national organization in the United States led by former refugees to advocate for refugees. Refugee Congress has members in all 50 states, and advocates with their elected officials for welcoming communities.

We Are All America, which is an organization that I am a Florida refugee organizer with Real America and the state of Florida, was founded in 2017 in response to the U.S. cutting its resettlement program to the lowest level ever during the worst international refugee crisis in modern history. We Are All America affirms our historical role as a refugee protection works to uphold and strengthen our nation’s commitment to welcome and protect those seeking freedom, safety and refuge in the United States.

Today, there are nearly 80 million people forcibly displaced, more than one percent of the world population. 26 million of them are refugees. More than 4 million people are asylum seekers throughout the world. Nearly 46 million individuals are internally displaced. 90 percent of refugees live in developing and low-income countries with the fastest growing infection rates, which makes refugees more vulnerable. There are a lot of shortages during the COVID-19; lack of medical supplies and therapeutic lack of accurate information about how to protect themselves. Vaccine nationalism may limit access for our communities which is often not included in country specific pandemic reopening plans. Refugees are impacted not just by COVID-19, but also by the fear that is increasing around the world. In response to the pandemic, it is estimated that 164 countries across the globe have limited or cut off access to asylum. In some cases, governments have clearly weaponized public health concerns to advance nativist political agenda, and the United States is a case in point.

Some examples of organizations who have been responding globally to the crisis of COVID-19, the World Health Organization, UNHCR and the UN Refugee Agency partnering to strengthen public health services to millions of forcibly displaced people. UNHCR launched a global 255 million appeal to lessen the impact of COVID-19 outbreaks within refugee communities, limited entry into and exit from refugee camps, and put efforts to allow refugee professionals within foreign nationals to serve as essential health workers.

The United States has resettled about three million refugees since 1980, since signing the Refugee Act from 1980 until 2016, the average number of yearly refugee arrivals to the US was 95,000. This year’s cap was supposed to bring 18,000 refugees in 2020. But up to date, we have received 9,772 and of course part of it because of COVID-19.

Starting from physical health, refugees have a higher risk of being exposed to COVID-19 due to the overcrowded housing underlying health conditions, lack of access to health care, and being essential workers. In the outbreak of the COVID in meatpacking plants, many refugee employees, have been affected.

When they consider jobs and income, Refugees International founded that over 60 percent of employed refugees work in sectors highly impacted by the pandemic. Refugees have high rates of small business ownership which have been deeply affected. Going back to family reunification, there has been a decline in refugee admission which means that thousands of families in the US are still waiting to reunite with their loved ones. Mental health of the refugees has also been traumatized due to quarantine.

The US government started responding to the challenges that refugees face with financial support, and different act such as the CARES ACT (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act), the state and local relief funds, eviction moratoriums and expanding testing availability. However, the government relief is not available to all families, due to the limited resources. Refugees also face barriers to access resources because of a language barrier and fear of accessing these resources. There are still challenges with testing, treatment, increased in xenophobia and anti-Asian racism.

Even though many organization and community members have been responding, refugees are also responding to all of this crisis. We have many colleagues who have worked with us hand in hand around the country. Many projects have been implemented around the country that are led by former refugees, starting with partnering with local non-profits. We should not forget essential workers, and doctors volunteering at COVID-19 testing sites. Many refugees and immigrants serve as health care workers, teachers, service workers, farm workers and more.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that we are all interconnected and interdependent, we must use this time to come together, embrace our communities and work to build a better future. Refugee Congress stands ready and willing to strengthen our collaborations. “Let’s work together to fight against discrimination and for justice” says one of our refugee Congress delegates.

Refugees face unique vulnerabilities and challenges in public health crisis. Refugees are also assets during the public health crisis. They have a solution when refugees are allowed to practice their profession through improved routes to certification and license with their overseas credentials. Communities benefit from these skills. Expanding economic inclusion benefits everyone. Assistance to refugees enters the labor market and serves an essential worker role as doctors, nurses, caregivers, scientists, cleaners and many more.

Accessing to technology and digital resources can be a matter of life and death. Availability of services in more languages need to expand beyond the majority that are spoken. Refugees need assistance navigating the system to access available support and funding. Investing in former refugees and leadership and organizing on the ground for essential workers to produce inclusive policies and practices. Lastly, story sharing and the voices of refugees are important to lead a long-lasting change.