“I can’t wait to launch my own company and hire people and just go on TV and say, ‘Here’s a refugee who’s hiring Americans and creating jobs,’” Yasir Dhannoon recently told Global Citizen, days after US President Donald Trump issued an executive order barring people from seven Muslim-majority countries and all refugees from entering the country.
Yasir was still reeling from the cruelty and wrongheadedness of this action — he knows first-hand what it’s like to feel besieged on all sides by forces that want you dead or persecuted; he knows how wrong it is to conflate refugees with terrorists; and he knows how arduous the process to come to the US already is.
Yasir grew up in Baghdad and was a young adult when the US invaded in the early 2000s. He was there when Saddam Hussein was toppled. He was there when the government dissolved and civil society unraveled. He was there when warfare ravaged a generation and the country slid into a near-anarchic state.
But throughout this turmoil, Yasir tried to live a normal life — he hung out with friends, he spent time with his family, he went to school, he worked. Baghdad was his home and the idea that it might be safer to seek refuge in another country didn’t even occur to him.
It didn’t occur to him as militias and gangs began to proliferate throughout the city. It didn’t occur to him when his friends were killed in their car on the way from the airport. It didn’t occur to him when he was kidnapped and held for ransom by a local militia. It didn’t occur to him when a suicide bomber blew up his car.
He was determined to finish his degree in software engineering before he considered other options and he couldn’t bear the thought of leaving his friends and family behind.
But all of these traumas were beginning to displace Yasir’s sense of self. He knew that life in Baghdad was dangerous and chaotic, that it was extremely hard to do normal things. And he was aware that events were only getting worse — it was the height of the Iraqi insurgency against the US occupation.
But it wasn’t until his family received a bullet wrapped in a note warning Yasir that he would soon be murdered that he decided to leave.
This was 2005 and for the next several years he bounced around Egypt, Jordan, and Dubai, working, making friends, and cobbling together a precarious existence that always seemed on the verge of tumbling. Because he wasn’t able to secure residency in any of these places, he eventually ended up in Syria, where he lived in a bare-bones house with other people who were seeking safety.
In 2009, living in poverty, unable to get a permit to work, and no closer to finding a permanent place to reside, Yasir applied to the UN for refugee status, which they granted. After all, Yasir was being persecuted at home, had survived multiple attempts on his life, and had fled his country. He was a textbook refugee who just wanted peace.
Over the next two years, Yasir went through the process to get to the US — an intensely rigorous process.
"The vetting process is already rigorous," Yasir said. "Refugees are interviewed in person, more than once, often wait for years while intensive background checks are completed.
"Keep in mind, that these peoples' lives are often in danger while they anxiously wait for a decision," he said. "They have endured years of investigations conducted by numerous government agencies, before their visas are issued."
Now, Yasir lives in New York where he is the product manager at a publishing company. He works with The Syria Fund, which brings opportunities to Syrian refugees. And he hopes to start his own business soon — an ecommerce site called Project Souvenir that connects buyers with artisans throughout the Middle East. All that he does is suffused with a deep understanding that he has to give back to the world. His life was completely upended by war and he was eventually given another chance in the US.
"Refugees are people who have been forced to flee their homes and abandon their lives," he said. "They have often witnessed the horrors of war and have lost family members, friends, and neighbors. In my case all of the that. They have no place to go back to. Denial of their entry to the United States may be equivalent to their death sentence. This is not an exaggeration.
"If allowed entry to the United States, Refugees do not intend to steal jobs, hurt Americans, or abuse social programs as many have outrageously claimed. The very small fraction of the world's refugee population that has the great luck of being resettled in the United States, have hopes and dreams much like you and I have. Refugees hope to reclaim the lives they lost, to provide a safe home for their family members, build and to contribute to society. They view the United States as a city upon a hill."