I Will Never See Airports the Same Way Ever Again

“Welcome to the United States! You are at the airport of New York - JFK!” This would be no ordinary greeting if it was not followed by these words: “Some of you will leave to your final destination today and others will spend the night here and depart tomorrow.”

In fact, this message is not intended to address all passengers that arrive at John F. Kennedy airport, it is specifically addressed to the refugees arriving in the United States for their first time.

The greeting is delivered by IOM staff at the airport to the dozens of men, women and children who had just exited the plane.

A Burmese boy holds a "Welcome Home" balloon at JFK (Sept. 30). © IOM 2015

On September 30, I saw close to 200 refugees setting foot in the United States. I saw men, women and children who came to the U.S. to continue their life away from wars, conflicts and political instability. Souls who have left behind them the fear of being killed, jailed, and/or threatened.

That day, many of those who entered the U.S. were Burmese who had lived in Malaysia and Thailand. Some lived in refugee camps for more than a decade. Among them, was a 23 year-old woman who entered the U.S. with her husband and her one-year old son. She spoke a few words of English. She was 12 when, she said, she left Myanmar for Thailand. “I went to Thailand with my uncle but he then left for Australia,” she said. Her uncle was resettled in Australia but couldn't take her with him.

The woman got married in the camp to a man a year younger than her. Yet, her parents remain in Myanmar, she explained. “We are now happy to be here,” she replied with a smile when I asked her to share her first impressions of being in the U.S. The woman and her small family spent the night in a hotel close to the airport and set off to Minneapolis the following day. Minneapolis was their final destination where they would begin their new life.

For the past three decades, Burmese refugees and asylum seekers have been the largest refugee group in East Asia, according to the U.S. State Department. In 2013, Burmese refugees made up 23 percent of all refugee entries in the U.S. There are currently about 630 000 Burmese refugees, asylum seekers, and other vulnerable persons in Thailand, Malaysia, Bangladesh, India and China. In addition, there are over 800 000 stateless[NH1]  Rohingya in Myanmar and about 490 000 internally displaced persons in the country.

As soon as the refugees arrived at JFK airport, IOM operation staff were waiting to escort them straight from the aircraft to a room where their travel documents were stamped, their fingerprints processed, their photographs taken and their information verified by two Customs and Border Protection officers.

As they stood in that room, signs of fatigue and exhaustion were visible on each of their faces. Mothers were soothing crying babies while other parents were chasing their children who were too excited to stay seated and preferred to jump around. There were also pregnant women who, in a few months, will be giving birth to U.S. citizens.

Some made the journey alone and some traveled with their entire families. Many stood in front of the airport wide windows watching airplanes landing and taking off. For almost all of them, the journey to the U.S. had been their first time boarding a plane and being in an airport. For several of them, it was also their first time leaving the refugee camp in which they were born. And for all of them, there will be a lot of firsts from now on.

The youngest children who arrived on that day, might not remember their first time in the U.S. Children tend to adapt to change quicker than adults and every time I looked at them I could not help but wonder what they will become in a few years’ time. A doctor? A lawyer? A politician? A tech guru? A TV anchor? Or maybe they will return to serve their country of origin. The pool of talents among refugees is limitless. Refugees who come to the U.S. want to regain self-sufficiency and economic stability for their families. Strengthened by their experiences, they make capable, resilient, and loyal employees that contribute to the betterment of the U.S. economy.

My visit to JFK coincided with the last day of the 2015 Fiscal Year. According to IOM's figures, 69,933 refugees were resettled this year; slightly under the ceiling of 70 000 refugees set for 2015. Starting next year, that number will increase to 85 000 and reach 100 000 refugees in 2017 as it was announced last month by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

IOM has been assisting the U.S. government in the resettlement of refugees since 1975 in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. More than 3 million refugees have been resettled since then and this number is expected to grow exponentially as a result of current huge numbers of refugees around the world. In 2014, there were almost 60 million refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) around the globe, according to UNHCR.


Burmese refugees at JFK (Sept 30). © IOM 2015

Today, the U.S. counts five ports of entry (PoE) to welcome refugees: New York JFK, Newark (NJ), O'Hare Chicago, Miami (MIA) and Los Angeles (LAX). Soon the international airport of Houston will be added to the list and will help respond to the increasing number of refugees entering the country.

'It is a rewarding job,” said Virginia Salvatore, Manager for the U.S. PoEs who is based at JFK. Ms Salvatore has been working with refugees for the past 34 years. On the day of my visit, I watched as she moved from one terminal to the other, taking one phone call after another and coordinating with different staffs in different time zones. She never stopped. She fueled her day with several cups of coffee. It was about 7:30 pm when she finally sat down for a meal in Terminal 4. Less than 30 minutes later, she received a message on her phone. The last flight for the day which had been expected to be delayed was eventually rescheduled to arrive on time. Ms. Salvatore left and headed to Terminal 7. Her day was far from being over.


[NH1]This Figure is from the U.S. State Dept.