The life of a refugee in Jakarta, Indonesia - Part 2

The Long Wait for Hope

The young woman looked at me, her brow furrowed, her head tilted. We continued walking around the back of the red brick building. “I don’t mean to be—well, maybe this is rude, but what do they do? How do they live?” she asked, clearly embarrassed by such an indiscreet question. The young woman in question was a visitor at the learning center, an expat considering volunteering to teach.

I get this question all the time, both directly and indirectly, from people like myself, people who are lucky enough to have job, or if not a job, a relative who has a paid job or a pension. Melinda, I’ll call her, was trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together about how the families participating in the learning center—not to mention the 11,000-plus other refugees in Indonesia—could get by while they wait for “a durable solution.”

Arrival: Rushing to Wait

Upon arrival and after registering with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), new arrivals are called asylum seekers. They are seeking asylum from the dangers in their home country—inquisition, imprisonment, hanging, or torture perhaps, for “crimes” such as disagreeing with their government, believing in Jesus Christ, being homosexual, or being born Hazara or Kurdish or another ethnicity. Within hours or days after putting their feet on Indonesian soil, most head straight to the UNHCR office to register and get papers that allow them to stay in Indonesia until they can move elsewhere to a permanent new home—that’s the durable solution they hope for.   They get up and get in line at 4 am to get those papers.

And then? And then they wait.

They wait and wait and wait some more. They wait for months until the UN calls them for an interview. Then they prepare with the devotion of an elite university hopeful— though with higher stakes than a university entrance. Applicants recreate the timeline of their moves, every move they have ever made—along with addresses—over the last 30 years. They memorize their timelines, their relatives’ birthdates, their employers’ last names and addresses. Spouses work to match their answers precisely. Parents quiz their kids so they will get the “right” answer when the case officer interviews them.

Rejection takes many forms — a mismatch between what is said on paper and verbally, a mis-remembered story by a family member, a missing detail on persecution at home — all equal rejection. Economic hard times, or a lack of jobs in the old country, are not sufficient for acceptance. Instead, danger is paramount. Asylum seekers must demonstrate they were in danger at home and will be in danger again if they are sent back. With this mind, and a long journey at their backs and possibly ahead of them, refugees try to make their case, their fate in the hands of a case officer.

And then? And then they wait.

Waiting for the Golden Ticket

They wait for the answer from UNHCR. Have they gotten the Golden Ticket to a new home country or have they gotten the “Return to Start” or “Go Back to Jail” card? Except instead of a game, the stakes are real and learning the answer can take many more months. They wait and pray and try to distract themselves. If UNHCR hands them a Golden Ticket, an acceptance that moves them from asylum seeker status to refugee status, they are relieved and excited and have a moment of celebration.

And then? And then they wait.

A consulate officer from some country, perhaps Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada, or another Western country, will interview the family for acceptance into that country. That process likewise takes many more months. Even after interviews are successfully passed for the new country, getting through medical exams, immunizations, and visa processes takes many more months. It is quicker for some than others, which is discouraging for those whose process lags. Nonetheless, the refugees are the lucky ones because they know they will be resettled, if not with the first country that interviews them, then with another. We have friends who have been accepted by UNHCR as refugees, rejected by Australia, and accepted by the US. We have friends who have been accepted by Australia but whose cohort has long since moved there while they remain in Jakarta. The refugees do a lot of waiting.

Those who are not accepted by the UN as refugees wait even longer. They can appeal their case with the UN one time. The process remains essentially the same—asylum seekers must make the case in a second interview that their home country is no longer safe for them—but the wait period is longer and more agonizing. On average, it seems, applicants here in Jakarta wait about 3 years.

“How Do They Live?”

So to get back to Melinda’s questions: What do they do? How do they live?

They play games on their phones, study if they can, cook and clean up, Skype with family members, look for free places to be outside or be entertained, window shop in malls. They just…wait.

This is one of the reasons the Learning Center started. Refugees may be short on resources, but they are long on one commodity — time.

“I can’t think of anything worse than unoccupied teenagers,” high school principal Dorothy Hoddinott and Human Rights Medal awardee said of her work with refugee students.

And it’s not just teenagers that suffer when there’s nothing to do. Young children desperately need interactions with other children, middle school students need something interesting to occupy their minds, and adults need a chance to learn English or vocational skills. With the learning center, a handful of families have a little bit more to do while they wait—they can come to our classes a few times a week.

But for most of the thousands of refugees here and elsewhere, we as a collective global society waste the one valuable resource they have by not taking advantage of their time.

Because they are barred by law from working in order to protect jobs for Indonesians (the same policy exists in other temporary host countries), refugees have no income during this long wait. A very few who had property back home have usually sold it to live off that income while they wait, and those who had savings live off those funds as long as they can. These funds usually disappear faster than homemade cookies at a Learning Center potluck, however, and the families slide into financial poverty relatively quickly. Those who can (and who can set their egos aside) ask relatives back home to wire money if they can.

But most of the refugees came here with nothing, left nothing behind, and have no one to wire money. The father who is a shepherd in rural Afghanistan and has 11 other children in the village has nothing to wire. The depressed brother who is hospitalized for drug addiction in Tehran has nothing to wire. The relatives back in Shiraz whose house fell into disrepair because they had no jobs to pay for a new roof have nothing to wire.

So the refugees, here in Jakarta without any safety net, sleep in parks or crash with other refugee families if they have nowhere to stay. A handful of people—perhaps 500 out of many thousand—receive support from an institution. In these cases, a person gets about $85 (US) to live on per month, plus a room to stay in. That money comes from organizations like the International Office for Migration, Jesuit Refugee Services, Church World Service, or sometimes private individuals. But again, only a relative handful of refugees get that meager financial support. Sometimes, in desperation and at great risk, refugees try to sell bread or kabobs to make some extra coins to feed their families. Working becomes the crime in this complex situation.

I explain all this to Melinda. “So they can’t work and they can’t go to school,” she summarizes, “but maybe if they learn English now, they’ll be able to get a job faster once they get to their new country.”

Yes, I affirm. And it’s not just having English skills, it’s having a place where you belong, having support networks, and having a stronger state of mind to endure the long wait. That’s the best thing we can do for now. Provide friendship, fun, skills and the beginning of an education for their children—that’s what we can do. People can’t live on hope alone, but they surely can’t live without hope.