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'It Will Be Better': Burmese Refugees Struggle on Road to America

by Sabrina Toppa /

BOGOR, Indonesia -- With damp clothing pressed against his skin, 16-year-old Elyas Chit watched his younger sister Yasmine, 15, empty her stomach into the murky waters. As one of the only children on the boat, Elyas’ head felt dizzy gazing toward where the sky’s inky darkness met the sea ahead.

“I didn’t think I’d ever make it out of the boat,” Elyas told NBC News.

In August 2013, without their parents, Elyas and Yasmine--accompanied by 14 other members of their extended family and crammed next to a hundred people--took the perilous boat journey from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). With hopes of landing in Australia, nearly 3,000 miles away, many on the boat wound up in Indonesia, a country that is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention upholding the rights of refugees. In September 2013, Elyas and Yasmine telephoned their parents to relay the news.

“Your life will be better than ours,” Yasmine’s mother had assured her. The family, who is Muslim, had sent their children overseas to seek safe shelter amid a spate of anti-Muslim violence targeting both Muslims and Rohingya, a 1.3 million-strong stateless group.

The roadside stand Yasmine worked at had been reduced to rubble. “They destroyed our shop,” Yasmine told NBC News about her aunt’s noodle shop. All across the region, mosques were razed to the ground as anti-Muslim violence roiled the Buddhist-majority country. Members of the Buddhist nationalist ‘969 Movement’ began targeting Muslim-owned businesses for destruction.

 The town of Bogor, Indonesia, where the Chit family waits for resettlement. “Your life will be better than ours,” Yasmine Chit's mother had assured her. The family requested to not be photographed for this story. Sabrina Toppa / NBC News

The Chit family (who asked not to be photographed for this story) has been in transition for the past two years in Indonesia, where refugees are barred from accessing formal school or work opportunities, creating an educational and financial quagmire in a transit country teeming with thousands of refugees.

“When I came to Indonesia,” Elyas said, “I was very afraid. I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t know the language.” Without work or school in Indonesia, Yasmine spends her free time at home helping her aunt prepare meals or watching MTV.

The refugees “[wait] many many years for assessments to be completed and for third country resettlement,” Paul Dillon of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said. “It’s a tough process to be. You can’t really get on with your life.”

“[America] will be better. It looks beautiful."

Last month, the Chit family finally learned that their application for resettlement was approved and, in the coming months, the family will be resettling to Texas--home to nearly 20% of all Burmese refugees in America. The Lone Star state boasts high job growth, an affordable cost of living and a successful refugee resettlement infrastructure, rendering it a popular recommendation by the consortium.

The evaluation process is lengthy: refugees are recommended by the UNHCR after years of waiting for refugee status determination. If they manage to obtain refugee status, the case file is forwarded to the Regional Refugee Coordinator, who then sets up interviews with the Department of Homeland Security and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. The Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration then evaluates each case and places refugees in cities across the U.S. with the assistance of a consortium of nine national refugee agencies.

The Chit family will join two aunts who have already settled in Texas, which gave the family a higher priority accorded to family reunification. “To the extent possible, refugees are placed near any family or friends they identify,” an official from the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration confirmed with NBC News.

  Pew Research Center

Refugees from Asian countries like Myanmar have figured prominently in the U.S. resettlement program since 1975. More than 70,000 Burmese have received special “Priority 2” status in refugee admissions since 2005, earning a designation as a group of “special humanitarian concern.” Last year, the U.S. admitted more than 14,000 Burmese in a single year, and plans to add 47,000 refugees from Asia next year from a total refugee ceiling of 85,000.

According to a Pew Research Center survey, 44% of Americans believe the U.S. should do more to assist refugees, with 51% in the U.S. approving an increase in refugee admissions. By 2017, the U.S. will host an additional 100,000 refugees to help alleviate Europe’s refugee crisis, including the admission of 10,000 Syrians in the upcoming year.

However, only 1,000 Rohingya from Myanmar have been admitted to the U.S. over the past year, with only seven Rohingya resettled from Indonesia since 2011, according to the IOM.

RELATED: State Department: Rohingya refugee crisis an emergency

For those admitted to the U.S., resettled refugees are eligible to apply for a green card one year from the date of entry. Five years after arrival on an I-94 form, refugees can apply for citizenship, explained Aaron Rippenkroeger, the CEO of Refugee Services of Texas. The refugees then undergo a medical and cultural orientation and receive a travel loan to enter the United States.

“Before a refugee leaves the country of asylum, he or she signs a promissory note and agrees to pay back over time travel costs,” Rippenkroeger told NBC News.

But the process to get there is often paved with delays. The average timespan from UNHCR referral to U.S. government approval is 18-24 months. The Chit family is still waiting to learn the date of their flight to America, according to one family member.

 The fields of Bogor, Indonesia. “When I came to Indonesia,” Elyas tells NBC News, “I was very afraid. I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t know the language.” The family requested to not be photographed for this story. Sabrina Toppa / NBC News

The family has been interviewed three times, first with the UNHCR to determine bona fide refugee status; the second, with the American embassy in Jakarta; and third, with the U.S. government.

Still, the Chit family is optimistic about the road ahead. Refugees are given the right to work and expected to obtain economic self-sufficiency. Almost a quarter of all Burmese refugees in the U.S. are school-aged children, and the resettlement program prioritizes school registration within the initial six months of entry to facilitate cultural and economic integration.

“It will be better,” Yasmine said about America. She is eager to become an engineer and resume her education, which has been disrupted for two years now. When asked how America looks on television, she responded: “It looks beautiful.”