Alana Murphy's not your typical 25-year-old. In the past two months, the former Fulbright scholar, world traveler, nonprofit worker and government intern has biked more than 1,800 miles through ten states, and clocked in about 50 interviews with refugees and refugee families.
She calls her journey "The Beautiful Crossing," and hopes, through the stories of the people she interviews — from New York City to Portland — to educate her online followers about the value of the United States' refugee admissions program.
Murphy has only been able to upload a handful of interviews to her website so far because of limited access to internet. In August, she plans to have all 75 to 80 interviews from her trip online, where viewers can scroll through a state-by-state archive of photos, text and audio clips.
The trip is funded by a couple of private donors and Murphy’s personal savings, and she says she’d rather have supporters take the time to listen to the interviews than donate money.
Murphy stopped in Colorado Springs on July 6 and 7, speaking with five refugees through Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains, a local resettlement agency, before departing for Denver on July 8.
The Independent spoke to Murphy about what she's learned on the trip so far. (This interview has been edited slightly and condensed for clarity.)
How did you come up with the idea for this project?
I've worked with refugees and migrants for the last eight years of my life. I went overseas when I was 17, and I was learning Arabic, and I started working with a group of Syrian and Iraqi women who were waiting for resettlement. That kind of got me interested in international resettlement and what it was like for people who came from refugee backgrounds. From then on I started working with World Relief in Chicago, first as a volunteer, then as a full-time intern and then as staff, and I also had several other experiences working overseas in response work other than resettlement, direct response work in either refugee camps or with refugees who are living in urban city centers. I was able to intern full-time with the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, which is the bureau within the State Department that manages the Refugee Admissions Program, and saw from that end kind of a policy side, and then I also was able to work here in resettlement, welcoming refugees to my home city, which is Chicago. So I’ve actually been able to see a lot of different sides and positives and negatives, and just really fell in love with being part of a team that’s welcoming people here to the U.S.
How long are you expecting the whole journey to take?
I started on May 12 and the entire journey’s about three months. So it’s 95 days, and I travel about 4,300 miles. So now I’m on the second half of the trip and after Colorado I go up through Wyoming and Idaho, Montana and I go over to Spokane, Washington, and then Seattle and then Portland. And that will be the end of my project.
Is there anything that's surprised you?
The best part of this project has definitely been doing the interviews. And I’ve been, I feel really blessed to meet the people that I’ve been able to talk to. Some of my questions are focused on American culture, living in the United States. And I think it’s always interesting to learn about your own country and your own culture from someone who can see it from the outside. I’ve had some participants say some really interesting things. So kind of like a funny one, for example is one participant talked about how he was shocked when he realized how much money Americans spent on dogs and pets, he was like, they have these pet stores, all pet supplies for dogs, and that was so surprising to him, he could never really kind of get over that — 'Wow, so much money on these pets!'
Then another participant, he was from the Congo, and he had started doing talks in schools where he would go into public schools in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he’s living now. He would speak with schoolchildren about his experience, coming from the Congo and what that was like. And he had kids asking him, 'So do all Africans live in trees?' And at the time when he got this question, actually, I believe it was President Bush had been in Africa doing a diplomatic tour, doing some official visits with different countries and different presidents. And his response to these kids was, 'Well, I guess if all the Africans live in trees, then President Bush is in the trees with us.' For him of course, he knew it was kids, he wasn’t really offended, but he was concerned that in a day and an age when we have the internet and we have access to so much information, why are these children growing up — if they’re part of what some people consider the most powerful nation on earth — why are they growing up and they have no concept of what it’s like in modern-day Congo or modern-day Ghana or these other countries in Africa?
So those have been, it’s been really interesting to hear that from participants, and also just to hear how much they value living here in the United States and the things that we might take for granted. Another participant talked about how he was shocked when he realized you could return things here in the U.S. I know that sounds like a silly thing, you know, like not an important thing, you’re fleeing a conflict zone, that’s not the No. 1 thing you’re going to value. But he was saying he had bought something and it didn’t work. And he brought it back to the store and they gave him his money back. He was just shocked that that was even possible, that kind of freedom. He just thought that was really cool. And other people, of course, have talked more about, they really value that there are laws here that apply to everyone, and not just people of a certain class — that even though we have obviously people that are from a higher class or lower class, they still feel that people are expected to follow the laws and follow the same rules, and to them that really meant a lot.
Refugee admissions are way down right now, because the cap has been lowered and then the whole process has just kind of been slowed down from the top. What's your reaction to that? And do you think that getting these peoples' stories out there can help maybe create some change?
My project is independent, but in my opinion and from talking to different resettlement agencies and kind of reading a lot and being really interested, I do think that it’s very clear that very few refugees are arriving right now to the United States through the admissions program. The first cause of that is probably the cap, but then of course there’s a list of countries that are still banned, but then I think the third kind of indirect cause, that maybe isn’t really being seen or talked about as much, is that President Trump decided that there was a need for new processing procedures in order for people to come here. But there was not a lot of direction or clarity given in terms of how the procedures and interview process could actually be approved, and so then at this point I believe that for a lot of people, even who might be coming from the Congo for example, a country that’s not banned, the processing has actually been significantly slowed down, and very few people are even being admitted from countries that aren’t per se banned, simply because the Refugee Admissions Program has kind of been put on hold until new procedures can be put in place.
I believe at this point just over 13,000 people have come in fiscal year 2018, and the cap for this year is set at 45,000. And that cap of 45,000 is actually the lowest number of people that would be admitted to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program since it was started in 1975. So 45,000 might sound like a big number to some people, but it’s actually less than 0.5 percent of people who are displaced internationally because of conflict. So it’s a very small percentage of actually the need globally.
And in terms of whether this project or other advocacy measures can help with raising numbers again, I do think it’s really important to show support for the Refugee Admissions Program and show that our country historically has welcomed refugees. The Refugee Admissions Program started after World War II, and actually it was started by citizens and local faith-based organizations that wanted to open up doors to people fleeing Hitler and other regimes in World War II. So it was a citizen-based initiative which then was formalized by the government and became the Refugee Admissions Program. It's a huge part of the image that we’ve kind of shown to the world overseas. And I think it’s important to show that we continue to support and value that, but it is true that it’s within Trump’s constitutionally given powers to set a cap on the program and grant special immigrant visas. And so I don’t believe that, necessarily, advocacy efforts can change the restrictions that have limited the program at this time, but I do believe that the program will survive the current situation and the current political environment, and I hope that more people, hopefully through my project and other advocacy efforts come to learn more about the program, and value the program and the impact that it’s really had here in the United States. I hope that when things change and the political environment changes there will be more support and more people that are trying to welcome refugees to the United States.
Do you see yourself continuing to do work like this in the future?
Yes, I definitely do. I feel very passionately about working with refugees, especially here in the U.S. in resettlement. My field is actually international migration policy, so that’s what I study and what I pursue. My next step is, actually, I will be going to Beijing and I’m going to do a master’s program in China, and I'm studying government response and government policies to respond to internal migration within the country.