Behind reinforced concrete blast walls in a Beirut suburb, inside a grim featureless office building, Angela Murru riffles through files under the flicker of fluorescent lights and evaluates the degrees of human vulnerability.
Ms. Murru is a senior resettlement officer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR. She and her colleagues sift through thousands of case files of Syrian refugees, each one an abbreviated story of displacement and struggle. Lebanon hosts 1.2 million refugees; Western countries have pledged to take 12,600 of them this year through the UNHCR program.
That means her office is racing to match desperate family to willing host. It's a calculus based on experience and on heart, a methodical weighing of the merits of people who seem equal in their suffering. "We work non-stop," said Ms. Murru in a rare interview offering a glimpse into the inner workings of the agency's office of resettlement in Beirut. "It's a lot of responsibility to decide who's in and who's out."
In the UNHCR's Resettlement Handbook, Ms. Murru's proverbial bible, the term "vulnerability" appears 19 times but not once is it defined. Implicitly, it refers to an individual's inability to cope in an inimical environment. In practice, Ms. Murru scores the gamut of a refugee's life, from health, housing, legal and financial troubles to experiences of trauma and violence to get an idea of where they stand on the vulnerability scale. But the UN criteria are only part of the equation; the respective conditions of resettlement countries is the other. To that end, she must be strategic when referring cases to embassies and managing the refugees' expectations.
There's little point in submitting a case when it's known the likelihood of rejection is high. Ms. Murru has to be careful who she submits where, and there's a lot of pressure to get it right the first time around because refugees grow expectant as their case moves along. Urgent medical cases are rarely sent to the United States because the long processing "defeats the purpose," she says. Large families over seven are rarely considered for Europe due to housing shortages there.
Some cases are uncomplicated. Unaccompanied children can be resettled almost anywhere because they can be effortlessly integrated into the community through schools. Making a convincing case for members of the LGBT community, who were forced to live covertly in Syria and now feel doubly threatened as refugees, is relatively straightforward. Other cases are near impossible: The families of child brides are not considered, for example, nor are those of polygamists, though the practice is permissible in Islam.
Some countries have asked the office for a diversity of religious backgrounds, another challenge considering 95 per cent of Syrian refugees are Sunni Muslims.
Then there are requests from Syrians themselves. "Everybody wants to go to Sweden," Ms. Murru says. There's a belief among refugees that it is more advantageous to end up in Germany or Sweden, which offers monthly benefits, rather than Canada, where they are expected to find work, or the United States, where they are eventually required to repay the airline ticket that brought them there.
Between easy and impossible cases, there are the not-so-clear. Initially, it might appear that a household headed by a single woman struggling to make ends meet would be a perfect case for resettlement. But the first interview might reveal that the family receives remittances from abroad, lives in a relatively comfortable flat with the children going to school. "All is not what it seems," Ms. Murru says.
"If you look at countries and what they offer, the last thing you want to do is send a case to a country where you know this person won't be able to cope," she says. "The last thing you want to hear is that the refugees you helped resettle are living on the streets and weren't able to make it."
This was the reality of a few Iraqi refugees resettled to the U.S. some years ago, who ended up on the streets. "They were people who had certain professions back in Iraq, and the only jobs they could find was as dishwashers or cleaners, which they couldn't accept," she adds.
From the start, the process of getting the attention of the resettlement officers is almost serendipity. A UN worker distributing aid at a reception centre might overhear the story of a bereaved family and send a memo to the department; a social worker might happen upon a severe medical case during a routine visit; sifting through the refugee agency's exhaustive database might unearth a story of profound trauma. Significantly, refugees cannot apply for resettlement directly. If they had the option of nominating themselves, Ms. Murru says, the workload would far exceed capacity of staff.
Refugees who nominate themselves seldom understand the criteria for resettlement employed by the UN which uses a variety of elements to quantify the intangible concept of vulnerability.
In Canada, well before the recent election that saw the Liberal Party win a majority, Ms. Murru says the country had started expediting refugee processing efforts in September to interview as many cases as possible before the end of the year to reach the goal of 2,700 cases.
The Canadian embassy in Beirut is simultaneously processing another 4,400 privately sponsored cases as well as UNHCR-referred cases. "They've got 10 immigration officers aiming to interview up to 7,000 persons before the end of the year," she says. "And they've actually had to pull in immigration officers from other offices in order to ramp up the processing."
About 95 per cent of the cases submitted to resettlement countries by the UNHCR are successful. But there have been incidents of countries rejecting individual cases when a thorough background check pointed to past links with militant groups. And then there are the cases of refugees – surprising even to the most experienced of resettlement officers – who have been cleared for resettlement and not gone because leaving the region might mean they never return to Syria.
"We've had people days away from departure tell us they've changed their minds. They said they want to be able to go back to their homes in Syria one day," she says. "I've never seen this happen anywhere else in such an extent."
Ms. Murru, an Italian citizen, began working as a consultant for UNHCR in Zambia in the early 2000s, when she found herself involved in the resettlement of Rwandan refugees. Since then, she has helped resettle Liberians out of Sierra Leone, Togolese out of Benin and Iraqis out of Syria and Jordan. Every war is a source of sad stories, but the crisis in Syria struck a personal chord with Ms. Murru. "I lived there, I knew what Syrians had," she says. "I have worked and loved the country from which these refugees have come."
She has never cried in an interview with a candidate. But when asked about a case that has remained with her in her 20 years with the UNHCR, she tearfully recalls the story of an Iraqi boy displaced during the 2003 war. He had been tortured and kidnapped by Iraqi militias with an electric drill. "When I walked into the room the entire family was around him, protecting him," she says. "He had such an angelic face."
No country had wanted to take the family. Ms. Murru pushed, and eventually, a Scandinavian country took them in. Years later, she still wonders what has become of him.
Sometimes refugees Ms. Murru helped resettle find a way back into her life. A Congolese couple recently messaged her on Facebook. "Do you remember us? We remember you."