Resettled, now unsettled: Muslim refugees reel from Trump’s order
Mohamad Al Bardan, a young Syrian engineer who lives in Cambridge, is worried about his younger brother, Ahmad, a dental student in Egypt. Ahmad has been spending summers in the United States, preparing for advanced dentistry studies and possibly a career here, Al Bardan said. But this week, in light of news that President Trump would temporarily suspend legal immigration from Syria and halt Syrian refugee resettlement, Ahmad scrambled to revise his post-graduation plans.
“He was still in shock when I called him,” Mohamad Al Bardan said. “What should he do? Start learning German? We don’t have a plan yet.”
Waves of worry and indignation rolled through many of Boston’s refugee and immigrant communities this week, as Trump prepared to sign an executive order designed to limit refugees and beef up the vetting of legal immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations “of particular concern.”
The draft order would halt virtually all refugee resettlement for four months, indefinitely halt refugee resettlement from Syria, and impose a 30-day suspension of visas from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Exemptions would be allowed on a case-by-case basis, and when refugee resettlement resumes, priority would be given to religious minorities suffering persecution.
Those with close ties to the affected countries wondered: What would happen to loved ones on the other side of the ocean? Would the restriction on visas really be temporary?
And what was happening to the ideals of their adopted country?
“This is a level of marginalizing a group of people based on their ethnicity which is not very American to me,” said Zohreh Amoozgar, an Iranian immigrant living in South Boston who holds a pharmacy doctorate and a PhD and is working on cancer research at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Amoozgar, who holds a green card, will not be directly affected by the order, but she said many of the science students she knows in Iran are giving up on applying for an American visa and considering studying in Canada, Australia, or Europe instead. Some of her colleagues at work have been wondering aloud about whether they should build a life in Canada, which has cultivated a more welcoming attitude toward immigrants.
“Overall, [Trump’s immigration] reduces the diversity and it also marginalizes whoever is here and who has already established a life,” she said. “Already, I know many are considering Germany, which is ironic in a way.”
Jessica Stern, a leading scholar on terrorism at Boston University, said the draft policy would play into the hands of the Islamic State, which hopes to alienate Muslims from the West.
“I’m a child of refugees,” added Stern, whose father survived the Holocaust. “When you think that we could block people running away from the very terrorists that we’re fighting, that is just very upsetting.”
Jeffrey Thielman, chief executive of the International Institute of New England, a nonprofit that resettles refugees in Massachusetts, said refugees from Syria and other lands are afraid they won’t be able to bring over their relatives to join them.
“This is a very mean-spirited executive order,” he said. “I don’t think the president and his team realize what this does to very needy people who have suffered a great deal. These are people that want peace. They’re not terrorists. They’re people who have lived in fear for many, many years.”
Thielman said refugees can spend years in camps as they undergo background checks and interviews before they are allowed to resettle in another country.
“They’ve lived in refugee camps. They’ve won the lottery by getting the chance to go to the United States of America. And now they’re getting that yanked from them,” he said. “It’s devastating to them and it’s devastating to our staff.”
Nadia Alawa, founder of NuDay Syria, a humanitarian agency based in New Hampshire, said she was disheartened. “Six years into the worst humanitarian crisis of our lives, and you’re going to shut down any hope of any small family entering the United States,” she said.
Some refugee organizations are also concerned about the potential ripple effects if Trump signs the order. Abdirahman A. Yusuf, executive director and co-founder of the Somali Development Center in Jamaica Plain, said his agency — which offers translation, adult literacy, citizen assistance, youth enrichment, and elderly services — depends on federal and state grants that are contingent on the numbers of incoming refugees. But the population served is a mix of new arrivals and immigrants who have been here for some time.
“If families don’t get the support they need, what happens is, things fall apart,” he said.
And some fear that legal immigration from some targeted countries might be blocked indefinitely.
The draft order — which could be revised — would impose a temporary limit on visas issued to nationals of the seven countries listed. US officials would review whether information supplied by foreign countries about individuals seeking American visas is sufficient to determine the person is not a security threat.
If countries don’t provide adequate information, immigration from those nations could be blocked until they do.
This, said Al Bardan, the Syrian engineer, might indicate an indefinite halt to Syrian immigration. The United States has no diplomatic relations with the Syrian government and has accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of committing war crimes.
Akuot Leek came to the United States in 2004 at 14, following in the footsteps of her brother in 2001, one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan who were displaced when the country descended into civil war in the 1980s and 1990s.
Now, her father and three siblings are living in South Sudan — which won its independence from Sudan in 2011 — and her mother is in a refugee camp in Uganda. Her father and siblings have already been denied entry to the United States, and her hope of bringing her mother here, she said, has dimmed.
“Now that Trump is president,” she said, “it has killed the dream.”