Refugees Seek Safety and Freedom in U.S. (Theresa Laurence, Tennessee Register)

Posted 02/13/2017

One day after President Donald Trump signed an executive order halting the U.S. refugee resettlement program and temporarily banning travel on people from select Muslim-majority countries, Murfreesboro resident Yassir Khattab, a former Iraqi refugee, received an urgent voicemail from his friend Ali Muhammed, telling him he would not be aboard a flight from Baghdad en route to Nashville as planned. Instead, he, his wife and their two daughters were stuck in Baghdad, a city that they had planned to leave permanently to resettle in Tennessee.

"I was very excited, I didn't see him for more than 10 years," said Khattab, who attended college with Muhammed.

Khattab had spent more than $4,000 on airline tickets to cover his friend's travel expenses, and was eagerly waiting to host Muhammed's family in his newly-purchased Murfreesboro home. "It is very frustrating," said Khattab, who was resettled with the help of Catholic Charities of Tennessee in 2014. "The good people are being kept out now."

Trump's Jan. 27 executive order, intended to restrict the entry of terrorists coming to the United States in the guise of refugees, drew swift rebuke from a number of civil rights, Catholic and other religious organizations, as well as many individual bishops. "These newcomers seek protection and the promise of equality, opportunity and liberty that has made our country thrive. When we reject refugees, we negate the welcome that was given to so many of our ancestors," Bishop Kevin W. Vann of Orange, California, chairman of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network board of directors, said in a statement.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has voiced strong support for refugees while acknowledging the need for the country to protect its borders. "We must screen vigilantly for infiltrators who would do us harm, but we must always be equally vigilant in our welcome of friends," Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, and Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president and vice president, respectively, of the USCCB, wrote in a joint statement. "The Church will not waiver in her defense of our sisters and brothers of all faiths who suffer at the hands of merciless persecutors."

Ali Muhammed, who previously worked as a translator for the U.S. government in Iraq and had been issued a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, is still waiting to receive approval for travel. "It's a very hard time for me," he said, as he is worried for the safety of his family if they remain in Iraq much longer.

Muhammed, who had quit his job, pulled his daughter from school, and given away all his furniture, is one of thousands who remain caught in limbo by the travel ban.

Speaking by phone from Iraq, Muhammed said that bringing his family to the U.S. "is giving my daughters a very good chance to have a better life. I don't want them to fear for their life."

In response to Donald Trump's Jan. 27 executive order halting refugees from entering the United States, the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition sponsored a vigil and rally in support of refugees, held at Coleman Park in Nashville on Wednesday, Feb. 1. Photo by Theresa Laurence

When Muhammed saw news footage of people gathered in American airports protesting the executive order and welcoming the trickle of Middle Eastern refugees to American soil, "I was happy," he said, adding that he wanted his daughters to be raised in a place where people of varied backgrounds can freely stand up for others from different countries and religions. "I want them to have those principles," he said.

‘Roller coaster'

Trump's executive order called for a suspension of the entire U.S. refugee resettlement program for 120 days and banned entry of all citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries - Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia - for 90 days. It also established a religious criteria for refugees, proposing to give priority to religious minorities over others who may have equally compelling refugee claims. The order has since been blocked by federal judges, and refugees are slowly arriving in the country.

"We are taking it day by day, watching what happens with the court system," said Kellye Branson, director of Catholic Charities's Refugee Resettlement Department. "It has definitely been a roller coaster as far as arrivals go."

Catholic Charities was preparing help resettle about 30 refugees from countries including Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan this month, but has only seen a small handful arrive. It can be difficult to manage the logistics of refugees' travel plans, Branson said, but her office is doing its best to be ready to welcome new arrivals on short notice.

"Right now our staff is concerned about our clients already here, waiting for family members to join them who may be in harm's way overseas," Branson said.

Since its founding in 1962, Catholic Charities has successfully resettled refugees from around the world. Refugees are defined as individuals who have to leave their country because of a well-founded fear of persecution or death, often targeted because of their religious or political beliefs, their social standing or membership in a particular social class. They undergo a rigorous vetting process and have to wait years for approval to come to the U.S. The vast majority of the world's refugees and displaced people are never resettled.

Due to the executive order restrictions and uncertain future of the U.S. refugee resettlement program, Catholic Charities is facing a budget shortfall. The agency receives federal funds to cover staff and administrative costs related to resettlements on a per capita basis as refugees arrive. With far fewer refugees than expected coming into the country right now, less federal money is flowing into Catholic Charities.

"We're reviewing how this will impact our operations," said Pam Russo, executive director of Catholic Charities, "but it's not good news."

One bright spot during this uncertain time is an outpouring of community support for the Charities' Refugee Resettlement office, which received 50 new inquiries about volunteering and $10,000 in donations in recent weeks. "We're blessed to have so much support from the community," Russo said.

In solidarity with those suffering

In response to Trump's executive order, the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition sponsored a vigil and rally that drew thousands to Coleman Park in Nashville on Feb. 1 to support refugees. The peaceful yet boisterous crowd chanted "No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here," and held signs with slogans like "We are all immigrants," and "Who would Jesus deport?"

Former refugees and their allies listened to people tell their personal stories of fleeing war-torn countries and finding a new home in America.

Adham "Eddie" Dallou, a former refugee from Iraq who now works as an employment specialist for Catholic Charities, attended the vigil and rally because "I feel like I need to stand with refugees. ... There are a lot of people like me suffering."

Dallou, a Catholic, came to the United States in 2009 as a refugee and is now a U.S. citizen. He said that the vetting process is intensive, involving interviews, endless paperwork, and lots of waiting. "They don't just stamp your papers and send you to America," he said. "It's not a piece of cake."

Dallou helps newly arrived refugees find employment. "A lot of employers really like to hire refugees," he said. "They are really loyal to the job and given the opportunity will work really hard."

Trump said the halt on the refugee program was needed to give government agencies time to develop a stricter vetting system and ensure that visas were not issued to individuals posing a national security threat.

Hinda Ahmed, a former refugee from Somalia who now works for Catholic Charities, knows all too well how strict and time-consuming the refugee resettlement process already is. Ahmed, 28, had to flee her home country as a child and grew up in a refugee camp in Uganda; her parents both died during the nearly two decades they had to wait before they were able to resettle in the U.S. When she and her sister arrived here "it was the last hope we have."

Attending the Coleman Park vigil wearing an American flag hijab, Ahmed said she was proud to be able to freely practice her Muslim faith in her adopted country. "I love this country," she said. "I feel so proud to be here."

She attended the vigil because "I feel for the people in the camps now. I want to show my solidarity." The travel ban, she said, "is something I would never expect to be happening in America." Refugees, she said, "are great contributors to this country. We are taxpayers, we work hard."

Finding ‘safety for my family'

Khattab, a Murfreesboro resident and Nissan employee, who holds a master's degree in computer science, is still trying to make sense of the travel ban, why certain countries were targeted while others were not. "My question is, ‘Why Iraq?'" he said, noting that no Iraqis have been involved in terrorist attacks on American soil.

"Mr. Trump has a big responsibility. At the same time, we need justice," Khattab said. To him, it is unjust that Iraqis like his friend Muhammed, who had an SIV and plane ticket in hand, were blocked from travelling. "The order doesn't make sense from my opinion."

Saudi Arabia, for example, was not included in the list of seven banned countries, and its citizens were among those who carried out the 9/11 terror attacks, Khattab noted. According to the New America Foundation, a think-tank that tracks terrorism, the vast majority of terrorist acts committed in the U.S. since 9/11 were carried out by American-born or naturalized citizens.

Khattab, who traveled to Jordan to visit his parents last fall, said he would be too anxious to leave the country now, for fear he could not return even though he is a legal U.S. resident. He wants his parents, who live in Libya and have never met his 3-year-old son, to join him in the United States, but he has no idea if that could happen anytime soon.

Even though he remains separated from close family members, Khattab is grateful to be in Tennessee. "I came to find safety for my family, and I say ‘thank you God,'" to be here. "Everyone is so friendly," he added. His daughter, now a first grader, "is doing really great in school," now reading on her own, Khattab said with a wide smile. "That is why we are here."


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