WASHINGTON – Death threats forced Ahmed* to quit his job as a mechanic for the U.S. Army in 2007, but it wasn’t until 2015, when his home city of Mosul fell to the so-called Islamic State, that he fled Iraq.
He was smuggled to Syria hiding under construction equipment in an 18-wheeler truck, along with his wife and son. After dodging ISIS for 14 days, the three of them crossed the Turkish border.
This October, after a 16-month application and screening process, they entered the United States on Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), a category used by people who worked with U.S. troops during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But Ahmed’s 22-year-old daughter is still in Mosul. Because ISIS is known to kidnap young women and girls, it was too dangerous to bring her with them through Syria. This weekend, after an executive order signed by U.S. president Donald Trump banned the entry of individuals from Iraq, along with six other countries, Ahmed faced the prospect that his daughter might never make it to the U.S.
When he heard the news of the order, “I felt everything was gone, all my planning,” he said.
In one of several rapid reversals following the January 27 order, U.S. officials have indicated that Iraqis holding SIVs may be allowed into the country although subject to extra scrutiny, but the details remain unclear.
Ahmed is just one of thousands of people in the U.S. supported by refugee resettlement agencies, a group of nine mostly faith-based organizations contracted by the U.S. government to help refugees build a new life in the U.S.
This weekend, those agencies grappled with the implications of a wide-ranging and unprecedented executive order signed by Trump that, in addition to banning the entry of individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days, suspended the U.S. refugee resettlement program for 120 days and indefinitely banned the entry of all people from Syria.
The agencies must now find ways to support people like Ahmed, whose family members’ fate seems to hinge on the whims and prejudices of a new American president and the way that administration officials decide to interpret and implement the order.
“We are going to work extremely hard to extend care to refugees who are already here,” Scott Arbeiter, president of the resettlement agency World Relief, said at a press conference ahead of the order last week. “They are vulnerable and frightened and need us to stay connected to them.”
Arbeiter said that around 70 percent of the people resettled by his organization come to the U.S. for family reunification. “There is going to be a crushing human cost for this,” said Arbeiter, who is also an evangelical Christian pastor.
The order heaps more stress on refugees already trying to learn a new language and adjust to a new country, said Lavinia Limon, president and CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a resettlement agency.
“When your family is in danger it’s difficult to focus on building your new life,” Limon said. “We have to help them with that, hopefully through more counseling or more interaction with them. But the tragedy is there and we can’t alleviate it right now.”
The chaos and uncertainty at U.S. airports this weekend were echoed in terminals around the world as refugees and visa-holders were barred from flying to the U.S.
Melanie Nezer, vice president for policy and advocacy at HIAS, another resettlement agency, said that once they receive their travel documents, refugees sell their belongings, give up their place in refugee camps and go to the city from which their flight will depart. Now, those people have found themselves stranded and virtually homeless.
“These are people who are in transit at our recommendation and now they’re being told they can’t come,” she said.
Despite State Department assurances that refugee arrivals would continue through February 2, at least for those not from the seven banned countries, Rebecca Heller of the International Refugee Assistance Project told reporters on Sunday that several refugees had their flights canceled in the last days of January.
Among them was a 17-year-old orphan from Afghanistan who fled to Indonesia after his family was killed by a land mine, and who waited for three years in a refugee camp there, Heller said.
U.S. officials later said that 872 refugees would receive waivers to enter the country this week as they were already “in transit.” However, the fate of those whose travel was scheduled for after this week remains unclear.
The agencies are concerned that the four-month suspension of the refugee program could mean the end of the road for many refugees with pending resettlement applications.
“They are continuously screened up until the moment they get on the plane,” said Nezer. But those screenings expire. After four months, some may have to begin the process all over again. That could mean – after what for some has been a decade-long process – waiting years longer. It could mean never being able to resettle in the U.S.
Trump’s executive order also cut the total number of refugees that the United States will take in fiscal year 2017 from 110,000 to 50,000. The suspension and shrinking of the resettlement program will likely have long-term consequences for agencies’ ability to resettle refugees, since they are paid by the government on a per capita basis. Arbeiter said the order would probably result in the loss of talented staff and the closure of offices. “This order has the risk of gutting critical capabilities for a long time to come,” he added.
Some agencies may turn to fundraising from private donors. “There’s a great appetite to step in, but we’re not sure if that will be sufficient to cover gaps,” Hans Van de Weerd, the International Rescue Committee’s vice president for U.S. Programs, told reporters.
In anticipation of the order, and amid the chaos this weekend, Nezer said that agencies had found it difficult to advocate to, or even communicate with, the administration. “As refugee advocates, we’ve always had a voice … We’ve never fully agreed with any administration, but we’ve always had a channel for communication.”
She noted with exasperation that even the White House comment line, a phone line that allows citizens to call in with opinions, had been disconnected. “Congress is operating traditionally, but the administration … we just have to regroup and figure that out,” she said.
“It’s very ugly,” Limon said of the order, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so cruel done by our country or any other country that purports to care about human rights.”
Ahmed is still hopeful he will see his daughter again. Immigrants “are very kind people,” he said. “But we’ve been categorized as bad [based on] the smallest percentage of us.”
*Name changed for safety reasons.
This story has been updated to reflect that HIAS no longer uses the full name “Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society” and correct Melanie Nezer’s job title.
Never miss an update. Sign up here for our Refugees Deeply newsletter to receive weekly updates, special reports and featured insights on one of the most critical issues of our time.