President Donald Trump’s executive order to temporarily, and in some cases indefinitely, restrict immigration into the U.S. is striking fear in refugees just across the Idaho state line, leaving them unsure of the fate of their loved ones back home.
“People have petitioned to get their family members here and some family members were supposed to come this week,” said Johnna Nickoloff, development director of World Relief Spokane, a resettlement agency that helps refugees land on their feet when they get to the U.S. “Now they won’t be coming.”
Last Friday, President Trump signed an executive order suspending all refugee admission to the U.S. for 120 days and barring all Syrian refugees indefinitely.
The order also bans all citizens from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Sudan and Somalia — all majority Muslim countries — from entering the U.S on any visa category for at least the next 90 days.
Saturday, the ban included U.S. residents from those seven countries who were traveling overseas, including green card holders and dual citizens. By Sunday, it had been clarified that “lawful permanent residents” would be allowed back into the U.S.
“Syrian refugees here will possibly never see their family come to the States — we don’t know if or when this will resume,” Nickoloff said. “Obviously this is upsetting for them, especially with the reality that refugees are not in safe places. People are worried for the safety of their family members.”
Last summer, The Press published an article about the Warnicks, a Kootenai County family that hosted a family of Syrian refugees seeking a more permanent living place in Spokane.
The Warnicks said this week the Al Dandashis are still living in Spokane and the father, Hassan, has a part-time job. Both he and his wife, Nesrin, take English classes. They spend the rest of their time taking care of their son.
“It’s been wonderful. We’ve made lifelong friends,” David Warnick said about hosting refugee families. “It’s important because I don’t want to be silent in the face of human tragedy, and I want to do my bit. And of course, for us, we want to open the door for us to share why we do this — because we love the Lord.”
Later in the summer, the Warnicks hosted another refugee family, also from Syria. Mahmoud Ahlmak, his wife, Enas Albaisawani, and their two kids came to the U.S. seven months ago. They too stayed with the Warnicks before finding a permanent place to live in Spokane.
The Press was able to talk with Mahmoud, the father, through a translation app. He has a heart condition and his son shows some signs of autism. Their family fled their home near Damascus because there was no medication or treatment, and there was no safe place to be because of the war.
Mahmoud’s brother and sister are still in Syria and can’t leave because they don’t have any money or passports. When asked how he felt about Syrians no longer being able to come to the U.S., Mahmoud replied:
“Of course I feel sad because there are so many people that need to live in peace and are in need of medication. People are victims of war and need help...America is beautiful and its people are peace-loving. I wish her to live in lasting peace.”
Nickoloff said many Iraqi immigrants come to the U.S. on special immigration visas because they worked for the U.S. military with the understanding they and their families would be resettled in the U.S.
She said when Iraqis work with Americans, it puts them and those close to them in danger. They become targets for violence.
“We’ve heard story after story about families that have had horrible things happen to them because they or another family member worked for the U.S.” Nickoloff said. “There are people waiting on their wives, children, brothers, parents, who are back in their country and aren’t safe.”
According to an article published by Public News Service-Idaho, there are some 60,000 refugees who have been vetted and are waiting to travel to the U.S, but now don’t know if they’ll be able to get in.
Nickoloff said whenever a temporary ban has happened before, those refugees in limbo have to go back and start the process all over again — which usually takes two years of extreme vetting.
The U.S. already has the strictest policies and process for admitting refugees in the world; many applicants don’t make the cut and have to continue to reapply or apply elsewhere.
Refugees trying to get into the U.S. must be intensely interviewed and approved by five different federal agencies — Homeland Security, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the FBI and the Counterterrorism Network. The refugees’ fingerprints are then run against a database of known terrorists.
World Relief said only about half the applicants pass this first stage of the process.
After that, each person has to go through a medical check because the U.S. doesn’t allow some diseases into the country. Once they pass this, refugees are referred to one of the nine nonprofit organizations in the U.S. providing resettlement services.
Nickoloff said refugees who can’t get into the U.S. or other countries become stuck in refugee camps where there is not enough food for everybody and no decent education for children. She said people often resort to smuggling themselves and their families to Europe — which, as seen last summer, is very dangerous and often results in death.
Refugees and people of identified nationalities are not the only ones Trump’s executive order affects. World Relief is a federally funded agency. It gets funding based on its case management, but if no refugees are being admitted to the U.S, it won’t have any cases.
“If we can’t keep our office open, it will be devastating,” Nickoloff said.
She said the organization is very likely to lay off staff and will have to figure out a way to operate with only its reserve fund. This will most likely be finalized by mid-February, she said.
World Relief is the only resettlement agency serving the Inland Northwest, and served just under 600 refugees in 2016. Not only does World Relief help refugees get settled in the area for the first few months they are here, it also offers help with transportation, language classes, job preparation and other employment services for years after refugees are settled in the U.S.
“At this point, we’re the only resource for them,” Nickoloff said. “If we go, it’s also a loss of resources for the refugees that are here.”