Four refugee families. Four stories. Countless ways to be rejected.
Chris Gelardi, Noor Ibrahim, Sarah Dadouch, and Emily Ulbricht
As the largest refugee crisis since World War II continues to unfold across Africa and the Middle East, so too do reactions in the West. Countries are closing their borders, refugees are being used as guilt trips and bargaining chips in geopolitical disputes, and a wave of nationalistic ideologies are overtaking even the most historically welcoming societies – ideologies that place refugees at the center of debates they never asked to be part of.
Both the United States and Europe are experiencing these social and political trends, but in reality, their experiences of the refugee crisis couldn’t be more different. Europe has seen a swell of millions of refugees from African and Middle Eastern countries, whereas, despite rhetoric from politicians that might indicate otherwise, almost all of the refugees entering the United States from those same countries are those who go through the official, intensely arduous process of refugee resettlement.
For refugees, the official resettlement process is time-consuming and particular. They face extensive screening that can take up to two years. Not all refugees make it through the screening, which involves in-depth interviews, biometric data collection, and background checks against multiple databases.
If refugees can’t provide the right paperwork, they face denial. If they can’t demonstrate that they weren’t involved with the wrong people – essentially proving a negative – they face denial. If they change any details of their story, they face denial. If they’re deemed not “vulnerable” enough, they’re never even considered.
Their lives are verified in steps, by strangers. Beyond that, they’re kept in the dark for most of the process, relying only on the hope for another phone call to schedule their next round of processing, or a letter to inform them that they’ve been rejected. They sit in limbo, their lives on hold, waiting for a chance to start over.
These are the stories of the ones left behind.
For Sawsan Hamadi*, the summertime feels more like a decade than it does a passing season. Summertime means the scorching heat of the desert sun beating through the ceiling of her new house – a thin metal shack. It means listening to her 13-year-old son, Muhannad, repeatedly pound his head into the wall in an attempt to relieve the pain of his heat-induced migraines. It means the calculated recycling of a wetted towel on a rationed water supply, wrapped tightly around Muhannad’s head to quell the throbbing aches. For Sawsan Hamadi and her four children, the harshest of winters are preferable to summers in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, their home for the past five years.
“That feeling of being stuck, it never really went away,” says the 38-year-old single mother, one of over 80,000 Syrian refugees living in the camp. Four years ago, Sawsan left her husband, her house, and the life she had built for herself in her hometown of Daraa, known as the birthplace of the Syrian revolution. After crossing the border into Jordan, authorities sent Sawsan and her family to nearby reception centers, where refugees were rallied up and sent to any of several refugee camps for Syrians in Jordan, the largest of which is Zaatari.
“We just followed the herd,” says Sawsan, reflecting on her decision to leave her home. “We knew nothing about the camp and what to expect when we got to the border. The important thing was just to leave and be safe.”
Sawsan arrived at the camp with her children on Nov. 13, 2012, just three months after Zaatari opened to the earliest influx of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria. She had first thought of the camp as a makeshift home – a temporary solution to a conflict that would soon end. But years later, with no plans to leave the camp in sight, Sawsan finds the permanence of her living situation difficult to fathom.
Despite being in the middle of a desert, Zaatari has evolved into a long-term settlement, isolated and walled-in by the spirals of barbed wire fences that surround it. Lines of almost-identical metal shacks tightly pack the 12 “districts” of the camp, and a single street, known as Al-Souq (‘the market’), bustles with run-down bakeries, dress shops, and falafel joints. When Sawsan first came to the camp, she was living in a tent set up for temporary shelter, but after the first winter came around, it was clear that frail tents couldn’t withstand the heavy rains and changing purpose of the 1,000-acre patch of land.
The idea of resettlement has always been on Sawsan’s mind. Like 660,000 other Syrians scattered across Jordan, Sawsan and her family are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The UNHCR is largely responsible for referring refugees to third countries for resettlement, but there are far more desperate refugees than there are available spots – only about one percent of the world’s refugees get resettled in any given year.
To decide who gets resettled, the UNHCR attempts to decipher which refugees are in the most vulnerable situations. The agency assesses different facets of a family’s history, prospects, and current living situation in order to determine the vulnerability of each refugee household, and decides from there which families most urgently need to be referred for resettlement. As dire as the situation might be for Sawsan and her family, they have not yet received that referral.
“It’s a prioritization exercise,” says Miriam Baele, head of the resettlement program at the UNHCR office in Amman, Jordan. In order to be considered for a referral, refugees must meet one or more of the six resettlement criteria: being in need of physical protection, being survivors of torture or violence, requiring medical treatment, women and girls at risk, family reunification, children and adolescents at risk, and a category described very generally as a “lack of foreseeable, durable alternative solutions.” Based on refugees’ eligibility within these categories, they are placed in one of three resettlement priority levels: emergency, urgent, or normal.
“We have given people a score – literally, a score,” explains Baele. “We tick off the conditions for each refugee. So if somebody has multiple issues in the family, their score goes up in terms of vulnerability.”
In 2016, the UNHCR conducted almost 200,000 home visits to refugee households in Jordan for the purpose of assessing the living situation of each family.
“So for every refugee family, we know exactly how they live, where they live, how their living conditions are, whether there are medical conditions in the family, if the children go to school. You know, all those factors,” says Baele.
And after all that – after every home visit, every submitted document, every recollection of past horrors – a referral through the UNHCR is just the first step needed to move forward with the vetting process. After referral, each country willing to accept refugees for resettlement comes with its own set of filters, indicators, and vetting preferences, explains Baele.
For Sawsan Hamadi, the race to be considered one of the most vulnerable refugees is a flawed one. Her eldest son, 18-year-old Omar, suffers from congenital dyserythropoietic anemia, a blood disorder that triggers sporadic strokes that require immediate medical attention. Although Omar had enrolled in a UN school again after his education was stalled in the 10th grade, his need for consistent medical treatment for the past three months has prevented him from picking up where he left off. The closest hospital that can properly treat Omar is in the city of Az-Zarqa, an hour away from the camp by car.
“He was in very bad shape and there was no way to treat him here,” says Sawsan. “We were actually just looking over his medical papers here in the living room. He just had the report laid out on the ground. It’s in English and I can’t read it.”
Although she has provided all the documents needed to make a medical case for her son, Sawsan doesn’t know where her family falls on the UNHCR’s vulnerability spectrum, and is still waiting for a phone call letting her know they’ve been referred. She has no idea if she’ll ever receive it.
“To be honest with you, I am upset – I can’t tell you I’m not,” says Sawsan, with an expression that abruptly shifts from passive to agitated. “My son really cannot handle the summer here. The doctors told us to be careful of exposing him to too much sun, but what choice did we have?”
Sawsan does not want to lose another man in her family. Her husband, who used to be a barber in their hometown, was arrested by Syrian government officials on his way to his sister’s house in the early days of the revolution, for reasons neither he nor his wife knew. He was released two months later without charge. When Sawsan and their children left Daraa, he stayed back in Syria to look after his ageing parents, with a promise that he would soon follow his family. But after a second arrest by regime officials, that promise could not be kept.
Sawsan never heard from her husband again. She has no idea what happened to him, and has always been too afraid to ask.
“Really, who would I complain to?” she says. “What am I going to say? There are many women like me here. I’m not the only one.”
When Sawsan and her family left Daraa, they only brought with them whatever they were wearing at the time. After settling in Zaatari, Sawsan eventually sold the only piece of gold with which she came – her engagement ring – letting go of the last keepsake she had from her husband, and the memory of his promise that came with it.
After losing her husband and resorting to having her sick son work long hours on peach farms, Sawsan admits that the biggest issue she has faced as a single mother in the camp has been that of financial security. According to the UNHCR, although one in every five households in Zaatari is headed by a woman, only 26 percent of the cash flow circulating within the camp goes to women.
Sawsan works as a teacher for elderly in the camp, but she says that it’s not nearly enough to provide for the everyday needs of her family of five, even with the stipends they receive to buy food. “I hope god makes it easy for everyone,” she says. “But widows, divorcees, and families with little kids we can’t support or educate: we are the people who need to leave the most.”
For now, Sawsan and her children live with just a vague idea of what life outside their camp would be like. She mentions her former neighbor, a woman with six kids, who was successfully resettled to Canada, and how she keeps hearing news of how happy they are now. “The six kids used to fight over a single pair of flip-flops before leaving the house. They were always so dirty – one of them even got a skin infection because of it. But now they look like completely different people,” she says, smiling.
“I’m just praying that the summer will never come around here – for my kids,” says Sawsan as she glances over to her six-year-old daughter, Huda, and her 15-year-old daughter, Leen, sitting on the brown cushions across from her. Two caged birds chirp from the ceiling above them, hanging alongside a string of old prayer beads and a Quran mounted on the white aluminum wall of their home.
When she thinks of leaving Zaatari, Sawsan thinks of a gentle gust of cool air at the end of a very long and draining summer day. But until she, Huda, Leen, Muhannad, and Omar are considered amongst the most vulnerable, it will be a while before they can embrace a changing season.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
The window in Ibrahim Al-Atrach’s room is curtained off with a thick pink blanket that keeps the world outside: the boy flying a kite from a window on the other side of the street; the ice cream van rumbling down the unpaved road; the sunlight that would hurt his eyes.
His eyesight has gotten weak over the years. He’d have to spend time outside to get used to the brightness again. But for that, he would have to use his crutches. And even with his crutches, he’d only be able to walk about three meters before he’d have to sit down again. But he doesn’t like sitting down, he says. So he’d rather stay in bed.
Ibrahim lives with his father, Najm Aldin Ali, in a small apartment in Jabal Al-Taj, a poor neighborhood in east Amman, Jordan. Like the majority of Syrian refugees in Jordan – about 83 percent, according to the UNHCR – Najm Aldin and Ibrahim are fending for themselves outside of the established refugee camps, even though that means sacrificing access to a stable supply of food, shelter, and healthcare. Like Sawsan Hamadi, they started their lives in Jordan living in Zaatari camp, but they left in December 2012 – only a few weeks after Ibrahim had been released from the hospital. His condition had gotten worse, and there wasn’t good enough medical treatment for him inside the camp at the time.
* * *
In the summer of 2012, Ibrahim and his friends came up with a name for their clique: “Father of Skulls.” School had been off for a month or two, and Ibrahim, 12 years old at the time, was working a summer job sewing logos on clothes at a garment factory. He didn’t care too much about the job – he had higher aspirations of working in technology or medicine – so he would often make excuses to leave work early and spend the day with his friends.
Together, Ibrahim and his friends would stroll through the fields of suburban Damascus, walking for hours and hours, miles and miles, in search of secret spots – underground holes, caves, trees. In these spots they’d hide and raise stray puppies, feeding and training them to be their “police dogs” to defend their imagined empire against intruders. That summer, the Father of Skulls was taking care of a pregnant dog they named Sodah, the Arabic word for black.
“We were waiting for her to give birth,” says Ibrahim. “I never found out what happened to her.”
On July 24, the sun was shining bright. It was hot and dry, almost 100 degrees, but Ibrahim didn’t mind; he loved the heat. He wanted to leave work early again, so he called his mother from the factory and told her that his tonsils were hurting. “Come here so I can take you to the doctor,” she told him.
“I had my doctor’s appointment at 5:00 p.m. I was shot at 5:00 p.m.”
Coming home from work, Ibrahim and his friend Mohammed had just gotten off the bus when they heard the sounds of protestors and gunshots. Taking shelter in a nearby alley, they set to cracking jokes as they waited for the clashes to end. But then government tanks that had arrived at the skirmish came closer. When Ibrahim fell, Mohammed thought he was still joking. “Blood,” Ibrahim said, and Mohammed froze.
* * *
Five years later, Ibrahim’s empire has shrunk to his 35-inch bed in Amman; to a dark room with fluorescent lights, bare walls, and traces of mold in the corners; to a tube television, a small refrigerator, and an empty bottle next to the door – his toilet during nights when the restroom is too far away and his father, sleeping in the hallway, can’t be of any help.
Ibrahim wears his black hair long now. He has become ugly, he says, and long hair makes him more handsome. He’s 16, with fine fuzz on his upper lip and a voice that occasionally cracks. Instead of traipsing through the Damascus suburbs, he stays awake on his phone late into the night, texting his friends, browsing Facebook, and watching travel videos on YouTube.
Two bullets entered the right side of Ibrahim’s groin on that July afternoon five years ago. They hit his liver, struck his spinal cord, destroyed his urinary nerve and parts of his stomach, and paralyzed parts of his legs: his left leg feels numb, his right foot doesn’t move.
Doctors at the hospital in Syria – who were able to remove one whole bullet and a fragment from the other – said that Ibrahim should have been able to walk again after six months. He practiced and practiced: If I’m going to walk, I can walk back to my friends, he thought. He was still thinking about getting back to friends when he was riding in the backseat of a car, his father in the front, on their way to Jordan for a second surgery to remove the rest of the second bullet, lodged in his spinal cord.
But six months came and went, and the years went by. Ibrahim and his father moved from a hospital to Zaatari back to the hospital, from one rehabilitation center to a rented apartment to another rehabilitation center to another apartment, while Ibrahim’s condition fluctuated. Today he’s still bedridden, he barely eats, and he needs glasses since his eyes are getting so weak from his poorly lit room. He hasn’t left the house for months, he says.
One of every four Syrian refugees in Jordan has a disability – many caused by war-related injuries – and needs specific treatment, according to Handicap International and HelpAge International, two nongovernmental aid organizations. But even though Jordan has one of the most advanced healthcare systems in the region, it’s difficult for refugees to gain access to long-term treatment.
One reason for that is a simple lack of services. Rehabilitation centers for Syrians are scarce in Jordan, and therefore often overwhelmed and under-resourced, according to a 2016 report by Amnesty International. And then there are the costs of treatment. More than 80 percent of Syrians who live in urban areas live below the poverty line and can’t afford to pay for medical services.
“I’m sitting here, waiting for nothing,” says Najm Aldin, his father. “This kid needs to get his treatment finished. No one wants to help me.” He’s worried that Ibrahim won’t be able to make up for the years of education he’s missed; that he won’t recover in time to start his own family; that he won’t be able to have children if he’s not treated soon.
* * *
Najm Aldin got the call in February 2015, two and a half years after he registered as a refugee with the UNHCR. They asked him if he wanted to go the United States, and he said yes.
Once a refugee family is deemed among the most vulnerable, and therefore eligible for resettlement to a third country, the UNHCR reviews their case to determine which country would most likely accept them. Some participating resettlement countries have certain preferences or specialties – France, for instance, is known to cooperate well with the UNHCR in cases of medical emergencies. The United States, although having rigorous vetting processes, has the largest refugee resettlement program in the world.
A refugee’s case review includes a tedious chain of pre-screening interviews, biometric data collection, and document assessment. It can take years before a refugee actually appears in front of an immigration officer from their destination country. On Feb. 4, 2016, after a year of waiting and two, hour-long interviews with UNHCR officers, Najm Aldin and Ibrahim had a third interview at a U.S. Resettlement Support Center, a State Department-sponsored nongovernmental organization that conducts pre-screening interviews for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), an agency within the Department of Homeland Security. With that, the father and son entered the pipeline for resettlement to the U.S.
In the interviews, Najm Aldin talked about how he moved from the Syrian city of Idlib to Damascus in 1980, and then got married. He talked about his first daughter, Fatima, born on his and his wife’s first anniversary, the first of ten children – five girls, five boys – he and his wife would have together over the next 20 years. He told his interviewers that he worked as a bookkeeper for the Syrian army in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, and that he quit in 1989 to work in a sewing factory where he earned a better living. He talked about his first son who lives in Qatar and his second son who served in the Syrian army and went missing in a Syrian prison. He talked about how Ibrahim, his youngest, was shot by government forces. He talked about how his 17-year-old twins were found dead in their house one day, not long after he and Ibrahim had left, and how no one knew who killed them. He talked about how he wanted to go back to Syria to bury them, but his wife told him, “Stay with Ibrahim, we’ve already lost two.”
On May 23, 2016, three months after the Resettlement Support Center started Najm Aldin and Ibrahim’s case file; three months after Najm Aldin was asked again and again about his rank in the military, his son in prison, and the killing of his twins; three months after all their information was sent to a variety of U.S. agencies to be checked against comprehensive databases, Najm Aldin received another call. A Resettlement Support official asked him to come back to the center to pick up a letter. It was a letter of denial, the reasons vague. Najm Aldin and Ibrahim weren’t going to the United States.
Everyone who left the neighborhood early in the morning was watched and followed to their place of work. If the armed group found out that someone was working with the Americans, they would kill them for their betrayal.
So when Louay Al Is’haqi worked for the U.S. government as a mechanical team leader in 2006 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, he deliberately didn’t go to work every day. Whenever American forces needed him at their Victory Base Complex in Baghdad’s airport, where he was responsible for generators, engines, and other heavy equipment, Louay planned a way to get to work that avoided a pattern that might be noticed by the Mehdi army – the anti-American Shiite armed group that controlled the area where he lived.
In the years leading up to 2006, Louay, a Christian, watched as the Mehdi took over his largely Shiite neighborhood. He watched as they ordered his mother and sister-in-law, both Christians, to wear the Muslim headscarf. He saw the neighborhood walls spray-painted with the words, “We are an Islamic country. Anyone not wearing the hijab will be killed.”
Then, in 2005, Louay’s older brother, Ziad, was kidnapped while riding a bus on his way to work at the Ministry of Environment. It was election season, and armed men with covered faces stopped and boarded the bus, which was only occupied by Ziad, the driver, and a female engineer. They took the woman outside, beat her, and then sent her home. They blindfolded Ziad and the driver, tied them up, and laid them down at the back of the bus.
“Did you vote?” the armed men asked Ziad.
“No,” he said. They checked his finger and saw the absence of an ink stain, the tell that indicates that one had voted.
“Whose bus is this?” they asked.
“The Ministry’s,” he replied.
“Did you vote?” they asked the driver.
“No,” he said. They checked his finger and saw the ink.
“Whose bus is this?” they asked.
“A school bus,” the driver lied. They killed him.
“What sect do you belong to?” they asked Ziad. He told them he was a Christian, and that his wife was pregnant, that it was his first child. He begged them not to kill him. They told him they’d let him go, but they’d kill him if they saw him around again.
After that, Louay’s brother moved into the second floor of his parents’ house for a few years, but the dangers persisted. Their family would leave their house and find corpses in the street and on their stoop – casualties from fighting between the Mehdi army and American forces. Louay’s car was attacked outside the airport on his way home from work one day. Then, on Christmas Day in 2009, the Mehdi forbade the family from having a Christmas tree in their house because it was the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and a Shiite symbol and leader. Instead, they were made to fly black flags of mourning, and the men were forced to prepare food to distribute in the streets while the women were compelled to practice the customs of the holiday.
Fed up, the family decided to flee to Jordan in February 2010.
When they got to Jordan, the entire family registered as refugees with the UNHCR: the grandmother, with her soft hair and soft smiles; the grandfather, mustachioed and suffering from a brain injury; their two sons, Louay and Ziad, along with Ziad’s wife and their two brunette daughters, Miriam and Nardeen, then five and one years old. Eventually, the UNHCR referred the entire family for resettlement to the United States.
After pre-screening by UN agencies and U.S. Resettlement Support, Louay and his family started the interview process with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. They answered standard questions: Why did they leave Iraq? What were their occupations before they left? Did they serve in the Iraqi military? Were they ever arrested for any crime?
Louay told the USCIS officials that he worked for the Booban Group, a contractor for the U.S. Army. He told them how bad things had gotten at home, how threatened his family was. He told them that yes, he had served in the Iraqi military, because that was mandatory. The interviewers zoomed in on his time as a soldier, asking question after question about his service, which he filled by working in a kitchen, serving food to Iraqi military officers. “When I finished my studies, service was mandatory,” Louay said. “No one could tell Saddam Hussein no.” Deserters and draft evaders could be legally punished by branding, or even amputation of the ear, and deserting three times over a year was legally punishable by death. Louay told his interviewers that he had been beaten for working with the Americans, that he was accused of being a spy, and that his family had been threatened constantly.
Soon after the interview, USCIS took his fingerprints and his photo and started his medical screening. Louay and his family just had to wait.
In the meantime, Louay and his family’s files were processed through FBI and Department of Homeland Security databases, among others, and their fingerprints were checked against biometrics gathered by the Department of Defense.
Eventually, Ziad and his family were approved for resettlement, as were the grandmother and the grandfather. But Louay only got a letter from USCIS. His application had been deferred. That was Mar. 2, 2011. For six more months, Louay waited.
Then, on September 13, he received another letter from USCIS titled “Notice of Ineligibility for Resettlement.”
“For the reason or reasons indicated below, we have determined that you are not eligible for resettlement to the United States,” it said. On the backside of the page, the tiny box next to reason number seven was colored-in black.
- OTHER REASONS. After a review of all of the information concerning your case, including your testimony, supporting documents, background checks, country condition and other available information, your application for refugee resettlement in the United States under Section 207 of the Immigration and Nationality Act has been denied as a matter of discretion for security-related reasons.
Somewhere in the system of multiple layers of security checks in one of the agencies that ran Louay’s file, someone found something that didn’t sit well with them. Louay wasn’t told what the security concern was and will never know exactly why he was singled out and rejected from being resettled. All he knows is he can’t go to the United States.
* * *
Natasha Hall, a former immigration officer with the Department of Homeland Security, has interviewed countless refugees who, like Louay, were hoping to be resettled to the U.S. In many cases, even after she had gone through multiple interviews and had found no security issues with someone, one of the agencies responsible for background checks came back and told her that the person wasn’t allowed to be resettled.
“It can be really frustrating,” says Hall, “because we do quite a lot of actual internal vetting within the refugee affairs division. And there’s a lot of gray area, especially with Iraqis, because we have so much information on them.”
Refugees are deemed ineligible for resettlement to the U.S. for any of seven reasons, listed as the “criteria for denial” in the “Notice of Ineligibility” sent to each rejected refugee: 1. Special Humanitarian Concerns – failing to fall into one of the eligible humanitarian categories for the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program; 2. Refugee Claim – failing to prove that they meet the definition of a refugee; 3. Persecution of Others – failing to prove that they never participated in the persecution of any particular religious, political, ethnic, or other social group; 4. Firm Resettlement – failing to establish that their current living situation is unstable; 5. Admissibility – a broad category that includes lying, “crimes involving moral turpitude,” and providing support to a terrorist organization; 6. Credibility – failing to answer USCIS questions clearly enough, or giving answers that were either implausible or inconsistent; or 7. Other.
Louay believes he may have faced denial by the number seven box because of his time in the Iraqi army. Former military service could be seen as a red flag by those processing files in U.S. agencies, even though the majority of young men under the Assad regimes in Syria and the Hussein regime in Iraq found themselves in mandatory military service when they turned 18.
But number seven could mean anything, and neither the applicant nor the resettlement officers know why that box is crossed in any instance. “It’s kind of like a black box is telling you, ‘You can’t approve this person,’” Hall says. “And in many cases, you’re dividing families because of that.”
Najm Aldin Ali and Ibrahim Al-Atrach, the Syrian father and son, were also denied based on number seven. Their appeals unsuccessful, they can only guess what aspect of their or their family’s histories spooked U.S. officials.
* * *
Louay’s parents refused to leave Jordan without their son. His father suffers from hydrocephalus – water on the brain. His dementia, a side-effect, often leaves him thinking it’s the 1980s and that he lives in the Persian Gulf. He hides the scars from his brain surgeries with a black cap, a gift from Louay.
“Who’s going to take care of us if we leave without him?” Louay’s mother says, holding back tears. “Our son gives up everything for us. A nurse wouldn’t do the same.”
After his initial denial, Louay’s luck never turned. Within 90 days of receiving his rejection letter, he appealed the decision to USCIS. Not only was his appeal denied, but his lawyer suddenly passed away in the process. Seeing his situation as one bad omen after another, Louay gave up on his dream of moving to the U.S.
He eventually applied to be resettled to Australia and Canada with his parents, and they started the interview process, but they’ve been waiting to hear about next steps for four years. Their lives are on hold.
Louay can’t work in Jordan. While Syrian refugees are sometimes granted work permits, Iraqi refugees need Jordanian residency to legally work. This would cost him around $50,000, money he does not have. Louay and his parents rely on church donations and support from the UNHCR to live, and they spend most of their time with each other, looking after each other. They watch Turkish soap operas, Skype with Ziad and his family in Detroit, and plant flowers and vegetables in the small patch in front of their building in the springtime. But mostly they spend their days in their small Amman apartment, waiting, hoping.
The transparent plastic binders that hold all of their documents are cracked at the spines and faded from age. They’re stuffed with USCIS letters, identification documents, and Louay’s work contracts. One paper has a thin border with the Iraqi flag in the top left corner, the American flag in the top right. It’s titled “Task Force Phantom: Operation Iraqi Freedom” – it’s a certificate of appreciation for Louay, signed by a U.S. chief warrant officer.
Your outstanding work has made a significant impact on our mission accomplishment and our Soldiers’ work environment. Thank you for supporting the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines of the Multi-National-Corps-Iraq and the United States of America.
Raed Salah imagines snow in Michigan. He’s heard the summers are beautiful there, but he wants to see winter too. Who doesn’t love snow? he thinks. From 6,000 miles away, he longs for an escape; a new beginning, like a clean sheet of freshly fallen snow.
Raed is 20 years old – tall and good-looking with a short, low-cut beard and disconnected moustache. He wears fashionable jeans with subtle rips. Every now and then, his naturally cheerful disposition shines through tired eyes and fingernails bitten down to the nub. He speaks softly, politely. When he cracks his occasional joke, he only smiles; his laugh – nervous and defeated – is reserved for breaking tension during conversations about his home country.
Like Sawsan Hamadi, the woman in Zaatari refugee camp, Raed grew up in the southern Syrian city of Daraa. In February 2011, Syrian secret police arrested, interrogated, and tortured 15 boys in Daraa – all around Raed’s age at the time – for spray painting anti-government graffiti on the wall of their school. When news of the boys’ mistreatment spread to the capital Damascus and across Syria, it sparked the tinderbox of the Syrian revolution.
A little more than two years later, on Mar. 3, 2013, when Raed was 15 and Daraa was a Syrian government stronghold, rebel forces with the Free Syrian Army launched a massive offensive to capture the city. Rockets and barrel bombs bombarded the area for over a month, killing dozens of civilians and forcing families to bunker down in neighbors’ basements.
One day, about halfway through the offensive, Raed and his family heard explosions in their neighborhood. Climbing to the top of their hill-perched home, they peered from the roof to see smoke rising from the nearby home of Raed’s aunt. She was alive, but shrapnel in her back had left her temporarily paralyzed. Doctors at a hospital in Daraa told Raed and his father that her injuries were too severe to be properly treated there, and they were going to have to take her by ambulance to a better-equipped hospital in Jordan.
On a normal day, the drive from Daraa to the Jordanian border would take about 10 minutes. But with shelling, rockets, gunfire, checkpoints, and shifting front lines, it took the ambulance carrying Raed, his father, and his aunt almost half a day. When they got to the border crossing, guards wouldn’t let Raed’s father through – Raed thinks because he didn’t bring the proper identification with him – so they abandoned him on the Syrian side of the border, leaving only Raed to escort his paralyzed aunt to Ramtha Hospital in the northern Jordanian governorate of Irbid.
In Jordan, everything changed for Raed. Crossing the border meant crossing over from a place where he was able to be a student to a place where he had to be a provider. He spent a week with his aunt during her surgeries at Ramtha, and when she was transferred to a hospital in Amman, he spent most of the month of April, including his 16th birthday, bunking with friends, waiting for his parents and four younger siblings to cross the border and join him.
When they finally arrived, Raed’s family was able to rent a home near the hospital where his aunt had to stay for about six months. But financially, times were tough. Until recently, work permits for Syrian refugees in Jordan were nearly impossible to come by, and it was difficult for Raed’s father, who worked for a contracting company in Syria, to work informal manual labor jobs because of a blood pressure condition. Fortunately for Raed, after the hospital in Amman discharged his aunt, he was able to find steady work as an orderly at the rehabilitation clinic that treated her.
The clinic, run by a nonprofit organization called Souriyat (‘Syrian women’) Across Borders, exclusively rehabilitates war-wounded Syrians. According to Raed, for Syrian refugees who want to work in Jordan, “it’s hard to find a better place than this one.”
“I feel like all the work I’m doing is for the people of my country,” he says.
In 2015, Raed’s family moved to a house in Irbid, an hour and a half north of Amman, so Raed alternates his living arrangements: working, eating, sleeping for four days or so at the clinic in Amman, then spending a few days with his parents and siblings. Souriyat provides him with a means of supporting his family, but it’s also a welcoming, familiar community inside a not-always-welcoming country.
Refugees are a staple of the modern history of Jordan, and their influx often results in widespread prejudice against new arrivals. Syrians are only the latest group to inundate the country: in the 2000s, it was Iraqis fleeing sectarian violence spurred by the U.S. invasion, and in the half-century before that, it was Palestinians fleeing wars resulting from the Israeli occupation. The World Bank estimates that about a third of Jordan’s entire population is refugees.
Even though Raed feels luckier than most Syrian refugees in Jordan for having found his place at Souriyat, he still knows that he and his siblings are being robbed of their futures. After a couple years of working as an orderly, Raed began dreaming of what it would be like to move to America – to Michigan, where metro-Detroit has the largest concentration of Arabs in the country, and where his family knows some Syrians who have already been resettled.
“They all seem happy,” he says of his resettled family friends. “They’re in houses and they’re working and they’re studying and everything’s okay. They always say to us, ‘We’re better off here than there!’” He gives a defeated laugh.
Raed loves math. He wants to becomes a mechanical engineer, but with work, he has no time for school. His younger siblings talk about school all the time, especially his sisters. They wonder what it would be like to continue their education in another country.
Raed remembers starting to think about what it would be like to live in the U.S. in late summer 2016. A few weeks later, in early September, his father got the call from the UNHCR: they were on the path to resettlement to the United States.
The first steps of Raed’s family’s vetting experience were relatively smooth. A few days after the call, the entire family travelled to a UNHCR caravan for their first interview with U.S. Resettlement Support. In January of this year, they got their eyes scanned for biometric data. And March 8 was set as the date for their interview with USCIS. America was within reach.
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I hereby proclaim that the entry of nationals of Syria as refugees is detrimental to the interests of the United States and thus suspend any such entry until such time as I have determined that admission of Syrian refugees is consistent with the national interest.
On the night of January 27, while a light snow dusted metro-Detroit, Donald Trump issued the third executive order of his presidency. It banned Syrian refugees from the U.S. indefinitely, and cut the quota for total refugee resettlement for 2017 by more than half, from 110,000 to 50,000. It also barred refugees from other countries for 120 days, and travel from seven countries, including Syria, for three months.
In the U.S., popular and judicial kickback against the executive order was fierce. The “travel ban,” as it became colloquially called, prompted chaos within the Transportation Security Administration, condemnation from politicians and business leaders, and an impromptu protest of thousands at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Within weeks, a federal district judge in Seattle imposed a restraining order on the ban, and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision on the grounds that the Trump administration couldn’t prove that travelers from the seven named countries conducted terror attacks in the U.S.
Yet the Trump administration wasn’t deterred – by early March it issued a revised travel ban executive order which omitted the indefinite ban on Syrian refugees. But a district judge in Hawaii struck that order down too, and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision, this time ruling that the ban “drips with religious intolerance, animus, and discrimination.”
This prompted the Trump administration to request a review from the Supreme Court, which didn’t get around to scheduling a hearing until late June. But since it was almost time for the court’s summer recess, they pushed the hearing to October, even though the executive order was set to expire on September 24. (They cancelled the hearing on September 25 since there was no longer anything to argue about.) In the meantime – in a quick, unanimous decision in June – the Supreme Court judges ruled that most aspects of the travel ban should be enforced, but an exception should be made for anybody with a “bona fide relationship” with family, a business, or a university in the United States.
Early on in that tumult in American politics, Raed’s family held onto their March 8 appointment, as well as the hope that their patience hadn’t been for nothing. Whenever they were lounging at home together, talking about anything, it always came up: Oh, imagine how that would be in America. But two days before their appointment with USCIS – the same week Trump enacted his revised travel ban executive order – Raed’s father got a call: their appointment had been delayed, supposedly for four months.
Yet four months have come and gone, and Raed hasn’t heard anything about his family’s resettlement status. And he isn’t the only one. Even though district and appeals courts consistently struck down Trump’s travel bans for most of the first six months of the calendar year, USCIS and the Department of Homeland Security halted all refugee resettlement interviews from late January to late May, leaving refugee families who were already selected for resettlement but not fully vetted stuck in limbo.
Whether it was legal for those departments to stop resettlement interviews is up to interpretation, depending on how one views what the Trump administration was required to do to be compliant with court orders on the travel bans. Even though the injunctions had kept the refugee quota, or “cap,” legally at 110,000, and not the 50,000 that the travel bans ordered, it’s unclear exactly how many refugees the government was required to resettle to be compliant. “Is compliance resettling 50,001 people so that you can show that you did more than your cap, or does it mean resettling 110,000? What is compliance?” muses Betsy Fisher, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project, which was the lead plaintiff in the case that was supposed to go to the Supreme Court. It’s a decidedly gray legal area, and one that has proven moot since the fiscal year for which the annual refugee cap is set ended on September 30.
With the interview freezes and the Supreme Court’s idleness, refugee resettlement for fiscal year 2017 ended up much closer to Trump’s desired total than the official 110,000: by September 30, the U.S. had only resettled 53,716 refugees. While more than 7,300 total refugees were resettled in the month Trump took office – about 1,300 of which were Syrian – resettlement slowed to only 913 total refugees, and less than 50 Syrians, in August. Thus thousands of refugees have found themselves in the same position as Raed: waiting to resettle to the U.S., their new lives delayed for who-knows-how-long.
And it looks like many of them could be delayed even longer. On the same day the March executive order expired, the administration released a third iteration of its travel ban, which placed broad travel restrictions on eight nations, including Syria. Three days later, it was leaked that the administration was lowering the refugee cap even further to 45,000 for fiscal year 2018.
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Despite the setback, Raed remains optimistic about his family’s resettlement hopes, stressing that their process has just been delayed, not cancelled. “It needs time,” he says. “Before that first phone call, it was just an idea. I didn’t expect it to happen that fast, but then it happened.”
Raed says the first moment he heard he was going to the U.S. felt like a dream. But he retracts. “Well, I guess there’s nothing more precious than your home,” he says.
Then Raed, hopeful for the future, sings the tune to an anthem of the Syrian revolution, but with different words:
America, America, we’re with you until the end.
Support for this reporting was provided by the Global Migration Project at the Columbia Journalism School.