Families divided by Trump’s refugee order worry about the future
Mohammed Rawi fielded death threats and live gunfire while helping American reporters cover the war in Iraq.
Seven years ago, he was granted asylum in the United States. He found a county government job and settled in Long Beach with his wife and children.
This weekend, Rawi’s 69-year-old father, a retired civil engineer who lives in Baghdad, was scheduled to arrive for a long-awaited visit. But those plans were abruptly upended Friday when President Trump on Friday suspended admissions from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Iraq — throwing countless Muslim families into turmoil, and setting off a sleepless night for Rawi.
“This is unbelievable. I don’t know how this is possible,” said Rawi, who worked in The Times’ Baghdad bureau during some of the most violent years of the Iraq war. “What’s next? Is it going to be internment camps like World War II where they put all the Japanese in one camp? They’ll do the same for us? This is not what this country is all about.”
The executive order signed Friday suspends all refugee entries for 120 days, blocks Syrian refugees indefinitely and bars for 90 days the entry of citizens from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia.
A federal judge in New York late Saturday stayed parts of the order as it applies to those currently waiting at U.S. airports for admission. For others, there remained nothing but uncertainty.
Around the world, students and workers caught outside the U.S. were suddenly uncertain when they would be allowed to return. Refugees expecting safe resettlement in the U.S. were detained at airports. And families whose loved ones were stranded abroad were left in a state of crippling anxiety.
“I don’t understand the logic,” said Moustafa Kanjo, a Syrian refugee who arrived in Pomona in September 2015. “Why would we be a security risk here? Our ultimate goal is to run away from violence.”
For Rawi, the chaos began less than two hours after Trump signed the order on Friday. About 6 p.m., he received a jarring message on WhatsApp.
It was from his father.
He’d been set to board a plane in Doha, Qatar, when an airline employee took his passport somewhere and returned with a U.S. Embassy representative.
He could not get on the plane, the man said. His visa — which allowed for multiple visits to the U.S. over the course of a year — was no longer valid: It was canceled by the president, he said.
Rawi’s father was ushered to a room where he waited for several hours with about 30 other people.
Eventually, he was sent back to Baghdad. He returned home empty-handed; when he arrived, he found out his luggage was lost.
The younger Rawi had to find a way to tell his children that their grandfather wouldn’t be coming after all. The youngest, 3-year-old Layla, had been so excited over his impending visit that she slept in the dress she had chosen to greet him. Her older brother had been too excited to sleep at all.
“It’s shocking,” Rawi said. “It’s not just about the inconvenience, it’s not only about us being disappointed…but it’s about how this was all done.”
It’s frustrating, most of all. Makes me sad for my in-laws and family, but mostly I’m really scared.
— Bahareh Aslani, 34, Iranian American
Ali Abdi, a 30-year-old student from Iran, has been studying for his PhD in anthropology at Yale University, and had left the U.S. last week for the United Arab Emirates on his way to a research trip in Afghanistan.
Now Abdi, who has been living in the U.S. for the last four years, is unsure what to do. He cannot return to Iran, where he faces potential imprisonment for his political activism. His visa for the UAE won’t allow him to stay there for long, nor does he have permission for an extended stay in Afghanistan.
Most seriously, under Trump’s new order, he can no longer return to the U.S. to finish his studies.
Abdi is trying to be philosophical. “I’m not worried about anything... From an anthropological perspective I can write a lot,” he said in a telephone interview. “What has happened is very illuminating. The main problem is the lives of thousands of others who are torn apart by what happened.”
Many were scanning their social media feeds or watching television, trying to make sense of the new policy and understand what happens next.
Bahareh Aslani, a 34-year-old Iranian American, has been planning to have a formal wedding ceremony in Baltimore in April to celebrate her marriage to her husband, Mostapha Roudsari, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.
Roudsari’s parents, who live in Iran, went to Dubai in December and applied for a visa to enter the U.S., waiting 2 ½ months for an appointment at the U.S. embassy. The couple was told that the mother’s visa had been approved and that the father’s visa had been approved, pending additional documents.
Now, both are barred from entry and will not be able to attend the wedding and are devastated, Aslani said.
“It’s frustrating, most of all,” Aslani said. “Makes me sad for my in-laws and family, but mostly I’m really scared, because is this the beginning? Are they going to come after me?”
Even those refugees safely settled in the U.S. were fearful that they would be unable to see family members in the future. News of Trump’s order distressed Kanjo, who was expecting an uncle and cousins to arrive in a few months.
Kanjo and his family came to California from the Syrian city of Homs, sponsored by First Presbyterian Church of Pomona.
Members of the church, assisted by others in the community, met the family at the airport and provided them with an apartment and help to navigate the school and social services systems.
“The most significant thing we did was be friends with them,” Pastor Adam Donner said.
With the help of Google translate, the Kanjos and church members have spent hours in conversation.
“They would all gladly go home to Syria if they had a home to go to,” Donner said. “They are here because they are trying to find a safe place for their family to grow up.”
Nobar Elmi Golhar, 36, lives in Brooklyn and has never been to Iran, but worries about whether her family in Iran will be able to continue to visit. Her aunt and uncle, both green card holders who have children in the United States, were in the U.S. when the executive order was signed, and now both are uncertain whether it’s wise to go back home to Iran — they may not be allowed to return.
“They are here and want to return to Iran, but now they are very worried if they can come back,” Golhar said. “They are trying to better understand what is going on and watch the news and ask what they should expect.”
What they are feeling, she said, is panic.
“It’s a real mix of emotions,” Golhar said. “First, it’s disbelief: Is this seriously happening? And then, it’s the anger... How could we have allowed this to happen?”
7:30 p.m.: The story was updated with news of a court order staying parts of the new immigration order and additional stories from those affected by the visa suspensions.
This story was originally published at 4:25 p.m.
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