It’s been a volatile time for refugees trying to get to America, especially since January 27 when Donald Trump signed an executive order banning entry of citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries.
But the judicial system’s fast reversal of the ban created a window of opportunity — and something of a roller coaster ride — for refugees who had been previously cleared for entry. Syrian refugee Fradh Alfaawri and her four children rode that roller coaster last week. The back story: Alfaawri escaped war-torn Syria in 2013 after her husband died in police custody. The family lived in a Jordanian refugee camp for four years before they heard the good news: The U.S. would accept all five of them as refugees. But less than a week before they were to leave, Trump imposed his ban, leaving them stranded, “shocked and very, very sad,” Alfaawri told the press through an interpreter. And then another phone call: If the family could board a plane in three hours, they would, they were told, be admitted after all. Some days later, on February 6, a representative from the International Institute of Connecticut (IICONN), a refugee resettlement organization, welcomed them to their new home in Connecticut.
I am an IICONN volunteer and have worked with refugees as they arrive in Bridgeport, also my hometown. Annually, IICONN welcomes more than 100 refugees — for whom it helps find housing, jobs and schools. The new Americans I’ve worked with were from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), all them by way of refugee camps and all of them with stories about family members who perished along the way, killed by war, violence or sickness.
[pullquote]A presidential ban — capriciously and chaotically issued — threatens the very dream of what America means[/pullquote]
I’ll never forget meeting Suzanne from the DRC, a grandmother who had just resettled in Bridgeport with her husband, a couple of grown children and their small children. It was a cool October day when I saw her coming toward me on the sidewalk, wrapped in colorful fabric from the top of her head to her ankles. She held onto a baby in a sling across her body with one hand and a cassava root in a plastic bag in the other. She was barefoot. She spoke no English. But she had an easy elegance as she walked home from the store, carrying her precious cargo.
Suzanne and her husband seemed bemused by my attempts to help them speak English. Up in their apartment, she mashed the cassava, chatting in Swahili with her daughters. But the kids, the kids — in a few short weeks they were in school, speaking English and, if I gave them my iPhone, navigating with ease to the camera, music and Internet.
Thomas, another Congolese refugee, arrived in Bridgeport with his two daughters, a son and his second wife (his first wife was killed). He suffered an injury to one leg and has struggled to find work, but he has no complaints. His son is a track star at the local high school. His daughters sound and look — in sparkly pink sneakers and parkas — as if they have lived in America their whole lives.
This pattern is age-old. The elders make the passage happen, shouldering the burdens of the past and absorbing the shock of the new. The next generation has a much better chance of assimilating. I myself have a grandmother who emigrated from Italy a century ago. She worked as a housecleaner. She spoke broken English with a heavy accent. But her son, my father, went to college on a ROTC scholarship, served in the Air Force, earned a Ph.D. and worked as a tenured professor.
Simply put, America is built on the backs of immigrants. They have constructed our cities and railroads, they have fought our wars and they have cleaned our houses. Way back when, America was founded for the very purpose of sheltering people who were persecuted for their religious beliefs. A presidential ban — capriciously and chaotically issued — threatens the very dream of what America means.
But for Syrian refugee Fradh Alfaawri, who managed to slip into the country between the ban and its suspension, America is still a safe haven. At least right now, at least for awhile, it’s still the place the man I think of as “my president” described in a 2014 speech about immigration. Said Barack Obama, quoting a Bible passage about Jesus of Nazareth appearing as a “stranger on the road”: “Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger — we were strangers once, too…. And whether our forebears were strangers who crossed the Atlantic or the Pacific or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like or what our last names are or how we worship. What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal — that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will.”