On a Sunday afternoon in June 2014, Lenny Ndayisaba finally got the call he’d been awaiting for so long. A longtime inhabitant of a refugee camp in Rwanda, the twenty-one-year-old Congolese native learned he’d be boarding a plane to North Carolina at one o’clock the next afternoon. He burst into tears.
“It took so long,” he recalls.
Indeed, Ndayisaba and his family had been living in the Gihembe refugee camp for eighteen years, almost his entire life, crowded among untold thousands of his countrymen. They’d fled the eastern part of what was then called Zaire in 1996 to escape the chaos of the First Congo War and the destabilization wrought by the Rwandan genocide. That wave of refugees was followed by more, and more after them. By 2013 so many Congolese were packed into the five Rwandan camps built to accommodate them—at least twenty-five thousand came in 2012 alone, following unrest in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, on top of forty-three thousand already there—that the Rwandan government announced that the camps were full.
Conditions were dire. Food and water were scarce. The sick would wait months for medical care. Ndayisaba and his family lived in makeshift tents that flooded during the rainy season, keeping them up all night.
“It was a very challenging time,” he says. “We lived a very bad life in the refugee camp.”
Ndayisaba, a reed-thin man with a soft voice and softer eyes, has seen big changes in his life since Gihembe, when he would sit and wonder if he would ever make it out. He’s now a Chapel Hill resident, a student at Durham Tech, a comfortable English speaker, and an employee at Christian World Services, one of several local agencies that helps resettle refugees like himself. Despite his own gains, though, he can’t help but think of family and friends still living in that camp—especially given the news of President Trump’s recent executive order, which, among other things, suspends all refugee admissions to the United States for the next 120 days.
For Ndayisaba, the implications are personal. His two older sisters still live in Ghimebe. Ndayisaba doesn’t have the heart to tell them about the new policy.
“I can’t call them and say, you know what, you’re not coming here,” he says. “They know how we live, they know that now our family is fine, comfortable, and proud of the life we have made in North Carolina. And they wish they could be like us right now. And that’s why I can’t call and explain to them. This is something that is going to make people again feel like they are forgotten by God.”
The executive order does much more than temporarily block refugees. It indefinitely suspends the Syrian refugee program and prohibits all citizens or nationals of seven majority-Muslim countries—Syria, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, Iran, and Iraq—from entering the United States for ninety days. (This originally appeared to include green card holders, but the Trump administration walked that back over the weekend.) It also cuts in half the number of refugees who will be admitted to the United States in 2017, from 110,000 last year to just 50,000 this year.
The order, signed late Friday afternoon and quickly derided by critics as a “Muslim ban,” kicked off a firestorm of protest over the weekend. Tens of thousands gathered at airports all over the country—including fifteen hundred at Raleigh-Durham International Airport on Sunday, who chanted, “Refugees are welcome here,” and, “We the people, united, will never be defeated.”
RDU protest organizer Mia Ives-Rublee told the INDY Sunday that the effects of Trump’s order will be felt among the Triangle’s immigrant populations. “They’re not going to be able to study, to work, to provide for their families and reunite with their families under this policy,” she said. “I know a couple of LGBTQ people who came here based on the fact they were being persecuted in their countries. They’re scared they could be deported.”
So far, the executive order has not fared well in court. At least five federal judges have ruled against parts of the order, and on Monday, then-acting attorney general Sally Yates, a holdover from the Obama administration, instructed lawyers at the U.S. Department of Justice not to defend the ban in court. Trump immediately fired her.
Amid the outcry, Trump defended the order on the grounds of national security, saying it was not a Muslim ban but instead that it was “about terror and keeping our country safe.” He blamed the media for the furor and insisted that America under his watch would continue to show “compassion to those fleeing oppression.”
These are uncertain times for the world’s estimated twenty million refugees, comprising the largest refugee crisis since World War II, owing in part to massive displacement due to the Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIS. The Obama administration acknowledged the unprecedented nature of the crisis by increasing the U.S. resettlement target for 2017 by more than 30 percent, to more than one hundred thousand refugees. For decades, the United States has been a global leader in refugee resettlement. The program has often boasted bipartisan support and has long been a fixture of U.S. foreign policy.
Trump’s executive order represents a staggering departure—and the global refugee population is reeling.
“We open our arms to refugees. This order flies in the face of that,” says Scott Phillips, director of the North Carolina office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, which in its decade of existence has resettled about three thousand refugees in the Tar Heel State.
USCRI planned to resettle three refugees this week. Two were from banned countries, so the order precluded that. The third is more fortunate; he’s from the Congo. Because he’s already been approved as a refugee and had flight plans, Phillips says, he’s allowed in. But for those the USCRI has already settled, including the 370 it brought here last year, the order raises a number of uncertainties: What’s going to happen to my daughter? My mother? Will they be able to come over? That, Phillips says, is the real “punch in the gut.”
“Real Americans are speaking out,” Phillips says. “That’s not who we are. And that’s been really touching to the families that are here, to see one thousand people at RDU.”
The idea that Salma Salihi poses a threat to national security is, on the face of it, absurd. She’s twenty-three and admittedly uneducated—girls weren’t allowed to go to school, or to do much of anything, in her native Kandahar, a province in eastern Afghanistan that, in the mid-nineties, was overrun by the Taliban—but her big, bright eyes betray warmth and intelligence.
Through a translator, Salihi says that, despite the restrictions placed on women, she was content to stay in her homeland, had circumstances permitted it. But they didn’t.
At age fifteen, she married her husband, Manzoor. Manzoor’s father worked construction; under contract with Blackwater, he helped build a U.S. Army facility. For that, the Taliban murdered him in front of his shop. Then, the Salihis found a letter in the yard in front of their house—a threat from the Taliban to murder the entire family. Manzoor, too, worked with the army.
“If I didn’t receive any threat and if the Taliban didn’t kill my father-in-law,” Salihi says, “then I would never leave my country, because we were good there, and my husband was working very well there, and his income was good. We were happy in our life.”
In 2010, the family fled across the border, to Quetta, the ninth-largest city in Pakistan, and sought refuge with the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, which helped them start the long, arduous process of applying for refugee status in the United States. They wouldn’t make it until 2016.
In Pakistan, however, they were undocumented immigrants—unable to legally work, forced to live off the grid and pay in cash, subsisting off cash gifts from Manzoor’s aunt, who lives in North Carolina. They had a daughter, but she couldn’t go to school there. They had to avoid any interaction with authorities, lest they be sent back to Kandahar, and the danger there waiting for them.
In the meantime, they went through the paces: paperwork, blood tests, fingerprints, biometrics, physicals, photos, endless waiting. After three months, they were told that the U.S. was processing their application. And then, years of silence. Salihi got pregnant and gave birth to her second child, a girl, Tasala, who is now three.
When Tasala was twenty days old, Salihi got the word. Her application was approved.
“We were really excited to [come] here,” she says, “because maybe my husband would find a good job making good money, and also my children would be getting to school and also maybe I would have the opportunity to learn or get an education.”
There was one problem: her new kid wasn’t part of her refugee application. And that, friends told her, might cause her application to be delayed or even denied, which would mean starting over. Better, they said, to leave the girl with her grandmother in Afghanistan, come to live in Raleigh (near Manzoor’s aunt), and apply for reunification. So that’s what she did. That reunification process has taken longer than they expected; they’ve hired a lawyer to help them navigate the byzantine bureaucracy. These things are never easy.
Salihi communicates with her daughter a couple of times a week, via Viber, a messaging service. She carries a picture of her daughter with her; the girl, in pigtails bound by bright yellow bands, has Salihi’s big, expressive eyes, her soft features.
In the ten months they’ve lived in Raleigh, things have gone reasonably well for the Salihis. Manzoor landed a job as a hotel housekeeper. Salma is making plans to learn English and gain an education, maybe to work in an office one day. Their six-year-old is in school. They’re safe—safer than they ever were at home. But more than anything, they want their family to be together again.
That, they say, is what so many refugees want—and that’s what they want Donald Trump to know about them.
“If Mr. President will help all the refugees to get to the United States,” Manzoor Salihi says, “it will be great, because as a refugee I came here because my country was in the red zone, and security was so bad over there and we felt that we would die somehow, like by an explosion or someone would come shoot us. So now my child is living with the same insecurity, so I worry about her very much.”
Like the Salihis, Sufyan Abdullah came to the U.S. after undergoing a rigorous refugee application process. Unlike them, Sufyan hails from one of the seven Muslim-majority countries targeted by the order: Iraq.
When the executive order was announced, Sufyan’s mother, who is visiting him in North Carolina until the end of the month, asked if she’ll be able to see him after she goes back to Iraq. A friend whose fiancé is in Iraq agonized over when and how he’ll see her next.
“He said, ‘Am I going to continue my life here? Am I going to see her again?’ That’s one of thousands of situations with thousands of families,” Sufyan says. “All of their dreams are crushed.”
Sufyan, a graduate of Baghdad University and an English-Russian double major, immigrated to the United States after working for years as a translator with the U.S. military beginning in 2003. After the U.S. invaded, Iraqis who, like Sufyan, worked with the military, found themselves targeted. In 2007, Sufyan’s brother was kidnapped and held for ransom after his captor mistakenly took him for Sufyan.
“That’s what made me think about moving,” he says. “It’s not a simple decision to make. You’re leaving behind everything, it’s really hard—your friends, your family, your memories. When I first applied, I told my parents about this program and told them I might leave, and my dad said, ‘Do what you think is right to do,’ and my mom said, ‘I don’t know if I [will] see you again,’ but she told me to go.”
Sufyan was eventually granted a special immigrant visa, under a program designed for translators who worked with U.S. forces. (These, too, are now blocked by Trump’s executive order.) He arrived in the United States in July 2012. Like Ndayisaba, he was resettled through CWS. He got a translator job with CWS and eventually became close with other Iraqi families who were new to the area.
While Sufyan has been surprised by many the friendliness of North Carolinians, he knows not everyone is so open.
To the fearful, he has a message: “We are not your enemy. We are people like you, but unfortunately, we had to leave our families and countries because we don’t feel safe there anymore. And we’ve come to this country, where we say there is justice for all. We are just looking for a safer place for us and our families. And so, please know that there are thousands of people who are having a dream to come to this country like us. And this division is not a way to make America great. America is great because ofits unity.”
A week before he left office, President Obama issued an executive order lifting some trade and financial sanctions on Sudan, which the United States has listed as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1993. Other sanctions, including on arms sales and U.S. aid, remain, and the country is still considered a terrorism sponsor; indeed, hundreds of thousands have died and millions have been displaced in a civil war, and the ongoing genocide in Darfur has wreaked unspeakable horror.
But as Jalal Osman, a Durham special-education teacher of Sudanese descent, points out, “No Sudanese national has been involved in a terrorism attack that I know of, certainly since 2001.” (Indeed, a 2014 State Department report lists Sudan as a “generally cooperative partner.”) Sudan nonetheless found itself on Trump’s list, which “casts a shadow of suspicion” over the whole country,” Osman says.
Osman was born in California—he earned a political science degree from Yale—but nearly his entire family is from Sudan, and many members still live there. On Sunday, when he was protesting outside RDU, with a sign that read, “Hug Me, I’m Sudanese,” he wasn’t sure whether he’d ever get to spend another Christmas with his ninety-one-year-old grandfather, who lives in Egypt and has a green card.
A few hours later, the Department of Homeland Security announced that Trump’s edict wouldn’t apply to green card holders. But this is still personal, Osman says. He lived in Kuwait for nine years. He’s traveled throughout the Middle East. He knows people—friends—from each of those seven countries.
“They’re good people,” he says. “I think about how much they could contribute to the United States.”
He doesn’t buy the White House’s argument that the immigration ban is, in the words of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, “very narrowly proscribed” and “temporary.”
“Ninety days from now,” Osman says, “I’ll say right now, I’ll eat everybody’s hat if [Trump] doesn’t have some kind of extreme vetting that makes it impossible for anyone from those countries to come here. It makes me extremely furious.”
Lenny Ndayisaba shares the same uncertainty. As enthusiastic as he is about his life in North Carolina, his enthusiasm wanes when he thinks about refugees’ future under President Trump.
“I feel hopeless when I think about the situation with refugees right now,” he says. “I don’t know if, after this one hundred and twenty days, the process will continue as it was before. I don’t know if it will continue, if they think they don’t need refugees. If they don’t need refugees, there would be no hope, I think. I am waiting to see what these four months will bring.”
Additional reporting by Victoria Bouloubasis and Jane Porter.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Yearning to Breathe Free.”