A Tale of Two Refugees
After Trump's travel ban, vastly different fates have become simply a matter of chance.
BEIRUT — U.S. President Donald Trump’s newly issued travel ban sands off the sharp edges of his previous executive order while maintaining the same basic objectives of dramatically reducing refugee resettlement and limiting travel from predominantly Muslim countries. Unlike Trump’s old travel ban, the new order will not affect green card holders, eliminates language about prioritizing religious minorities in refugee resettlement, and removes Iraq from the list of banned countries.
But it will nevertheless dash the hopes of tens of thousands of people seeking to build new lives in the United States. The order lowers the ceiling of admissions to 50,000 refugees for 2017, less than half of the cap under former President Barack Obama’s administration. Roughly 35,000 refugees have already been admitted in the fiscal year that began in October, which means that only 15,000 will be allowed into the United States in the next seven-and-a-half months.
It takes the United States 12 to 18 months to process a refugee application and roughly two years for a Syrian refugee application. Nobody among those who applied for resettlement in this time frame could have anticipated the recent executive order. For them, the difference between starting a new life in the United States and being caught outside the country is the difference between a life of opportunity and one of hopelessness. It is a difference that Trump has reduced to a matter of chance.
Fuad Sharef Suleman is one of the lucky ones. The Iraqi Kurdish father of three, who had previously worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Agency for International Development, sold his family’s house and all their possessions after being granted a visa to the United States. On Jan. 28, he was pulled off his New York-bound flight, barred from traveling to the United States by Trump’s executive order. But he and his family would soon reach American soil: On Feb. 5, having received a waiver from the State Department, they would arrive at the airport in Nashville, Tennessee, to a buoyant crowd of hundreds of people who had gathered to welcome them to their new home.
“I don’t know how to describe it, what we felt. We were overwhelmed with joy, excitement, astonishment,” Suleman says of his arrival. “I read about southern hospitality, and now I’m seeing it.”
These days, Suleman is a tough man to reach. It took more than a week to set up an interview: He is constantly in motion, trying to register his children in school, arrange gymnastics lessons for his youngest daughter, and enroll his wife in English classes. He has become a minor celebrity in Nashville; at one point, a couple recognized him in a supermarket from newspaper photographs and asked to take a picture with him.
But while Suleman is optimistic about the future, his life is far from settled. Amid the mundane tasks of starting a new life in Nashville, he knows the most important is the need to find a job. He had previously worked in a pharmaceutical company and in communications for international companies but accepts that he has to set his sights lower as a new arrival to the United States.
“I don’t mind working in a supermarket, as a cashier or whatever,” he says. “The most important thing is to work.”
Thousands of miles away in Lebanon, such considerations are the least of Hisham’s problems. A veteran member of the Syrian opposition, he is eager to have his story told — and just as eager that I do not reveal any details that could identify him. Hisham is not his real name; he is a member of one of Syria’s religious minorities but asked me not to specify which one.
In 2001, when a tentative political opening under newly installed President Bashar al-Assad allowed Syrians to discuss heretofore forbidden subjects, Hisham wrote articles for opposition magazines that were distributed by underground networks. When anti-Assad protests broke out in 2011, he helped transform these long-dormant opposition networks into the nucleus of a nationwide uprising — until the uprising became too violent for him. By 2013, he had witnessed old friends being killed; others had been arrested, their fates unknown. So he fled to Beirut, seeking to piece together a new life. He discovered instead a new set of problems.
“Actually, I have no friends, politically,” he tells me, sitting in a Beirut café. “I feel uncomfortable, and I feel insecure.”
Hisham now faces dangers from every direction. As a vocal member of the anti-Assad opposition, Hisham must fear Lebanon’s pro-Assad parties, chiefly Hezbollah. As a member of a religious minority — one who has written articles blasting the Islamists who have come to dominate the Syrian opposition — he can’t rely on hard-line Lebanese Sunnis for solidarity or protection. And as a refugee living in Lebanon, where public opinion is seeing a backlash against newly arrived Syrians, he fears being targeted for his nationality.
“I live in a very restricted area, where I move in just the Christian areas. It provides me with a kind of security — away from Hezbollah,” he says. “At the same time, I fear this Christian society, because of the discrimination against Syrian civilians. I face it every day. From my [Syrian] accent, I hear a lot of bad speaking.”
Hisham applied for refugee status shortly after arriving in Lebanon. For more than two years, his case wound its way through the United Nations and American bureaucracies, until he finally received a phone call — he had an appointment at the U.S. Embassy to consider his case on Feb. 8.
Shortly after Trump’s initial executive order went into effect, Hisham received a call from the embassy: His meeting was canceled. It has not been rescheduled.
Hisham’s life in Lebanon promises to become more tenuous. His passport and residency papers expire soon; once that happens, he fears, the Lebanese security forces could arrest him and deport him back to Syria. It’s not clear where his son, who does not possess legal citizenship papers from any country, would end up. As a wanted man, Hisham cannot register his son with the Syrian authorities without endangering his own life; his wife, meanwhile, is Lebanese, and under Lebanon’s laws, a mother cannot pass citizenship down to her son.
It’s possible, Hisham says, to bribe Syrian officials to give his son legal papers. But he balks at that option.
“I think it’s a betrayal of our cause,” he says. “Because if you give money to the regime, it’s like you admit that the regime has the legitimacy to do those things. But in my case, no — this is my daily struggle.”
What will likely happen to him, I ask, if his resettlement case doesn’t go forward? Hisham pauses and then laughs ruefully.
“I will face my destiny. It will be horrible; it will be a nightmare.”
Hisham says he predicted Trump’s election victory, even winning a bet with his wife, who thought it was impossible. The anti-immigrant wave seizing the globe, he says, was impossible to ignore. And like Suleman, he takes comfort in the protests against the executive order and the judicial actions that have constrained Trump’s influence.
“Although it might be weird to say it, I’m very happy with what’s happening in the U.S. right now,” he says. “All the demonstrations, how [the courts] repealed the executive order. All this means, yes, this is the model that I always dreamed about; it’s to have institutions, to have a real state not controlled by a tyrant or despot.”
As the interview winds down, I try one last time to get an answer to the central question: What if Hisham never reaches the United States? What if he is forced to stay in a country where he is distrusted by all sides, with a son who exists in legal limbo, at constant risk of being deported back to a country torn apart by war?
“For me as a Syrian and as an opposition member and from a minority — with all this cultural baggage — I taught myself not to have high expectations. It’s just OK, OK,” Hisham mimes the process of taking laborious, painful steps, a metaphor for the course of his life. “Because nothing came easy.”
If the Trump administration has its way, that’s a reality more refugees had once harbored hopes of coming to the United States will soon become acquainted with.
Photo credit: DREW ANGERER/Getty Images