🔎 U.S.; Travel ban; Refugee quota
By Deborah Campbell
When President Trump announced that he was slashing refugee admissions to the United States to 45,000 – the lowest in decades – the first person I thought about was 18-year-old Roqayah Mohammed.
I met Roqayah in 2007 when Syria wasn’t the war-torn place we know today. It was a haven for more than a million Iraqi refugees, largely the professional class, who had fled the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq.
That was the war that gave the world Isis (whose leadership met in the mid-2000s in a American-run prison in Iraq called Camp Bucca, the only place on the planet where Islamic radicals could spend limitless time conspiring with secular ex-Baathists), and destabilized the entire region in ways that are far from over.
Back then Roqayah was a precocious green-eyed nine-year-old living with her parents and older brother in Damascus. Her mother, Ahlam, a “fixer” for foreign correspondents, was my translator and friend.
Roqayah was five when the war came to their village near Baghdad. She remembers how, overnight, a happy childhood surrounded by a loving family was supplanted by tanks, helicopters, American soldiers, fear. Her mother worked as a translator for the Wall Street Journal and later for the US Civil-Military Affairs, which made her a target of militias. After being kidnapped and ransomed, Ahlam fled with the family to Syria. It would be another three years, and a whole other story, before they were resettled in the US.
When she arrived in Chicago in 2008, age 10, Roqayah knew only four words in English: yes, no, grandmother and fish. But in the north Chicago neighborhood where the family landed, she swiftly made friends. None shared a mother tongue, so English was their lingua franca.
Within a year she was fluent, and I could no longer converse with her mother without Roqayah understanding every word. Within another year her grades went from Ds to As. She moved into Honors and AP classes, and went from seeing herself as a refugee to mentoring other refugees. She wrote her college application essay on the theme of “Adaptation”.
She is grateful to many of those who had helped her family adapt. There was the resettlement agency, Heartland Alliance, who paid the rent on an apartment for the first few months while they found their feet, showed them how to use public transit, where to buy groceries.
There were the individuals who helped her parents make connections and find work – refugees pay billions more in taxes than they cost to resettle, information this administration has tried to repress. One woman even paid for Roqayah to have the same SAT coach as her own kids; the end result was six university acceptance offers.
In light of the growing climate of fear, what would she say to those who want to restrict refugees and immigration?
When she was recently asked, she said she didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but the truth was a nuanced one: the same country that had given her a new life had destroyed the old one, and that of countless others who will never have the opportunities she has had.
“It is a responsibility of the US to accept refugees because a lot of the stuff that is happening is because of them – because of the government.” She paused. “Sorry to be so blunt.” She reminded us that what refugees spend their time worrying about is not how to kill people or blow things up, but how to learn English and find a job: “They are trying to figure out what ‘organization’ means, or how to get on a bus.”
The new travel ban, and the record low cap on refugee admissions, have nothing to do with where terrorism originates in any case. If they did, the ban would include countries like Saudi Arabia.
But the more difficult truth is not only that the ban is bad, or that refugee quotas under President Obama were better. The US lets in very few refugees, even at historic highs. From 2008 to 2011, 80,000 refugees a year were resettled; this was reduced to 76,000 in 2012, and 70,000 in 2013, where it remained until it was raised to 85,000 for fiscal year 2016. By contrast, Canada, with a 10th of the US population, took in 46,000 refugees in 2016. That would mean 460,000 in the US. And even that is negligible compared with Germany.
The best way to solve the refugee crisis, of course, is not to make refugees in the first place. But it’s much too late for that. What is needed now is generosity and humility, especially as most of us in North America are descended from exiles who were often fleeing dire circumstances.
Stephen Miller, the pitiless architect of this administration’s anti-refugee policy (he would like to lower the cap much further), is the descendant of refugees from Stalin. In other words, his own ancestors were once in much the same position as Roqayah.
Published on The Guardian on October 1, 2017.