Sunday October 25, 2020
By Danae King
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Amina Olow holds her breath as she dials her aunt, the only hope she has of reaching her daughters,15-year-old Nemotallah and 13-year-old Nestexo.
The phone rings and rings before a relative answers. The girls, Olow asks. The girls are not home, the voice on the other line says.
Olow rests her forehead in her hand and stares down at the phone in exasperation.
Olow lives in Columbus, Ohio, 7,000 miles away from her oldest daughters, who live in Kenya. She hasn’t lived with them in 13 years, separated by immigration delays that seemingly have no end in sight. She wasn’t there to buy them their first hijab, cuddle them to sleep after nightmares or celebrate their good grades in school.
“It’s tough, it’s really tough,” Olow says. “They still need their mom, no child should be away from their mom.”
Across the U.S., thousands of refugees are desperately waiting to be reunited with their children, parents, spouses and other siblings. Under the Trump administration, these families have had to wait even longer for their relatives to receive visas to travel to the United States, if they are approved at all.
The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement states that allowing refugees to come into the country reflects the nation’s core values. But days after President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, his administration halted the resettlement program entirely for 120 days; banned people from the Muslim-majority countries of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen from entering the country for 90 days; and cut the amount of refugees admitted into the country during that fiscal year from 110,000 to 50,000.
The Trump administration has since gone further, limiting the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. during this fiscal year to 15,000 applicants, the lowest rate in the resettlement program’s 40-year history. Of the slots available, the majority have been reserved for people persecuted for their religion or for Iraqis who worked with the United States military, creating limited opportunities for families applying to be reunited.
Advocates compare Trump’s overhaul of the refugee resettlement program to putting up an invisible wall that keeps thousands of people out of the U.S. and prevents them from being reunited with their loved ones. And they expect the coronavirus outbreak will make it even harder for families to see each other, with many nations shutting down international travel from the United States and Trump’s announcement in April that he wanted to temporarily suspend all immigration.
The election could be pivotal for families like Olow’s. Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden has said his administration will “prioritize restoring refugee admissions in line with our historic practice.” His campaign website states that he plans to set the annual cap to 125,000 refugees initially and will increase it even more over time.
“The Trump administration has just destroyed the U.S. refugee admissions program and it’s going to take years and years and years to repair this damage,” said Justin Cox, senior supervising attorney of litigation with the International Refugee Assistance Project, a New York City-based organization that uses legal resources to advocate for refugees. “There is every reason to believe it would get worse under his second term.”
Families wait years to be reunited under Trump administration
Refugees are legal immigrants fleeing persecution, war or violence. They must go through numerous tests, background checks and security checks, which can often take years.
Many are not able to bring their children or spouses with them, but are assured they can apply for visas for their relatives once they arrive.
“When war breaks out and a crisis happens in your community you flee where you're at,” said Danielle Grigsby, interim director at Refugee Council USA, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that works to improve refugee resettlement and integration. “Oftentimes families just scatter to the winds to save their lives.”
Olow, 39, and her husband, Abdirahman Ibrahim, were living in South Africa in 2008 when xenophobic attacks broke out across the African nation. The family’s grocery store was looted and burned to the ground. Once, they saw neighbors burned alive.
The parents, both born in Somalia, sent their girls, 11 months and 3 years old at the time, to Kenya to live with family friends.
“It was a quick-second decision because of safety,” Olow said. “People were dying... We all ran for our lives.”
In 2009, the United Nations helped the couple apply for resettlement. In the intervening years, they had two more children and in the summer of 2014, the family flew to be resettled in the United States.
They expected they would quickly be reunited with their oldest daughters. Then Trump was elected to the White House in 2016.
Before Trump took office, it typically took about three years for families like Olow’s to be reunited, said Grigsby of Refugee Council USA. Now, advocates tell families to prepare for six years, if they’re lucky. In the first six months of 2020, 2,955 of the 8,365 applications for family resettlement sent to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services were approved.
Refugees from Somali have seen a sharp decline since Trump took office. More than 10,000 Somalis were resettled throughout the U.S. in 2016. In fiscal year 2020, the Trump administration allowed just 132 Somalis to resettle.
Trump administration creates new roadblocks to resettlement
For many refugees, Trump’s policies mean waiting years to see their loved one again.
In September 2015, Afkab Hussein, 32, moved to the United States from Kenya without his pregnant wife, Rhodo. He was finally able to be resettled in the United States after spending most of his life in a refugee camp, but adding her to his case could have set him back years. United Nations officials told the couple they would be reunited within one year. Then Trump issued his first travel ban via executive order in January 2017. Hussein’s wife gave birth and three years passed before Hussein was able to travel to Kenya to meet his young son.
In 2016, Deman Abshir, 24, fled an Ethiopian refugee camp with her dying husband to seek life-saving medical treatment. They were forced to leave their three-month-old daughter behind because adding her to their resettlement case would’ve likely delayed it by years, and her husband needed better medical care to save his life. United Nations officials insisted that the three would soon be together in the United States. But Trump won the 2016 election and now years have gone by since Ashir has seen her daughter, who lives with her grandmother.
Angie Plummer, executive director of Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS), a non-profit organization serving refugees and immigrants in Central Ohio, said her work has been consumed by stories of families separated by Trump administration policies: children younger than three years separated from their parents, elderly parents trying to reunite with their children, spouses who haven’t seen their husband or wife in years.
Oftentimes, even a short delay to the resettlement approval process can have a domino effect. For instance, medical exams are only valid for six months and once that time is up, the person must try to schedule another one, Plummer said.
U.S. immigration officials are also not traveling to do required interviews of refugees as often as they used to be, Grigsby said. That, she says, represents a lack of political will on the part of the Trump administration.
The administration also added requirements to what experts say is already intense security vetting of refugees. Each person applying for resettlement, including children like Olow’s, now have to provide 10 years of previous residences, instead of the five that were required.
“It tremendously expanded the population of refugees who have to undergo security checks,” Cox said. “Before it took months to get a security check, now it takes years.”
Everyone in the pipeline, upwards of 150,000 refugees, had to re-do forms, he said. Then, those forms must go through processing again, which can take months more.
“Even if someone was ready to go in 2017, they’d have to go through the whole process again,” Cox said.
The pain of separation
Olow was able to see her daughters on a video call for the first time in November, as they don’t have the money for the smartphones or internet access that would make frequent video calls possible.
It had been so long since she had seen them that she couldn’t tell who was who. Olow said her daughters don’t understand what is taking so long and why they can’t join their family now. Olow doesn’t know how to explain something she doesn’t understand herself.
The girls live with their father’s aunt and their parents pay for them to attend school. The family tries to talk every other month on the phone because international calls are expensive.
Olow likes to imagine what life will be like if her daughters are able to finally arrive in the U.S. She thinks about how much help they could be when it comes to cooking, cleaning and watching their four young, rambunctious siblings, who ask about them frequently. There is Bushra, a precocious 9-year-old; Bukhari, seven and the only boy in the family, who considers himself the man of the house because his father is often away as a long-haul trucker; and then there are the two youngest, Shukri, 3, and Aisha, 2.
But Olow also worries about what it will be like to try and parent two teenagers who didn’t grow up with her.
One evening, Olow and her husband tried again to connect with their daughters. She listened to an automated voice tell her the number was not in service.
Olow raised her hands in frustration and then tried again, determined to hear her daughter’s voices. When the phone started to ring, Olow clapped her hands excitedly.
“Come on,” she said, looking at the smartphone on her small kitchen table.
Then, finally, her oldest daughter’s voice. Olow flashed a big smile and a thumbs up.
“She’s here,” she said, pumping her fist in victory.
The girl’s giggles could be heard on the other end of the line. She told her parents how she did on her school exams and asked about her younger siblings, who she has never met.
Olow remained quiet, listening happily as her husband and daughter shared the intimate stories of their family.