Let's not turn our backs on refugees

Let's not turn our backs on refugees
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpNational Archives says it altered Trump signs, other messages in Women's March photo Dems plan marathon prep for Senate trial, wary of Trump trying to 'game' the process Democratic lawmaker dismisses GOP lawsuit threat: 'Take your letter and shove it' MORE signed Executive Order 13888 on Enhancing State and Local Involvement in Refugee Resettlement with the hope that states and local jurisdictions would deny refugees in their communities.

Issued on Sept. 26, the order requires within 90 days the government implements a plan for consent from state and local governments for federal resettlement of refugees in their area. 

As of the deadline, not a single state or locality said it would end refugee resettlement. More than 30 governors, including from red states such as Arizona, Utah, Indiana, and North Dakota, sent consent letters and reaffirmed their commitment to keeping their doors open to those fleeing violence and persecution. 

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This executive order also is being challenged in the courts by the International Refugee Assistance Project. A federal court hearing is scheduled for Jan 8.

It’s unclear if the courts will uphold the order, but it is clear that the number of refugees the U.S. is admitting is drastically down.

In 2020, the number of refugees admitted into U.S. resettlement programs is set to be at a historic low, having been capped at 18,000, down from the 2019 limit of 30,000 — which was already the most economical number admitted since the current refugee resettlement program was created in 1980. For perspective, the Obama administration set a cap of 110,000 in 2017. 

The executive order is itself is confusing as it demands not only states’ but also local governments’ commitments, sowing potential discord among localities and between local and state governments.

For example, even if all counties and cities within a state commit to accepting refugees, if the state government does not express the state’s commitment to accepting refugees, then no refugee could be resettled in that state.

Given the pressing deadline and complex process by which the state and local governments have to express their commitments in writing, the executive order further reduces refugees’ prospects for resettlement. It has life-altering impacts for those whose fates are hanging on states’ decisions. 

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As a researcher at the University of Arizona, I led three projects working with refugees in Tucson, all of which aimed at countering the fear and suspicion of refugees. Anti-refugee sentiments, I found, are at root primarily driven by fear of the unknown.

The feelings can be reduced by increasing public knowledge about refugees, including about the rigorous vetting processes through which refugees must go to be admitted to the U.S., and the positive contributions refugees make in the communities in which they resettle.

I have interviewed more than 40 individuals who have come from different backgrounds but are united in their shared experiences of fleeing violent conditions in their homelands and rebuilding their lives in Tucson. I believe their stories are essential to telling. Below, I offer just two.  

Dr. Imad Rasheed came to Tucson 11 years ago from war-torn Iraq. Before fleeing Iraq, Imad was a biology professor at the University of Baghdad. His close friend and colleague, Rahad Almowla, had received a Ph.D. from the University of Arizona. Rahad told Imad that he loved Tucson and its people and longed to return someday.

But soon, they found themselves in a country rapidly descending into violence following the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. The attack and ensuing sectarian war would claim the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and displace many hundred thousands more. 

A war within a war began to target Iraqi academics and intellectuals in a spree of violence and assassination. Hundreds of Iraqi academics and scholars were kidnapped, tortured, or killed. It was a particular kind of abuse that aimed at people like Imad and his friend, Rahad. 

Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned about this senseless assault on the intellectual infrastructure of Iraqi society and reported that some 200 university professors and scholars had been killed in 2003 alone, and the trend continued to rise. A hit list of Iraqi academics was believed to have been circulated among the disparate terrorist groups. 

During this time, both Imad and Rahad received multiple life threats. When Imad tried to convince his friend to leave Iraq with him, Rahad insisted that they should stay, as he believed that they would be needed to rebuild the country. Unfortunately, Rahad was killed on the evening of Nov. 21, 2005, in front of his family by unknown terrorists. 

Imad decided to leave Iraq and arrived in Tucson on Nov. 17, 2008, where his friend Rahad had once lived. Imad’s family subsequently joined him, and he now runs his business specializing in herbal medicine, serving the community in Tucson.

I also met Houda Makansi along with her parents and younger sister Sara, who arrived in Tucson in 2016 from Aleppo, Syria. Like Imad, Houda’s story reflects particularly rough conditions that force millions of people from their homes and homelands. Neither Imad nor Houda had imagined leaving their countries before the wars shattered their communities, took the lives of their loved ones, destroyed their cities, and upended the experiences they had once known.

Houda’s country has been devastated by an ongoing civil war. Her hometown, Aleppo, sits at the geographic center of this war, and much of the city has been reduced to rubble.

For Houda’s family, whether to leave or stay equated to the choice between life and death. They chose to live and fled to Jordan in 2013.

Houda’s oldest sister and her family are still in Jordan, and their prospect of joining Houda’s family remains grim as they are from Syria, one of the countries that are listed on Trump’s travel ban.

Houda graduated from high school last summer, and she was honored as the student of the year. Now she attends the University of Arizona and is pursuing a degree in nursing. She ultimately wants to become a doctor. 

Houda is an active community member and hosts a radio program, Mn Huna: Finding Refuge in Friendship. Through this program, she has brought public attention to the lived experience of refugees and helped us better understand our shared humanity.

Imad and Houda’s stories echo those of thousands of others who have fled violence and persecution and been allowed to rebuild their lives in the U.S. They are just two of thousands of refugees who make positive contributions to the communities in which they resettle.

Orhon Myadar is an assistant professor, School of Geography and Development, University of Arizona, and Public Voices fellow with The OpEd Project.