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Keeping refugee families apart, reuniting others next door

The Trump administration's restrictions on refugees are playing out in unnerving and uneven ways for thousands of families already building new lives in the U.S., keeping many split, while allowing some to reunite

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    Fadumo Hussein, 45, a Muslim refugee from Somalia, listens during an interview in Columbus on Feb. 20. Weeks before the announcement of President Donald Trump's ban on arrivals from several, mostly Muslim countries, Hussein's parents, who are 75 and 76, had been approved for entry to the U.S. Their arrival was scheduled for February 2017. More than a year later, they remain stuck in Uganda, their case on hold.

    MARTHA IRVINE / AP

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    This photo provided by her daughter shows Fadumo Hussein, right, with her 75-year-old mother, Halima Shobe, during a trip to Africa in December 2017. Though the Trump administration's travel ban has made it difficult for refugees from Somalia to come to the U.S., Hussein is still hoping her parents, who have health problems, can eventually join her in Ohio one day.

    AFNAN SALEM / AP

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    Amina Olow, a refugee from Somalia, looks at photos of two of her eldest daughters while siting with two of her other children in her Columbus home on Feb. 23. The girls, Neemotallah, now 12, and Nastexo, now 9, live in Kenya with other family members. It has been 10 years since their mother has seen them. "I never thought it would be this long," Olow says of her separation from her daughters, who she hopes can join her despite the fact that Somalia is on a list of countries impacted by the Trump administration travel ban.

    MARTHA IRVINE / AP

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    Ausa Emedi, right, examines a toilet in his family's new apartment in Columbus during the early morning hours of Feb. 22 as his caseworker, Eric Rosingiza, explains to family members how it and shower work. The family of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, including six children, had just flown to Columbus. The DRC has been plagued with political unrest and is not included in the Trump administration's travel ban.

    MARTHA IRVINE / AP

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    Harka Gurung, a 36-year-old refugee from Bhutan, lifts her 8-year-old daughter, Eden Gurung, as she arrives from school in Columbus on Wednesday. Harka, her husband and daughter were the first of their family to arrive from a refugee camp in Nepal. Her parents and a sister joined them in February after a four-year separation. Columbus is home to about 20,000 Bhutanese immigrants, representing the largest Bhutanese community in the United States.

    MARTHA IRVINE / AP

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    Kamal Sharma, right, of Columbus, embraces his relative Til Gurung, a Bhutanese refugee from Nepal, as he and other relatives arrive at the John Glenn Columbus International Airport in Columbus on Feb. 15. Two families of Bhutanese refugees met with their family members at the Columbus Airport after an 18 hour flight from Nepal where the families lived in the Beldangi Refugee Camp in Jhumpa, Nepal. Bhutanese refugees, most who are Buddhist or Hindu and were expelled during a government-led ethnic cleansing campaign against ethnic Nepalis in the early 1990s.

    TY WRIGHT / AP

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    Members of a recently arrived family of refugees from Bhutan wait in a long line outside the Franklin County Department of Job and Family Services in Columbus on Feb. 21. The family can apply for various forms of government assistance, though their goal is to find work quickly. A 2015 report found that refugees contribution to the central Ohio economy totals more than $1.6 billion annually, including the goods and services they provide through their work and the money they spend.

    MARTHA IRVINE / AP

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    Rupen Darjee, 21, talks about his life as a refugee during an interview in Columbus on Feb. 21. Darjee, whose family is from Bhutan, was born in a refugee camp in Nepal. He now operates a box-making machine at a Columbus food processing plant. Though he is Christian, and not from a country impacted by President's travel ban, he says some of his family members, including two brothers, have had trouble getting to this country.

    MARTHA IRVINE / AP

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    Man Sing Sutam, a 48-year-old refugee from Bhutan, practices writing in English during a U.S. citizenship class in Columbus on Feb. 23. Columbus has the largest Bhutanese population in the United States. Most of them came to this country by way of Nepal, where they lived in refugee camps after being forced out of their tiny Himalayan kingdom.

    MARTHA IRVINE / AP

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    Jhuma Acharya works in his office on Feb. 21 in Columbus. A refugee himself, he is now a resettlement caseworker for the Community Refugee & Immigration Services, where he helps new arrivals from Nepal, Bhutan and other countries. He says watching refugee families reuniting at airports is a favorite part of his job. "They all are united by love," he says.

    MARTHA IRVINE / AP

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    Rifat Moustafa, a Syrian immigrant, takes a smoke break outside his Columbus home on Feb. 22. His 16-year-old son, Hasib Moustafa Rifat, has been separated from his family for more than 18 months as he awaits a U.S. visa. Moustafa, an international lawyer who says he was tortured for protesting human rights violations, was granted asylum and his wife and four other children followed in 2016, before President Trump was elected. They were hoping Hasib could come shortly after, but resettlement officials say the Trump administration's travel ban on refugees from mostly Muslim countries has very likely caused further delays.

    MARTHA IRVINE / AP

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    Ten-year-old Syrian Amjud Moustafa Rifat uses his shirt to wipe away tears on Feb. 20 in Columbus, Ohio, as he and his 18-year-old sister, Fatima, listen to a song their brother, Hasib, wrote for the family. Hasib, 16, is still in the Middle East and has been separated from his family for more than 18 months as he awaits a U.S. visa. Their father, Rifat Moustafa, an international lawyer who says he was tortured for protesting human rights violations, was granted asylum and his wife and four other children followed in 2016, before President Trump was elected. They were hoping Hasib could come shortly after, but resettlement officials say the Trump administration's travel ban on refugees from mostly Muslim countries has very likely caused further delays.

    MARTHA IRVINE / AP

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    This 2013 family photo shows three brothers, from left, Ibrahim, Hasib and Amjud Moustafa Rifat, in the Middle East, less than a year after their family fled war-torn Syria. United States authorities granted the younger boys visas so they could travel with their parents to Columbus, where they now live. But Hasib is still waiting for his paperwork to come through. Their father, Rifat Moustafa, says they will have to move to another country if they can't bring Hasib to the U.S. by the summer of 2018.

    MOUSTAFA FAMILY VIA AP

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    Rifat Moustafa, a Syrian immigrant, greets his 16-year-old son, Hasib Moustafa Rifat, living in the Middle East, during a video chat session at his home in Columbus on Feb. 22. At right is his wife, Alizabet Yandem. Hasib is still in the Middle East and has been separated from his family for more than 18 months as he awaits a U.S. visa.

    MARTHA IRVINE / AP

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    Syrian teenager Hasib Rifat Moustafa poses for a photo in the apartment he shares with his sister's family in the Middle East on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018. In July 2016, Alizabet Yandem and four of her children joined her husband, Rifat Moustafa, a lawyer who said he fled his native Syria after he was jailed and beaten with an electric cable for criticizing the Assad regime's record on human rights. But their son, Hasib, remained in the Middle East after officials held up his petition. Moustafa suspected an objection to his son's malformed left arm and hand, which need surgery. But the family expected approval within months. Then the new administration took office, and the case stalled. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

    Maya Alleruzzo

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    Syrian teenager Hasib Rifat Mousafa plays with his niece in the apartment he shares with his sister's family in the Middle East on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018. In July 2016, Alizabet Yandem and four of her children joined her husband, Rifat Moustafa, a lawyer who said he fled his native Syria after he was jailed and beaten with an electric cable for criticizing the Assad regime's record on human rights. But their son, Hasib, remained in the Middle East after officials held up his petition. Moustafa suspected an objection to his son's malformed left arm and hand, which need surgery. But the family expected approval within months. Then the new administration took office, and the case stalled. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

    Maya Alleruzzo

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    Pema Yanzon, right, places a momo dumpling on a tray in Columbus, Ohio, on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. The Tibetan-Nepali style food, sold at the Mom Ghar restaurant, is filled with chicken, pork or vegetables and is popular both with immigrants and native Ohioans. Yanzon, age 62, came to this country from Tibet in 2008. Her coworker, Momatha Rai, left, is a 23-year-old Bhutanese refugee who came to Columbus by way of Nepal in 2014. Columbus has the largest Bhutanese population in the country. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)

    Martha Irvine

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    Moza Ausa, a 4-year-old refugee from the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, stands in the family's new apartment in Columbus, Ohio, during the early morning hours of Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. The family, including six children, had just flown to Columbus from Africa. The DRC is not included in the Trump administration's travel ban. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)

    Martha Irvine

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    Devi Gurung, a 28-year-old refugee from Bhutan, waits for her niece to arrive from school in Columbus, Ohio, on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018, just days after Gurung's arrival in this country. "I am lucky," Gurung says of her chance to come to the United States after spending years in a Nepali refugee camp. Columbus is home to about 20,000 Bhutanese immigrants, representing the largest Bhutanese community in the United States. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)

    Martha Irvine

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COLUMBUS — In apartment complexes on opposite sides of town, the women — one a former shopkeeper from Somalia, the other a teacher from Bhutan — waited for children to come home.

Only the teacher, Devi Gurung, was rewarded for her patience.

Outside an apartment decorated with Buddhist prayer flags, she watched as a school bus pulled up and the niece she had not seen in four years, hopped to the curb.

“I am lucky,” said Gurung, reunited with her sister’s family days earlier after spending more than half her life in a refugee camp.

The next morning, Amina Olow unfolded a year-old letter offering hope that daughters she has not seen in a decade would join her soon. She’s heard nothing since.

“My kids, they’re a part of my body,” Olow said, her voice breaking.

Olow and Gurung are here, within 20 minutes of Ohio State University’s football horseshoe, because the U.S. granted them safe haven. But that’s where their stories diverge.

Starting early last year, President Donald Trump banned arrivals from several, mostly Muslim countries, cut the cap on refugee admissions and suspended a program to reunite families split in the resettlement pipeline.

The restrictions are keeping many families apart, while allowing some to reunite, sorting people by country, and effectively by religion.

Somali refugee Fadumo Hussein protested those policies last January, weeks after her parents were approved to enter the U.S. More than a year later, they remain stuck in Uganda, their case on hold.

Watching Bhutanese neighbors welcome their own family members in the months since, Hussein’s been “happy for them because they were able to reunite,” but also confused.

“What is different about us, like Somalis or the other countries that are being banned,” her daughter, Afnan Salem, asked, “when we are all coming for the same reasons?”

In the mid-1800s, German immigrants flocked to red-brick blocks just south of Columbus’ downtown. But in recent years, Columbus has become a magnet for refugees, drawn by affordable rents, jobs in distribution centers — and family already here.

Apartments on Columbus’ north side have become the center of the largest U.S. population of Bhutanese refugees, most Buddhist or Hindu, expelled during an ethnic cleansing campaign against ethnic Nepalis in the early 1990s. They live alongside the country’s second largest Somali community, most Muslim, and refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, most of them Christian.

“Everybody has a dream that if I go, there will be a chance for my son to come or my mother to come,” said Jhuma Acharya, a refugee from Bhutan now working for Community Refugee & Immigration Services, one of Columbus’ two resettlement agencies.

But Trump’s policies have shaken those expectations.

“There’s certainly a pretty dramatic shift” in the mix and number of arrivals, said Kathleen Newland, of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

The U.S. is on track to take 21,000 refugees this year, the fewest since a 1980 law established the modern resettlement system, and a quarter those admitted in the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency. About 15 percent are Muslim, down from 47 percent a year ago.

“The United States is committed to assisting people of all religions, ethnicities, and nationalities,” a State Department spokeswoman said in a written response to questions.

Trump’s policies have left Bhutan and Congo as the largest contributors to the dwindling pool, accounting for 45 percent of arrivals since October and making Columbus an anomaly.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has accepted few from countries like Syria.

In mid-2016, Alizabet Yandem and four of her children joined husband, Rifat Moustafa, a lawyer who said he fled Syria after he was jailed and beaten for criticizing the Assad regime.

Their son, Hasib, remained in the Middle East after officials held up his petition. Moustafa suspected an objection to his son’s malformed left arm, which need surgery. But he expected approval within months. Then, the case stalled.

Officially, Trump’s policies do not apply to Moustafa, granted political asylum in the U.S. But resettlement workers said stepped up vetting appears to have caused widespread delays.

One recent afternoon, Moustafa rushed out the door in sandals during a chat with the 16-year-old via Facebook.

“I don’t want him to see that I am crying,” he said. “I don’t want to lose my child.”

For those already here, the changes are playing out in unnerving and uneven ways.

A few minutes before midnight, Esta Ausa peered down the concourse of the Columbus airport, ignoring friends’ teasing to relax. It had been 18 months since Ausa, 22, left her parents, brothers and sisters behind in a refugee camp in Tanzania.

The family is among 675,000 the UN estimates have fled Congo to escape civil war and renewed ethnic violence. After the U.S. put a hold on new refugees last year, Ausa said her parents’ approval to enter the U.S. was canceled twice.

When Ausa spotted a cluster of red and yellow winter jackets in the nearly empty terminal, she danced toward the security perimeter — and wrapped her mother in her arms.

“I thank God for everything,” her father, Ausa Emedi, said.

Hours later, Olow recounted last seeing her daughters. She was running a food shop in South Africa in 2008. When rioters attacked foreigners and looted the business, she took the girls to live with an aunt, before she was admitted to the U.S. in 2014.

Olow, now an interpreter in an apartment leasing office, unfolded the letter from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, approving her older daughter’s petition.

“The president should have empathy for families that have been dislocated, just like mine,” she said. “We need one another.”

As Olow walked back through the desks, co-worker Janet Siford noticed her tears.

“Amina, I’m sorry ...,” Siford said. “One day at a time, OK?”

She cradled the refugee’s scarfed head on her shoulder.

“We’re like sisters,” Siford said. “We hug. We laugh. We cry.”

Multimedia journalist Martha Irvine contributed to this report.



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