On Jan. 16, Sam and his wife Manal celebrated their one-year anniversary.
“I liked her a lot and thought she was from a good family, Christian,” he said. “Immediately I asked her if I could call her dad and mom, if I could ask her for her hand. She smiled so that answered that.”
While most couples have some challenges as newlyweds, these two faced a distance of more than 6,500 miles, with Sam in Little Rock and Manal in Syria.
Right after their wedding, the couple began the process of immigrating Manal to the United States.
Now she waits.
In Jordan, 17 Syrians were hopeful for their trip to Arkansas sometime in the spring. After their homes in Damascus were destroyed by bombs, they fled. After two years of in-depth screening, their applications were approved.
“The American people are humanitarians,” said one of the male Syrian refugees in a recent ABC News video. “We like them, we’ve seen them on TV. We’ve seen their marches. Their love for us, their welcome for us, their passion for us, for our children — these are the things that make us love America, make us want to go to America.”
Now they wait.
These are just a few of the countless immigrants and refugees who have nothing but hope to hold onto after their chance at a better life hinges on court rulings.
On Jan. 27, President Donald Trump signed an executive order called “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” which would bar all citizens of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen from entering the United States for the next 90 days and suspends the admission of all refugees for 120 days. The order would bar all Syrians from entering the country indefinitely.
On Feb. 4, U.S. District Judge James Robart of Seattle temporarily blocked the order, calling it unconstitutional, allowing refugees and nationals with valid paperwork to enter the United States. The attorney general for Minnesota also challenged the order.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the district ruling Feb. 9. The case could reach the Supreme Court.
Frank Head, director of the Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Office in Springdale, who has worked with refugees for 17 years, said he feels “sadness, frustration, disappointment in the president and the administration and our national leadership.”
“I feel like it’s pure politics, and this was not created to keep us all safe. I applaud any political leader trying to keep us safe; I want that as much as anyone. But from my personal experiences with the incredible, wonderful families who have settled here, many of whom are now U.S. citizens, I know these are not the people we need to protect ourselves from,” he said.
In a 2015 Washington Post Wonkblog entry, Arkansas was listed as one of the “least welcoming states” for refugees. But groups like Catholic Charities of Arkansas and Canopy are working hard to dispel that belief. The CCA resettlement office, which works with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Services, has successfully settled hundreds of refugees in the state, including four of the six banned countries in the presidential order, but is forced to follow certain protocols mandated by the U.S. State Department. CCA is not allowed to resettle refugees unless they have a relative in Arkansas, which limits the number of refugees that CCA can help.
Once a refugee goes through the vetting process, which can last several years, CCA must aid them in everything from picking them up at the airport to getting a social security number. The resettlement process can take six weeks to three months, but Catholic Charities is there even after the initial settlement. CCA often provides employment training to help them find jobs.
The nonprofit Canopy NWA was started in Springdale last spring and is currently the only organization resettling refugees in northwest Arkansas, per state guidelines. CCA has since agreed to only resettle refugees within a 100-mile radius of Little Rock.
Head, who is a board member of Canopy, helped start the nonprofit with Rev. Clint Schnekloth, pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, who serves as board president. To allow the settlement of refugees with no Arkansas ties, the nonprofit partners with churches and community organizations willing to adopt a refugee family for at least a year. Since December, Canopy has settled 19 Syrian refugees with a “church team” that has done everything from “help the kids with homework to giving them rides to job interviews to taking them grocery shopping.” A family of four, the last to arrive, was blocked from boarding the plane to the U.S. after the executive order was signed Jan. 27 but was able to come after the order was suspended.
“The biggest difficulty we’ve had is we have so many volunteers and so many churches that want to adopt a family,” but not enough refugees, Head said. “We’re working hard to keep them excited to get more families.”
Critics and supporters both have had strong reactions to Trump’s executive order, but it’s different for those directly affected. The order is not currently active and the courts will decide its status.
“It seemed like the president is trying to find the weakest people to pick on,” said Bassam Jarkas, a Syrian native who came to the U.S. 31 years ago and is now an American citizen. He is a relative of the 17 Syrian refugees hoping to come to Arkansas this spring. “These people are not here to harm anybody. These people are looking for refuge, to continue their life, to have a life.”
Sam, who asked that his last name not be published, also came to the United States about 30 years ago and has since become a U.S. citizen. He said almost all of the paperwork for his wife was approved to come to the U.S. and she was waiting on a call from the embassy for an interview.
“She was crying. Of course, she can’t wait to come to be with her husband. She was totally shocked,” Sam said. “My reaction was very extremely disappointed. Yes, we need safety here, we need the government to check on everybody before they come, but it could be handled a lot differently than what the president did — ban everybody, freeze everyone’s visas … On one hand, he’s saying he wanted to help the Christians. We’re up in the air; we don’t know what’s going on.”
Jarkas’ relative Afnan, a wife and mother, who has worked as a coach, said during the ABC interview after the order was signed, “We were obviously shocked. We were not expecting this. We were expecting to go and find safety and security and humanitarianism. We are Muslims, not terrorists.”
The order prioritizes refugee status for those in “minority religions” in the seven banned countries, all Muslim majority, which is expected to be looked at closely by the courts.
“Christians have nothing to do with” the war in Syria, Sam said, but adding, “they need to understand not all Muslims are bad people. In every religion there is good and bad.”
Head said choosing between refugees based on faith is a “horrible choice.”
“It’s like being in a sinking boat with three of your children and you can only save one, which one will you grab? These women have had their children maimed, husbands killed, unspeakable things happen to them. I don’t think Jesus would be asking what religion they are before helping them. I don’t think we should either,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t as a Church advocate for the Christians and help them too.”
Daniah Al-Nadawi, a 21-year-old Iraqi who is now a senior at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, came to the U.S. in 2009 as a refugee with her mother and two sisters.
“I feel very awful,” she said about the executive order and the hatred directed at refugees. “I never said I was a refugee except in the last two years because people have always labeled refugees as they’re bringing terrorism into the country. I realize it’s important now to share the stories and let people know this is not the case.”
Al-Nadawi, who is now a U.S. citizen and has been vocal about refugee rights by participating in protests and giving speeches about refugees, said, “People running away from terror, to be labeling them as terrorists makes no sense. They have no option but to run to a better life,” she said.
Trump has touted that the ban will lead to “extreme vetting” before refugees enter the country.
“Are they going to question a 5-year-old born in a (refugee) camp about his terrorist tendencies? I have no idea,” Head said of what extreme vetting would entail. “They already have to give a testimony of where they’ve been, what schools they’ve been enrolled in, fingerprints, pictures, face recognition software is used, it goes on and on. My translation of more extreme vetting is arbitrary exclusion of people that have no evidence of violence whatsoever.”
There is currently a 13-step vetting process through the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants that includes interviews and several security clearances by various agencies. There are some refugees CCA has settled from other countries like Myanmar who have spent as long as 17 years in a refugee camp, Head said.
Al-Nadawi was just 10 when her family escaped their native Iraq to Syria in 2006 after their father Thameir was shot about 20 times in front of her two younger sisters. The vetting process took three years.
“We had to go through a lot of things, literally every little detail about our previous life in Iraq. They interviewed even me and my little sisters separately to get the story right,” she said. “That’s one thing a lot of people here don’t understand, that the office of refugee of resettlement takes it very serious. It takes years before any refugee can be resettled in the U.S.”
Jarkas said his extended family has been “interviewed again and again” for at least two years.
“I love this country as much as anybody else. I have five children; I want them to be safe in this country. I understand this 100 percent,” he said about proper vetting. “I don’t know what else you can to do to vet a person to see if they’re a good person.”
Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the view of Islam for many has shifted from a peaceful religion to a misunderstood threat. False perceptions of Islam have culminated into fear.
“I would say it’s easiest to be afraid of someone you don’t know. And when you actually meet a refugee and realize how much they’re like you and your neighbors, you realize it was just abstract fear,” Head said.
Canopy’s experience of settling 19 Syrian refugees has been “very heartwarming and it’s worked wonderfully well.”
One of the biggest joys has been seeing the transformation of a 7-year-old Syrian girl.
“She had been blinded by a bomb and was physically otherwise OK, but lost hearing in one ear and her sight. The first thing we did get was get her in school. Within six weeks, she’s learning braille and is a joyful, playful child starting school like any other kid. The family is beside themselves with joy,” Head said, adding she received no help for her disabilities in the refugee camp.
Jarkas said his 17 relatives trying to find refuge in the United States “are very opened-minded people.”
Of two of his relatives, he said, “They both lost their jobs too; no job once they left Syria. They were afraid for themselves and their children. They don’t see any future for their children.”
For Sam’s wife, Manal, it’s about reuniting with the love of her life.
“She’s funny, she’s got a really good personality. Very smart, educated. She does read, write and speak English, very intelligent. Loves to explore,” Sam said. “We have no choice but to wait and see what is going to take place in 90 days, 120 days. Is he going to help the Christians? Are people from Syria regardless if they’re Christian, Muslim not going to come here? We don’t know any details.”
Al-Nadawi, who wants to become a physician, thinks of the U.S. as home.
“I went to Iraq last year for two days on a weekend trip, and I did not feel that was my home at all. I considered this country to be my home the day I arrived here and this is the case of every refugee or person who has come here for a better life,” she said. “As an American citizen to be told that you’re an immigrant, a refugee, ‘Oh, you’re from that country, we’re trying to protect our country from people like you,’ I took it so personally … To see the new administration telling us we’re the ones responsible for any terrorist attack that happens here is really not fair.”
Head, who has met countless refugees, has one simple explanation of who they are — one of us.
“One hundred percent have been average, everyday people who were suddenly surrounded by war and who somehow managed to survive and escape it,” Head said. “They are warm, they are people of faith. People that believe in God and grateful they survived. And grateful the United States of America took them in.”
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