Opinion: This refugee’s life came to halt during the Trump years. Here’s his hope for the Biden years

As a writer who focuses on refugee and immigration issues, I regularly hear from people all over the world. Many of them had their lives turned upside down by the original travel ban, announced four years ago during Trump’s first week of office and on Holocaust Remembrance Day of all days.

The first person to message me was a Kurdish teacher in Iraq, Karwan Ahmaad (a pseudonym since he and his family remain in danger of kidnapping, torture or death while they are seeking refugee status). “From the first day, we wanted Biden to win because our future was stopped,” he wrote. “Right now, we are so, so happy.”

Ahmaad is a strong advocate for his family. He found my author page on Facebook after I wrote a New York Times op-ed last year about how Trump brought refugee resettlement to the edge of collapse by lowering the admissions numbers drastically every year of his presidency, among other attacks on a federal program that once garnered widespread bipartisan support. Ahmaad sent several DMs telling me the story of how his family’s “future was stopped” by those policies.
His story demonstrates why — while Biden’s symbolic first step of repealing the travel ban and pledging to raise the refugee admissions ceiling is laudable — the new administration’s work on immigration is far from over. It must move quickly to make lasting changes to American policies that impact refugees, asylum-seekers and others. The people who have remained in limbo, and who live every day in danger, have waited long enough.
In early 2017, Ahmaad and his family were full of hope. They’d made it through the first round of the intensive vetting process to be resettled in the United States through the Special Immigrant Visa program, a program for which Ahmaad qualified because he had worked as an internet service provider for the United States Army. The work was meaningful to Ahmaad: “My (American) friends trusted me because I was the reason people could talk to their families.”

He said an anti-US group kidnapped him in 2004 and told him, “If you keep working for the US Army, we’re going to torture you.” Ahmaad returned to work anyway, continuing in his job for two more years, but the situation grew increasingly dangerous, he told me. Finally, in 2006, he left. The lieutenant colonel who oversaw his work for the United States in Iraq wrote a letter to be included with Ahmaad’s refugee application, stating that Ahmaad’s service had put his life in “possible jeopardy.”

Years of bureaucratic obstacles and personal tragedy delayed Ahmaad’s appointments with US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), but he and his family finally got an interview on November 9, 2016 — the day after Trump was elected. It went well. They made it through to the next round of the vetting process.

And then, days before the second interview in February 2017, Ahmaad got a form email: “Dear Applicant,” it began. Their appointment had been “canceled as a result of the Executive Order signed on January 27th, 2017,” it said.

In his first messages to me laying out their story, Ahmaad also sent image after image providing proof: photos of him with the US military, his USCIS case number, and screenshots of emails telling him about upcoming appointments and that his second in-person interview had been canceled.

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I’ve been a refugee advocate for more than a decade; I knew immediately why Ahmaad sent evidence to support his story before I had a chance to doubt it was true. In her book, “The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You,” Dina Nayeri described the difficulty people in precarious situations face: “Refugees will spend the rest of their lives battling to be believed. Not because they are liars but because they’re forced to make their facts fit narrow conceptions of truth.”

Ahmaad had proof, but he sent more than that. He included photos to show me what was at stake: His youngest daughter blowing out the candle on her second birthday cake. Two of his girls standing together holding new pink purses. The whole family snuggled together for a selfie.

In those early messages, and the dozens more he has sent me over the last six months, Ahmaad has been trying to humanize their situation.

“Humanize” has come to be one of my least favorite verbs; book critics and regular readers alike mean it as high praise when they say that writers like me are able to humanize political situations. And I understand why we use that verb; I just hate that it has to exist at all.

Dehumanizing is the reflexive response we often have when we want to escape the pain our collective actions cause. If we think about the tumultuous shifts and twists of America’s refugee policy as partisan tussling about an issue, we can forget that it affects real people.
Refugees like my ancestors are part of what made America great
In the last four years, in a way no president has done in modern history, the Trump administration turned its back on the longstanding national commitment to vulnerable people our country made in implementing the 1951 Refugee Convention protocols. That historic international agreement, which grew out of the global reckoning after the Holocaust, identified that refugee crises were an international issue, and that countries had to share the burden of caring for people fleeing war and persecution.

Trump’s attacks on the refugee resettlement program and the process for asylum-seekers, among other immigration policy changes, have left vulnerable people in untenable danger. “I’m so worried about my family’s future,” Ahmaad texted me on September 25, 2020.

The people most affected are not anecdotes or political pawns; they are complex people. They have families and dreams and goals. They want to be safe; they want their children to be safe.

On some level we know this, of course. But too often as a country, when we allow refugees and asylum-seekers to be issues we debate rather than people we build reasonable polices to support, we retreat to a place where the knowledge of their humanity doesn’t affect us.

In her book, “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” Samantha Power, former US ambassador to the UN, calls that murky space the “twilight between knowing and unknowing.” It’s a phrase she got from the memoirs of W. A. Visser’t Hooft, a Protestant theologian who spent World War II in Europe and who was trying to explain the world’s indifference to the Holocaust even after the facts were widely known.

“(P)eople could find no place in their consciousness for such an unimaginable horror,” Hooft wrote, and “they did not have the imagination, together with the courage, to face it.” And so they withdrew to a place where they could express vague concern or regret without having to face the truth of what was happening in the harsh light of day.
Power further chronicles how that state of mind kept the American public from speaking up even when we knew genocide was happening in Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda. Or, more recently, in the attacks against the Rohingya in Myanmar, civilians in Syria, in the targeted oppression of people in the Democratic Republic of Congo or Burundi or Guatemala.

We sink into that same state when we ignore situations that force refugees and asylum-seekers to flee persecution or death because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

That collective twilight between knowing and unknowing has been deep in the United States for the last four years. Occasionally, shafts of stark sunlight have broken through, illuminating the cruelty of tactics like the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy, which separated thousands of children from their parents at the southern border. While Biden has rescinded that policy, several hundred children have yet to be reunited with their parents.
But we grew numb to the dehumanizing language that came from the highest office in the land, when our former President described his harsh immigration policy as keeping “terrorists, extremists, and criminals the hell out of our country,” and when he referred to Biden’s plan to overturn the travel ban as “opening the floodgates to radical Islamic terrorists” who want to “overwhelm your children’s schools, overcrowd their classrooms, and inundate your hospitals.”
There is so much damage to undo after the last four years, and Biden is slated to sign several other immigration-related executive orders in the days ahead. These will be critical first steps, but the process of rebuilding and instituting the kinds of lasting change needed to our immigration system — especially refugee resettlement and other programs that impact some of the most vulnerable people in the world — will take years. It will be hard.

Significantly harder — but absolutely necessary — will be finding the courage to pierce the twilight of our indifference and retrain our gaze on people like Ahmaad and his family at the heart of these policies.

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Written by Bourbiza Mohamed

A technology enthusiast and a passionate writer in the field of information technology, cyber security, and blockchain

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