Refugee Resettlement Program Takes a Hit Following Brief Travel Ban

Mahmoud was supposed to travel to the US on February 7th. The 22-year-old Somali refugee had escaped forced recruitment by al-Shabab at the age of 16. He has finally allowed himself to dream of a better life, but it all came crashing down when President Donald Trump placed a 120-day ban on refugees.

United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration organized his resettlement to the United States.

“I sold everything. I didn’t have much to begin with, but I sold it all. I left my job in Alexandria and moved to Cairo to prepare for traveling,” Mahmoud said. He is not using his last name for security concerns.

As a Somali and a refugee, he was affected by the January 27th Executive order that placed a travel ban on seven Muslim-majority nations for 90 days and suspended the entire US refugee admissions programs worldwide for four months.  

In the first week following the ban, over 800 refugees were set to make America their new home, but could not travel, UNHCR spokesman Tarik Argaz said. An estimate of 20,000 refugees “in precarious circumstances” could have been resettled in the US during the 120 days covered by the suspension, he added.

For Mahmoud, four months were too long. “Four months might seem like nothing for regular people, but it’s already tough for us. We think about tomorrow a lot: what we will eat, how we will live. It’s more like four years for us,” he said.

He did not get any financial assistance because he used to work and was able to live on a meager monthly salary of 500 Egyptian pounds ($27). Now in limbo, this feels like a distant luxury. He could not go back to his life in the coastal city of Alexandria where he worked at a café. “I heard that they’ve already hired someone else,” he said.

One of the most important resettlement programs

Since Trump signed the executive order on January 27th, an estimated 90,000 of immigrants, refugees, and green card and visa holders have been affected, according to news reports early February. Organizations working with refugees scrambled to understand the new regulations and their gauge their scope.

“The U.S. resettlement program is one of the most important in the world,” the UNHCR and the IOM said in a joint statement in response to the new regulations.

The US has welcomed over 3 million refugees for resettlement since 1975, making it the top resettlement country in the world, according UNHCR data. Last year, over 140,000 slots for refugees were made available in more than 30 countries. Out of these, 84,995 were in the US.

Resettlement is made available for the most vulnerable of refugees. Less than 1 percent of refugees are ever resettled.

 “We strongly believe that refugees should receive equal treatment for protection and assistance, and opportunities for resettlement, regardless of their religion, nationality or race,” the joint statement said.

Fleeing recruitment

Mahmoud was 16 when al-Shabab, a US-designated terror group, came to the family house in Mogadishu to recruit him as a fighter. The group had killed his cousin for refusing to join and his older brothers were on the run. He fled and al-Shabab kicked out his family from their home in retaliation. 

His uncle, who had lost a son to al-Shabab, immediately arranged for a smuggler to take him out of the country. He made it to Egypt, but for over a year he did not hear from his family that went into hiding.

“If I ever get an opportunity to ask God a question, I’d ask him why he made me a Somali,” he said, contemplating the fighting he witnessed growing up and the stigma that follows him to this day. “There are many problems in Somalia. My family was displaced and I was devastated to leave them behind.”

Mahmoud has been in Egypt since 2011. He was granted refugee status by the UNHCR in 2013. A year and a half ago, he started the process of resettlement in the US.

“Generally, people don’t like to be assigned to the US. There are a million interviews and they can reject you at any point. You could pass the interviews but not the security check,” he said.

In addition to the UNHCR resettlement interviews, the US conducts three separate in-person interviews, five security checks, four biometric security checks and two inter-agency security checks. Eight US federal government agencies are involved, according to UNHCR data.

The time to dream

“But a big dream like the US is an opportunity I can’t refuse,” Mahmoud recalled his feeling as the process was in progress. When he was finally given a travel date, “I thought that life has finally started smiling at me. I could finally dream of a different life, where I can help myself and my family,” he said.

He dreams of joining an Ivy League university and studying law. When in Alexandria, he was studying English and French. “People travel to the US to build a future, not to instigate trouble. We are trying to live any way possible. If I go and work in the US, I’ll consider it my country that helped me,” Mahmoud said. “We are not troublemakers. We love life and want to live. If anyone wants to do anything, they won’t wait this long and go through this lengthy process so they can go there to commit [a crime],” he said.

‘Darkest day in my life’

He described the moment he heard of the travel ban as the “darkest day in his life.” His worst fears were confirmed when the travel plans of a fellow refugee and a friend were canceled on January 30.

Many of his friends, in different stages of the resettlement phases were equally desperate.

At the time, UNHCR’s Argaz said they could not afford to lose hope. “These people are very vulnerable and need our help to find solutions for them.”   

“There are more refugees in need of resettlement than there are available resettlement places,” Argaz explained. “If resettlement programs are put on hold, many more refugees qualified for resettlement will never be resettled due to a lack of resettlement places.”

“We are refugees. No one asks us for our opinion, what we want, or where we want to go,” Mahmoud said. He spent his day checking all American news websites, hoping one click would bring him hope.

One did.

Joy overwhelmed Mahmoud’s voice when he heard that a federal judge had suspended the travel ban on Feb. 3. “I’m very happy to hear this news. I’ll go to the IOM tomorrow to get more information,” he said.

For a week, there was uncertainty on whether that the suspension would hold in court and if the resettlement agencies would be able to process a backlog of refugees whose travel plans had been canceled.

Despite not getting a new date for traveling, Mahmoud kept his optimism.

Before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the suspension on Feb. 9, a trickle of refugees made their way to the US as part of the resettlement program.

“During the week following the Executive Order, from January 28th through February 3rd, pursuant to the exemption authority in the Executive Order, 843 refugees who were in transit when the Executive Order was signed were admitted to the United States. Of those, only two individuals were nationals of the seven countries noted in the Executive Order,” a State Department spokesperson said in an emailed statement on February 13th. “The week that followed, February 4-10th, the Department of State focused primarily on rescheduling travel for those refugees whose travel had been cancelled the previous week. As a result, of the approximately 1,400 refugees admitted during that week, just over 1,000 were from the seven countries.”

In Cairo, Mahmoud was back to the waiting game, but with a different mindset. Even if it takes longer than he had planned, he now knows that he will soon be on a plane to his new home and his new life.

Sarah El Sirgany is a nonresident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. 

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Image: Somali refugees wait at a net at a playground before playing football on the outskirts of Cairo, June 20, 2014. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih