From the travel ban to migrant-family separation to the ongoing government shutdown prompted by President Donald Trump’s demands for $5 billion for a border wall, much of the administration’s immigration strategy has focused on trying to keep people out of the United States.
But as Trump enters his third year as president and as he prepares to launch a re-election bid, advocates say his policies and rhetoric have also had an adverse impact on those already in the country — including Utah’s refugee community. Some wait in limbo, wondering if their families will be reunited, and experience increased discrimination and distrust among the American public.
“It used to be if people did not like immigrants or refugees, they didn’t really say much,” said Amy Dott Harmer, executive director of the Utah Refugee Connection. “They just didn’t talk about it. But what this presidential administration has done is opened the door for people to be very verbal about their feelings of hatred toward a group.”
Utah — a state where more than 60 percent of residents are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose ancestors faced discrimination and were driven from state to state until settling in the Salt Lake Valley — has long been welcoming to immigrants. As Trump proposed his so-called travel ban in early 2017, for example, most Utahns said they opposed limiting refugees from war-torn or terrorism-beset nations.
(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Yasaman Keshavarz, a refugee from Iran. Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018.
Still, refugees from three of the countries affected by the travel ban — who Harmer said likely feel “more vulnerable and targeted” — told The Salt Lake Tribune they have experienced discrimination and distrust in Utah.
Halima Noor, a 25-year-old whose family came to the United States two decades ago fleeing a civil war in Somalia, grew up in Midvale and recently earned a degree in health promotion and education from the University of Utah.
She said she’s as “American as anyone else” but still feels she’s faced discrimination because of her hijab, a visible mark of her Muslim faith. It’s gotten worse since the 2016 election, she said.
“Over the years it’s gotten better and better. And then all of a sudden Trump became president and all the hateful people just came out,” Noor said. “It’s like, people we thought were nice and were your friends … they always had that certain hate in their hearts but just never expressed it. And now is their chance.”
At the grocery store, a child recently called her a “terrorist,” Noor said. A Facebook friend of hers wrote on the platform after the election that Muslims should be “sent back to where they came from.” And people on TRAX frequently discuss her hijab with fear and disdain, assuming she doesn’t speak English and can’t understand them.
“The truth came out," she said, “and it’s just like, wow, there’s so much hate in this world that you never thought existed.”
A Muslim ban?
Nour Eddin Abdul Bari and his wife, Rzan, escaped from Syria with their five children — three of them disabled — in 2011, shortly after a civil war broke out in their home country. The family settled in Utah four years later, after surviving tough conditions in Libya and Egypt.
Abdul Bari said the family members’ Muslim faith helped them through their trying journey. And that’s part of why the travel ban, which he perceives as targeting a religion whose main message is one of peace, is so upsetting.
“With full respect to the president’s decision, other refugees who want to come here, they’re not really looking to do something bad to the country that gave them freedom, gave them the chance to improve their lives,” said Wesam, Abdul Bari’s son, who translated for him. “So we hope … that we give the people just like a real look at how refugees are and how they’re really nice.”
In its first iteration, the travel ban included Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. The first two countries were later removed after criticism that the ban primarily targeted nations with Muslim majorities.
In its final iteration, the ban added North Korea and Venezuela — but the impact on potential travelers from those two countries has been considered insignificant. The order applies to only a handful of officials and their families in Venezuela and has little effect in North Korea, where the government already blocks all but a few citizens from traveling to the United States.
Though the ban continues to have an outsized impact on Muslim communities, it has also affected people from other faiths who live within the designated countries.
Yasaman Keshavarz and her husband came to the United States from Iran in 2011, hoping to leave behind religious persecution and poor economic conditions early in their marriage with dreams of forming a better life for the family they planned to have.
The biggest non-Muslim religious minority group in Iran, the Bahá’í, are viewed as heretics and face prolonged detention and possible execution, as well as denial of their political, economic, cultural and religious rights, according to a recent report from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Before leaving Iran, Keshavarz was working as a teacher’s assistant at the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education, and the constant fear that she would be arrested for helping run the school weighed on her.
“The underground university is considered illegal to the government,” she said. “There were a lot of teachers and teachers’ assistants that started getting arrested, and then when I left, it started getting even worse. So I was at risk.”
(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Yasaman Keshavarz, a refugee from Iran. Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018.
That possibility wasn’t far-fetched. There’s a “de facto policy” in Iran of preventing members of the faith from obtaining higher education, according to the International Religious Freedom report. When Keshavarz was 12, her mother was arrested for trying to teach Bahá’í high school students who had been kicked out of class because of their religion.
“I don’t know where we would end up if we would have stayed in Iran,” Keshavarz said. “It was too overwhelming to the point that we were just willing to leave everything behind.”
'Torn from your own lifestyle’
While there’s a perception that refugees have long dreamed of coming to the United States, Harmer said that couldn’t be further from the truth. When they leave behind their homes, family and friends, it’s usually only because the conditions have become too dire to stay.
“They’ve seen family members set on fire, they’ve seen sisters and mothers raped in front of them, they’ve lived in very meager situations,” she said. “And I think until you’ve heard those stories and you’ve interacted with them, you don’t really understand. You just think, ‘Oh, they wanted to come to the United States because it’s a better place.’ They don’t even get to pick where they come.”
Noor’s family, for example, migrated because of a civil war. And while she doesn’t remember much of that journey to the United States, the trauma is sewn into her family history.
“[My mother] saw her own dad being killed in front of her in Somalia because of the civil war,” Noor said. “She saw her own neighbor being killed by a bomb. I can’t even imagine how traumatized she was and coming to America, where she spoke nothing, had no friends here.”
Family members never imagined coming to the United States, she said, and would gladly have stayed in their home country had it been safe to do so.
“No one’s dream was to come and be torn from your own lifestyle,” she said. “It was either die there or come here.”
While Adbul Bari’s family has grown to love Utah and has received a large degree of help from the community, Nour said he misses many things about his home country — the people, its landscapes and the easy communication and cultural understandings he had with his friends and neighbors.
"No one knew or even dreamed about being in a different country because, you know, no one even expected this to happen to Syria because it was a really peaceful country,” Abdul Bari’s son translated for him. “It was full of love.”
(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nour Eddin Abdul Bari from Syria. Friday, Dec. 21, 2018.
‘Your hands are tied’
Though they come from different backgrounds and different cultures, the refugees from all three countries affected by the travel ban have one fear in common: that their families will never be whole again.
Noor’s extended family, for example, was on the brink of coming to the United States. But after the travel ban, the paperwork was put on hold, she said.
That also happened to Abdul Bari’s extended family members who were making progress on the papers needed to come to the United States months before the Trump administration’s policy changes.
“They start selling their stuff, they start getting ready to move to a higher level in their life,” said Wesam Abdul Bari. “They were trying to step forward, but after the decision, they basically stepped backward. Because now they have to rebuild their life in the Middle East, and they know they can’t leave anymore because of the decision.”
Trump has often derided the process by which new Americans help foreign-born relatives gain citizenship, calling it “chain migration” and framing it as a security threat.
But Keshavarz said these new policies primarily keep families apart, with some left in dangerous conditions.
"I totally get that there are going to be some politics and some laws and rules,” Keshavarz said. “And I appreciate that they are trying to make things better politically. But I think that people are suffering so much and these are fights between the governments.”
Her parents remain in Iran, and it’s nearly impossible for them to visit the United States even for a short trip to meet her 1-year-old daughter — their first and only grandchild.
In these conditions, it can be difficult for these refugees to maintain hope, Harmer said.
“When you have left situations where you see family members die and you see people raped and you know you still have family members there that might not ever be able to leave and join you as a family, I can’t think of anything more disturbing than to know your hands are tied,” she said. “And there isn’t a lot you can do to make a difference for them.”