When he left the refugee camp in Tanzania nearly two years ago, Poneo Wilondja had a straightforward plan. He’d arrive in Utah, land a job, work hard, learn English, and see his family find a way to the state as well.
He now has an apartment in Midvale and a job at a window factory. He’s picked up some English.
But he is alone — still.
His mother, Lea, and his siblings had their flights from Tanzania booked but then canceled twice, most recently in February. He also longs to see his wife and young daughter, who are working their way through the background checks and medical exams that are part of the refugee program.
The distance has been hard on this 25-year-old, who is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo. And connecting with his wife and family over WhatsApp only helps so much.
“I feel very bad because I am the type of person who is happy around my family,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune with the help of a translator. “I cannot be happy because of the problems and diseases in the camp. I feel sorrow for them.”
On Monday, Wilondja had a new reason to feel hope.
Mixed messages from White House
President Joe Biden lifted the cap on refugees this fiscal year from 15,000, the historically low number approved by then-President Donald Trump, to 62,500. That greatly boosts the chance Wilondja will be reunited this year with his mother and six siblings — as long as they can redo their medical checks quickly.
Biden’s move also ends his administration’s waffling on the refugee program. In the first days of his presidency, he promised to raise the cap to 62,500 and widen the countries from which refugees could come. More than that, he said during the next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, he’d bump the cap to 125,000.
But then Biden didn’t sign the presidential determination necessary to jump-start the program. As a result, the flights of more than 700 refugees were scrapped, including those for Wilondja’s relatives.
The president then said he would leave the cap at Trump’s low number for this fiscal year.
The White House worried that expanding the number of refugees might not be politically tenable at a time when the nation faced a surge in migrants crossing the southern border with Mexico illegally.
Refugees, on the other hand, come from countries ravaged by war. They have gone through an extensive, often years-long process to gain the government’s permission to come here legally.
Utah has a vibrant refugee community, supported by the governor and a number of community organizations, including Catholic Community Services and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Supporters of the refugee program pushed back on Biden’s decision and the president relented, promising to raise the cap by May 15. He did so Monday.
“It is important to take this action today,” Biden said in a statement, “to remove any lingering doubt in the minds of refugees around the world who have suffered so much, and who are anxiously waiting for their new lives to begin.”
He said “the sad truth” is that the government won’t admit 62,500 by the end of September. “We are working quickly to undo the damage of the last four years. It will take some time.”
Natalie El-Deiry, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Utah, said it is important for Biden to stick with his original promise of 62,500, even if it is aspirational.
“It means a lot because it is making good on the commitments of this administration,” she said. “It is symbolic, but it does mean a great deal.”
She is starting to see more refugees slated to arrive and her group, one of two resettlement agencies working in Utah, is ready to help them.
El-Deiry was frustrated when she heard that Wilondja wouldn’t reunite with his mother as planned back in February. When her staff broke the news to him, he was crestfallen. She described it as “a loss of hope.” Now, with the Biden administration taking this action, El-Deiry said there is a reason to hope again.
Living ‘safely’ in Utah
Wilondja’s refugee case got separated from that of his mother and siblings because he was older and could take care of himself. He’s done just that with the help of Utah’s refugee support network. But he hasn’t made many friends here, partly because he doesn’t want to do anything “to find myself in trouble.”
He gets depressed when he ponders how long it has been since he’s been with his loved ones or the bureaucratic processes that still need to be completed before they arrive.
He said Utahns have been kind and he looks forward to showing his mother and his wife that, in Utah, “you can live safely.”
More than that, he looks forward to meeting his daughter, Sarah. She was born after he left the refugee camp.
When he looks to a time when all of this is over, he has many goals. “But my first goal,” he said, “is to live happily with my family and, with God’s blessing, buy a house and live in peace.”