Like many college students, Rema had just begun to feel settled by the time she graduated from Cleveland State University with a degree in business. She had a tight-knit group of friends, a handle on Cleveland's diverse downtown, and was eager to start hunting for her first job.
But that sense of belonging quickly vanished, because Rema (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) is a Syrian refugee. She, like many Syrians living in the United States, was horrified to hear President Donald Trump's plans to ban entry to individuals from Syria and several other Middle Eastern nations, and suspend all refugee admissions to the US for the next 120 days.
"I don't believe it," said Rema, who is originally from Damascus. "I want to be part of the community here, I want to make this country better. But all this feels like why? On what basis?"
Rema was granted asylum last year, but she now faces an impossible choice: Stay in an increasingly hostile country, where her relatives are restricted from visiting, or leave and forfeit her ability to return. Under Trump's executive order, which he signed on Friday, no one can enter the United States from Syria, Yemen, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan unless those governments agree to provide more information on those individuals to the US government. Even people with asylum and green cards could be banned from leaving and then reentering the country.
"It is entirely appropriate for a person in her situation to fear that if she leaves the country she can't come back and that she may not see her family for a very long time," Tom Jawetz, vice president of immigration policy for the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank based in Washington, DC, told me.
Jawetz noted that the executive order made it unclear what additional information each government needed to provide, and that the Syrian government—embroiled in civil war—would likely not comply.
"No one wants to leave everything behind and arrive to live with people who don't want them."
Rema's parents and sister also live in the United States, but her two brothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins are all overseas. She worries she'll never see her relatives again, unless she relinquishes her US protection—something she's considering more and more, especially as the social climate toward refugees sours.
"When Trump won, I had an internship at an insurance company. A guy working there came to me and said he didn't want people from my country and that I have a 50 percent chance of being a terrorist," Rema told me. She says her boss overheard the whole thing and did nothing. "It was very traumatizing. I know it's definitely getting worse—people can say whatever they want to say and be ignorant about everything."
Now, as she starts applying for jobs, she worries employers won't consider her based on her nationality.
"I feel like I'm not welcome here. I don't want to have to worry about getting a job," said Rema. "I'm seriously considering moving to Canada—have you seen their prime minister crying when he was interviewed with a Syrian family?"
For Rema, relocating to the United States was never part of the plan. She originally came to Tennessee with her parents in 2012 to visit her sister, who had married an American man. But during the six-week trip, the situation in Syria deteriorated rapidly. Bombings increased. Rema heard news that her university classmates were being kidnapped and tortured to death by the Assad regime. Her family applied for temporary protected status, a type of asylum given to people who cannot safely return to their countries of origin due to civil war, environmental disaster, or other extreme conditions. US Citizenship and Immigration Services included Syria on the list of eligible countries in 2012.
"The whole first year here was very devastating. All I did was watch the news. I'd sleep on Syria's time zone so I was awake when they were, to know what was going on," Rema recalled. "I was walking on the street thinking of my friends one day, and I fainted. It was too much for me. I started to watch less news. I had to think less about what was going on."
Over the years, she gradually adjusted to life in the United States. She enrolled in the Cleveland State University, forged a new friend group, and felt "psyched" when she graduated last year with a 4.0 GPA.
But now, Rema is questioning the whole life she's built here.
"No one wants to leave everything behind and arrive to live with people who don't want them," she told me. "I don't want to feel like a stranger all the time. I feel very lost."
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