Refugees Took Over Trump's Childhood Home
As the president contemplates slashing refugee admission rates, we heard refugees tell their stories at his boyhood Queens residence.
Photos by author
Donald Trump's childhood home looks like every other house in Jamaica Estate, Queens—a small island of suburbia in one of the most diverse counties in America. This summer the man who leases it put it up on Airbnb; the journalists who couldn't resist staying there for the story reported that it's a bit like a museum to Trump. Copies of Art of the Deal are on the coffee table, photos of the Don in 1980s New York adorn the walls, and the kitchen cabinet is stacked with souvenir mugs from the campaign. Even the former reality TV show host's self-help quotes—"Sheer persistence is the difference between success and failure"—are framed.
This Saturday the humanitarian aid group Oxfam found another use for it, renting the space and inviting reporters, including me, in to meet four refugees, whose prized possessions had been spread throughout the house. As a publicity stunt, it's almost too on the nose: Here we were in the old home of a president who inherited a real estate empire talking to refugees who have had to build entirely new lives in an unfamiliar place—and who are the sort of people Trump wants less of in the country.
Last week, reports came out indicating the White House is looking into reducing the number of refugees admitted to the US to under 50,000, the lowest mark since 1980, amid a global refugee crisis. And the legal battle over Trump's "travel ban," which restricts refugee admissions and travel from certain Middle Eastern countries, continues, with the Supreme Court recently deciding that the administration's harsh ban on refugees could stand for the time being. So these conversations felt particularly timely, and urgent. Here's how they went:
Ghassan Shehadeh, born in Syria
Translated by Isra Chaker
VICE: How did you come to America?
Ghassan Shehadeh: I left Syria for the sake of my children. We left Syria in an illegal manner, and took the sea to get into Egypt. The Egyptian coast guard caught us in the water, and they put me, my wife, and two children in prison for three months. The UN was alerted that this was a situation, and they decided to take on this case. After that, we were released, and the Egyptian government gave us a three-month stay before we had to leave the country. Then we went through the vetting process, and one of the last steps was a physical exam. They found out during the exam that my wife was pregnant, and we had no idea. The doctor in charge said we weren't allowed to go to America for resettlement until she gave birth. So we waited until my wife gave birth, and went through the same vetting process for the newborn. The total process, including waiting for the baby's arrival, was a little over two years. Then we resettled in Franklin, Maryland.
At what point did you know you had to leave Syria?
I was living in Damascus. As you know, it was the last city that was starting to feel the crisis really come to it. My brother was kidnapped by security forces and arrested. We didn't know where they were for six months. Then they took my second brother. After that, my father begged us to leave the country with my family. He insisted on it, firstly for my children's sake, but secondly because it was important, financially, to find the means for my family and send money back.
What's life in America been like since you got here?
When I first arrived, I was shocked—by a lot of things, but especially the language barrier. But at the same time, there were so many incredible people who were so kind and generous to me and my family. I see people on the street always smiling at me, even if they don't know me, and that's amazing. Everyone involved in the resettlement process has treated us with full respect and kindness. We took a four-day course, in Egypt, on American culture, and one thing they told us is that if you don't ask for help, no one will help you. But as soon as you ask, everyone will help you. We found that lesson to be true.
"How did the American people who value justice and integrity elect him to be their leader?"
What did it feel like to be confronted by the campaign rhetoric of 2016?
Within the country that I was born and raised in, I stopped feeling safe. That feeling of instability stayed with me throughout the entire journey. And so for the two years of the vetting process, we spent the time planning on how to assimilate—what will that look like, and how will we achieve it?
As soon as we got here, and finally felt stability, Trump announced his candidacy. That stability went out the window. Since he won, it's been very unstable, and unnerving, especially because we don't have citizenship. Any decision that could come out from the administration could destroy us, or kick us out of the country. That provides a lot of fear for our family.
Were you surprised by the election results, considering how well you were treated in Maryland?
I wasn't necessarily surprised, but I did realize that after we started to see the decisions that he was making, I couldn't believe that the American people I see on a daily basis, who treat me with such respect and kindness, elected someone like him, who has such negative views and thoughts toward people like me. How did the American people who value justice and integrity elect him to be their leader?
Uyen Nguyen, born in Vietnam
VICE: So how'd you first come to America?
Uyen Nguyen: I left in 1985, when I was ten. I was a refugee with my family, and we left southern Vietnam on a small wooden boat, with 31 other people. Our engine died, we ran out of food and water, and ten people died on the boat. Three of them were from my immediate family, and five from my non-immediate family. About half of us made it. Most Vietnamese during that period, and even now, think of America as pretty much heaven. I just never thought of the journey as possibly being dangerous. I'm sure my parents did, but it didn't cross my mind.
We were rescued by a Filipino fishing boat after a month at sea. I was the youngest to survive. We were in the refugee camp for a year and a half, in the Philippines, and then we got resettled in La Quinta, California. It was basically going from tropical country to a dry desert.
What was it like in California growing up?
I imagined America as paradise, and, eventually, the desert became paradise. My classmates were very warm, and my teachers were fantastic. it was a small, poor community, but we all got along. I had Hispanic, caucasian, and black friends, but very few Asian friends because there weren't many Asians. I was the only Vietnamese in my school.
Did your perception as a refugee change during the 2016 election?
I never felt like I needed to stand up for a community as much before. I never shy away from being an immigrant, or a refugee—anyone who asked, I'd be very straightforward with them—but what really changed was that I felt the need to make it known more. If I'm not standing up for these immigrants and refugees, as a former refugee myself—or you could always argue that you're always a refugee—then who will? That's really what the election did: I became much more of an activist than before.
Eiman Ali, born in Yemen
VICE: How did you first come to America?
Eiman Ali: My parents left Somalia during the peak of the war in the 1990s, and moved to Yemen, where my older sister and I were born. We went to Tunisia for a year, where my younger sister was born. My father's mother was already here, as a refugee in Virginia, so we decided to go with her. I was two years old when we moved to the US. Then my father heard of job and educational opportunities in North Carolina, so we moved down to Durham, which at the time was a very diverse community. We lived in a neighborhood full of immigrants from all over. After my parents furthered their education and worked full time, we moved to Cary. I just graduated college, my older sister graduated last year, and my younger sister is graduating this year. We have two younger brothers who were born here.
What was that experience like at college?
You can definitely see the divide between where people of different ethnic groups and white people tend to congregate, and hang out. Even though it is different, we're not very integrated—it's diverse, but not plural. When I was in high school, I started to cover my head. Before that, people just assumed I was African American, or black American—which I am, descended from slaves—and they assumed I was Christian. When they found out I was Muslim, they'd be like, "Oh, I thought you were black." You can be both! When I started covering, people would wonder where I was from, like you can't be American and Muslim at the same time. Are you African, or are you Arab? Are you black? What are you? Because there's not a lot of Somalis in that area, that's a whole other ballgame. So like, you're Muslim, Somali, black, American—what's going on?
For me, it's mostly microaggressions. Stares, or questions that imply that I'm inferior, or comments made to others around me. One time, I walked by a group of people, and my friend told me that she heard them say that we should stop accepting refugees. So it's more like subtle side comments. Now, one of the fears is that it's going to be more blatant. Most of my life, it's been very discreet, but as I've gotten older, it feels like it's gotten more blatant.
"After the election, I realized it was very important to claim my American identity."
Did your self-perception change during the election?
There were some groups—Muslim Americans, Mexican Americans, trans people of color—that I felt very worried for, and had to advocate for. As someone who's very proud to be Somali and Muslim, I'm always going to have those identities close to me. If anyone had questions, I'd be very open about my identities. But after the election, I realized it was very important to claim my American identity. People do want to separate immigrants from Americans, but I feel like now, it's more important than ever to own my American identity. I am American, and I deserve the same rights as people who were born in this country. I'm more "America!" than ever before.
Abdi Iftin, from Somalia
VICE: So how did you first come here?
Abdi Iftin: I was living in Mogadishu, Somalia, when the civil war began. We lost our house, and we were walking around all day long. When the sun set down, we found somewhere to sleep. I had three siblings, but we lost one sister from malnutrition. We buried her on the side of the street and kept moving on. I think all of us would've died if we kept going. What happened was that the American Marines intervened and provided food. Every day, I'd line up with hundreds of people and get porridge to bring home. That's how we survived. But when they left, my brother and I would go out and scavenge and do everything to get food, and then bring it back. Whatever we could find. The civil war became normal to me.
I ended up going to the movies, which was a tiny shack with a TV and VCR. They'd have Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean Claude Van Damme movies. It was an orientation for me. That's how I learned English, and I became an interpreter for my friends. Like, "Oh, look, Van Dam is about to kick some ass." The crowd got bigger, and I was trusted with what I was saying. I saw the advantage in that, and there was nothing else to do. It was a hobby for me. Then I started listening to music—like hip-hop and rock—and I started singing, dancing, and dressing like that. I wore hats backward, trimmed my hair, and created a gangsta life culture. My mom didn't want that for me; she wanted me to study Arabic and become a madrasa teacher. I became the bad guy in the neighborhood for older people, but the hero for the youth. It was American cool. But Americans weren't welcome in Somalia, even though they were providing food.
In 2006, Somalia was taken over by al Shabaab. They said, no movies, no music, no American culture. And I was living in the heart of that. The guys who were with me at the movies, they all joined al Shabaab. A friend told me, "I don't want to kill you today. But I'm going to give you a chance. You need to stop this." That's the only time I really got scared. I threw out everything I was wearing, shaved my hair, and looked like them. Then troops from other countries came through the borders, and the war started. Thousands of people were killed. Now, we had two options: leave or fight.
At this time, the shelling was like a rain at night. Your neighbors are gone; people who you knew, their bodies were in the streets. My mom left, and I was disconnected from her. An American reporter came to Mogadishu, to take photos, and that was the first time I met an American since 1993. I wanted him to hear my story. I told him everything—I can't live here, it's horrible, I just want to leave, but I don't know how to. He brought my story to radio stations in the US. An American family in Maine heard the radio, contacted me, and raised $500 for a flight. I left my country at the age of 23.
First, I joined my brother in Kenya, who I hadn't seen in nine years. He said, "The only difference between Somalia and Kenya is that nobody is going to shoot you, but you'll be treated like trouble. The police harass and extort us, and the UN isn't going to help you as long as you're in the city." That means you had to hustle. We were selling socks, hats, anything, to pay the rent. That's how it was. The family in Maine paid for me to go to school, but then the Nairobi attacks [in 2013, when al Shabaab assaulted a mall] happened. After that, all Somali had to leave. I knew if I went back, I'd be killed.
So I did the American visa lottery, and won. I went to the embassy, had my interviews, was accepted, and got my visa. I was taken in by this Maine family. Now I have this great room upstairs, with a dog and two cats!
"If Trump tells me to go back, are you kidding me? This is what I've been fighting for; I want to be here."
How has your adjustment to America been?
If I dream in English tonight, tomorrow I will call myself American. But that hasn't happened yet, so I'm still in this limbo. I don't think it's easy; it takes a very long time. The people in Maine were nice previously, but after Trump... I get into situations where people say that we all live on welfare, or don't work, which is absolutely false. I told them, "'Look, that's my car; I bought it with my own money. I never got government assistance. I came here and start working, to have money for a car. I worked at a deli, and worked night shifts." But they don't believe me.
I choose America. If Trump tells me to go back, are you kidding me? This is what I've been fighting for; I want to be here. If I knew he'd be president, and America was going to be divided, or a racist country, and not a nation that I felt welcome in, I would've definitely second-guessed. But my view was always, it's one nation. This is where Denzel Washington walks on the street, and nobody says nothing. But today's rhetoric, if you're a Muslim, an immigrant, a Somali, or a person of color—that's who I am. And that's exactly what he campaigned against. That means he campaigned against me.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.