"I would have been devastated if I hadn't been able to come to America."
Photo by Oz Shaw
It was Tuesday night when Heval Kelli got the news. The cardiologist was sitting on the floor eating kebabs in his friend's Clarkson, Georgia, home when he took a quick peek at his phone's Facebook feed and saw the headlines: President Donald Trump planned to halt refugee resettlement. Kelli, 34, who is originally from Aleppo and was resettled in the US at age 17, turned to his friend, a fellow Syrian refugee who'd arrived just a year ago, and translated the story into Arabic.
"At first, we just sat there quietly, and then we started looking at each other, saying, 'We have each other,'" Kelli told me. "It makes me scared now when I think of this change—I would have been devastated if I hadn't been able to come to America."
After basing his campaign off fiery anti-immigration rhetoric, Trump has begun his presidency with a wave of nativist and anti-immigration action. On Wednesday, he signed executive orders that began the process of building a wall on the Mexican border, deporting large numbers of undocumented immigrants, and pulling federal funds from "sanctuary cities" that refuse to cooperate with immigration authorities. He is expected to temporarily block all incoming refugees, and indefinitely halt any coming from Syria as part of a broad executive order making it much harder for citizens of several other Middle Eastern countries to come to the US. The announcement of the policy earlier this week sent shockwaves through the country's refugee population, scaring many into hanging their heads low, uncertain of their fates.
"When you're a refugee running from war you're already traumatized, and now they're anxious, afraid," Kelli said of the refugees he knows who have recently arrived in Clarkston, a town known for its large refugee presence. "Is the funding for refugees going to be cut? How is the government going to provide for the refugees already here? This is something nobody expected to happen this fast," said Kelli, posing questions that Trump has not yet answered.
Kelli, who was resettled with his family just two weeks after 9/11, said he'd braced for the US government to turn them away in the wake of the attacks, but that they were allowed entrance and welcomed warmly by Episcopal church members in Clarkston. He said that the local community continued to receive newcomers eagerly, despite shifts in the federal policy.
"When we arrived, their welcome made us feel like nothing happened in this country. The power of the people made us feel integrated and welcome," said Kelli, who now volunteers with refugees in Clarkson and is a cardiology fellow at Emory University. "I washed dishes throughout high school and college across from the university where I'm now training to be a cardiologist*. President Trump is a businessman, and if he realized refugees are an investment, he wouldn't do this."
Since Kelli has spent years in the US, he felt comfortable speaking out, but his recently resettled friends were too anxious to give interviews, as were many newly arrived refugees I tried to contact through resettlement organizations around the nation. But more established refugees and immigrants told me they were dismayed and claimed the administration was blatantly discriminating against Muslims.
Isam Zaiem, 70, an active member of Cleveland's Syrian community who co-founded the Council on American Islamic-Relations and volunteers with refugees, called the executive order "a Muslim ban, not a ban to protect us from terrorism."
"This is not about refugees—this is about general hatred of Islam, a way to commence hatred and bigotry," Zaiem, a retired medical technologist who came to the US at age 25, told me, and warned of its devastating effects on American values.
"Is our country going to go back to that dark time when that ship that came over to our shores of people escaping Nazis and we turned them back?" he said, referring to the US government's infamous return to Europe of Jews who were aboard the St. Louis.
Like Kelli, Zaiem told me the local community was key in supporting refugees, and said Syrians in Cleveland had united in recent years to help newcomers recover from the gruesome Syrian civil war.
"Because of the disaster that struck Syria in the last six years, we have to do as much as we can, and one way is to help those who escaped," Zaiem continued. "My fellow Muslim Americans, particularly the ones without citizenship, are afraid their status here will essentially be liquidated. I'm going to encourage my community to stand up for their rights and not back down."
While many individual refugees fear for their future, resettlement organizations are at risk since they receive federal funding dependent on receiving new refugees.
Danielle Drake, community relations manager for the Cleveland resettlement organization US Together, told me there could be a "significant change in the way all resettlement agencies across the US are able to work." Drake said her team of 14 typically serves 300 new refugees a year—but the team would have to be cut if fewer refugees arrived.
"We all thought it would be business as usual until September and then we'd have to see how the new budget plays out, but if there's a pause, we could see changes sooner than September," said Drake. "At the end of the day, if there are fewer people in the office, there are fewer people available to provide help."
Update: An earlier version of this post misstated the specialty Kelli is training in—he is working to become a cardiologist, not a heart surgeon.
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