Since President Trump issued his “Muslim ban” executive order, the country has been rocked by a cascade of political chaos, and now a critical legal battle that could soon reach the Supreme Court. But another, less visible crisis is unfolding in communities around the country, where global refugee diasporas have put down roots. For those set to arrive from the seven majority-Muslim nations targeted by the ban, Trump’s blatantly discriminatory decree represents an overarching challenge surrounding his election: how to bridge the divides of ideology and cultural difference in an insecure world.
While the various court challenges to the ban move ahead, refugee lives hang in the balance in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In this city, hundreds of migrants have resettled after escaping war and persecution around the world. And as with many other resettlement communities nationwide, many see a reflection of their own fates in the new refugees who were due to arrive before the ban abruptly blocked their path.
Mustafa Nuur, a local advocate for the Somali community, has watched warily as the border he crossed as a refugee two years ago now hovers half-open. “Singling out people like that, it goes against what I’m sure every American knows this country stands for, which is a country for immigrants and for all people,” he says.
Since resettling in Pennsylania, Nuur has journeyed a world away from his childhood in exile. He spent part of his youth warehoused in the sprawling Dadaab refugee camp where 260,000 wait in limbo for a permanent home—before migrating to Nairobi, where he attended a volunteer-run ad hoc migrant school and sold bottled water on the street to support his family.
“Over there,” Nuur recalls, “[child labor is] a necessity…. You’re always feeling unsafe and feeling like something horrible is going to happen, because you’re just a few miles away from the countries that you just fled.”
Nuur is now training with a job-development program, working with other local refugees at a local software-development firm. He thinks about fellow refugees who’ve been forced to return to Dadaab, some after selling their belongings and giving up their camp spaces: “When you know that you spent almost a decade [trying to migrate] and you’re going to go to a country that didn’t want you to be there or a country that banned you, that’s very discouraging.”
While Nuur has advised fellow refugees to stay vigilant, the social-service organization that has supported his community over the years, Church World Service (CWS), is scrambling to resume the processing of its scheduled arrivals, including refugees who are not linked to the targeted Muslim-majority countries. For a place that prides itself on exemplifying an American tradition of sanctuary, the ban represents the profound loss of a social investment that has brought cultural vibrancy to the wider community.
“At a time when we’re in this grave global crisis, now the US has just shut its doors,” says CWS Community Resources Director Stephanie Gromek, who works with federal officials to manage resettlement cases. The agency resettled 286 refugees in 2015, mostly from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, including many from the group of “banned” countries. About 40 percent are children.