Trump’s Immigration ban leaves Syrian family stuck in Jordan

Orient Net - NPR 2017-02-05 14:14:00

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Six-year-old Yazan al-Saleh sits on the floor next to a kerosene heater playing with a phone app that sings the alphabet in English. The first grader recites the letters in an Arabic accent certain to quickly disappear if he and his family, Syrian refugees, make it to the United States.

After two years of waiting and background checks, al-Saleh’s parents and their three young children were accepted for US resettlement and were due to fly this past week to New York.

Six-year-old Yazan wants to be a policeman. His parents say he started stuttering after being frightened by the sound of Assad and Russian jets in Syria and he still doesn’t talk much.

When they were told their trip had been canceled because of the Trump administration’s ban on Syrian arrivals, they had already sold all the second-hand furniture they had painstakingly accumulated in two years in Jordan. They had packed their clothes and an album of photos from their home in Aleppo, Syria into big black duffle bags to start their new life.

The father, Rafiq al-Saleh, a high school geography teacher in Syria, had pored over the itinerary — Amman to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Chicago and Chicago to New York. And then to Syracuse in upstate New York.

"I looked it up on Google maps and I read that it’s an industrial city. ... I was told there was lots of work there," al-Saleh says. "It doesn’t matter if it’s the kind of work I did at home. I will do anything."

The al-Salehs are among hundreds of Syrian refugees in Jordan accepted for resettlement in the United States who have been left stranded — at least for now — by the travel ban.

Rafiq and his wife Ghada Dibo were among the last Syrian refugees allowed into Jordan two years ago before it closed its borders to the refugees next door. The small country has taken in more than a million refugees — more than half of them Syrian.

Al-Saleh, 34, says he has never met an American. Asked what he knows about the country that was to be their new home, he says:

We know there is democracy and freedom. My friends who are there say you feel like you are a human being — a citizen. You have rights. No one can oppress you. Even the children have rights.

When the fighting worsened in Aleppo, the couple left home with two young children, traveling through the desert at night to evade checkpoints to reach safety. Their youngest child, a bubbly 13-month-old girl, was born in Jordan.

They ended up in the industrial city of Zarqa. Most refugees aren’t allowed to work in Jordan. Al-Saleh runs the risk of being arrested by picking up occasional work in construction to pay their rent.

"I don’t feel secure here," he says. "I am always afraid of the possibility of being deported back to Syria. We are always watching what we say. Even on Facebook we make sure not to write anything critical."

Al-Saleh has taken an English course offered by a Japanese organization in Amman and believes he’d learn the language quickly. It would be easy for the children, he says.

As Yazan listens to the alphabet and numbers, his 4 and a half-year-old little sister Media goes to sit next to him and sings along. The two-room apartment with paint peeling off the concrete walls is empty except for a single kerosene heater and the television that al-Saleh was able to buy back. Neighbors have lent them foam mattresses to sleep on the floor.

"The kids have been saying, ’in America we’ll do this, in America we’ll do that,’ " says their mother. Media was particularly excited at the thought of having her own room.

Ghada Dibo says she didn’t know what to tell the children about why they weren’t going. "My daughter asked, ’Mama where are our things, why don’t we have them? Why aren’t we going to America?’ and then she started to cry," she says.

Dibo says she herself broke down and cried.

"I feel like a huge disaster has happened to us. ... We can’t afford to replace the things we sold and we have been left with nothing. No one is explaining anything to us."

The day after the travel ban was rolled back by a US court, the family had not been notified of any new travel date.

Over the weekend, they received a call from an aid agency to see if they could travel on Monday, but they haven’t confirmed that they’re traveling.

Al-Saleh says he had heard that Canada had offered to take in the Syrian refugees who were to be resettled in the United States.

"Maybe they will let us go to another country — to Europe or Canada," he says.