Rul­ing could slow refugee ar­rivals

Canopy North­west Ar­kan­sas has helped 42 peo­ple re­set­tle in Fayet­teville

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - DAN HOLTMEYER

Ma­jidi Sha­bani once lived in a small vil­lage on the shore of Lake Tan­ganyika, a 400-mile-long strip of wa­ter in south-cen­tral Africa. He was 19 when mili­ti­a­men broke into his house and killed his fa­ther, forc­ing Sha­bani to flee alone to a refugee camp a thou­sand miles to the south.

Seven­teen years later, Sha­bani doesn’t know if his mother sur­vived or is still alive. But he and his wife and

chil­dren are liv­ing a dif­fer­ent kind of life in Fayet­teville. He works as a cashier, his wife works at a day­care, and they have an idea to start a shoe busi­ness.

“It is a quiet place and peace­ful place,” he said Thurs­day. “I think we are cop­ing. I’m so happy to be here.”

The on-again, off-again flow of refugees such as Sha­bani to North­west Ar­kan­sas will likely slow in the com­ing months, said Emily Linn, re­set­tle­ment di­rec­tor for the refugee-fo­cused non­profit Canopy North­west Ar­kan­sas.

Canopy since last fall has helped 42 peo­ple flee­ing vi­o­lence and per­se­cu­tion re­set­tle in Fayet­teville amid a na­tion­wide court dis­pute over the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­forts to pause the refugee pro­gram and cap its yearly size, Linn said. The U.S. Supreme Court last week de­cided those lim­its could par­tially stand un­til it re­views their le­gal­ity in Oc­to­ber.

What that means for refugees de­pends on their par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tions, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. State Depart­ment and Linn.

For ex­am­ple, a large fam­ily from the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of the Congo in cen­tral

Africa will still travel here this week be­cause their plane tick­ets were al­ready booked. Sha­bani is from the same coun­try, where mil­lions have died dur­ing decades of bat­tle, star­va­tion and dis­ease, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions World Food Pro­gramme.

But other rel­a­tives who were sup­posed to fol­low the fam­ily later, along with other refugees, could be barred for months be­cause of the tim­ing of their trips and other fac­tors.

“We’ll just stay tuned, and hope­fully this all shakes out to be OK,” Linn said.


Al­most 23 mil­lion refugees around the world have fled re­li­gious, eth­nic and po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence in Syria and dozens of other coun­tries, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and other Repub­li­cans have said refugees pose a na­tional se­cu­rity risk, point­ing to at­tacks such as the one in Paris in Novem­ber, which killed 130 and was car­ried out by Euro­pean cit­i­zens linked to the Is­lamic State ter­ror group in Syria and Iraq.

Trump early this year or­dered a 120-day pause to refugee ad­mis­sions, a sim­i­lar halt to any travel from sev­eral coun­tries and a yearly limit of 50,000 refugees, down from 85,000 last year. He said he would use the time to re­view and im­prove the vet­ting process of refugees by the Depart­ment of Homeland Se­cu­rity and other agen­cies.

“As pres­i­dent, I can­not al­low peo­ple into our coun­try who want to do us harm,” Trump said in a state­ment after the Supreme Court de­ci­sion. “I want peo­ple who can love the United States and all of its cit­i­zens, and who will be hard­work­ing and pro­duc­tive.”

No refugee has killed an Amer­i­can in a ter­ror­ist at­tack since the vet­ting sys­tem was put in place in the 1970s, ac­cord­ing to the lib­er­tar­ian-lean­ing Cato In­sti­tute. But for­mer Fed­eral Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion di­rec­tor James Comey last year said

“there’s no risk-free process” be­cause agen­cies don’t have in­for­ma­tion on ev­ery refugee can­di­date.

Sev­eral states sued the ad­min­is­tra­tion, claim­ing the lim­its, par­tic­u­larly the one af­fect­ing cer­tain coun­tries, harmed uni­ver­si­ties and other in­sti­tu­tions and were in­spired by prej­u­dice to­ward Is­lam. Sev­eral courts have agreed, point­ing to Trump’s own state­ments about Mus­lims, or have found other le­gal flaws in the or­ders.

Through it all, refugees have con­tin­ued ar­riv­ing in North­west Ar­kan­sas in fits and starts, tak­ing English and work classes, en­rolling their kids in school and find­ing jobs, Linn said. One re­cently earned his driver’s li­cense and got hired as a me­chanic.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment pays Canopy for three months to help fam­i­lies be­come self-sup­port­ing. All have suc­ceeded, Linn said, prais­ing the vol­un­teer teams that help each fam­ily and the broader com­mu­nity for its sup­port.


Sha­bani and his fam­ily

were among the first to come, ar­riv­ing a few days be­fore Christ­mas.

Sha­bani spent most of the past 17 years in a refugee camp in Namibia, near Africa’s south­ern end. He worked oc­ca­sion­ally in the coun­try’s cap­i­tal as a teacher and Ara­bic trans­la­tor, but gen­er­ally couldn’t leave the camp.

Ap­ply­ing for more sta­ble re­set­tle­ment in an­other coun­try meant years of hours­long in­ter­views, re­fer­rals from one agency to an­other and more in­ter­views to dou­ble-, triple-, quadru­ple-check his story and other de­tails.

“Pend­ing, pend­ing, pend­ing,” Sha­bani was told.

The fi­nal in­ter­view came last sum­mer, when the U.S., Canada and Aus­tralia were con­sid­er­ing his case. Some­time later Sha­bani’s fam­ily was about to eat break­fast when he checked their sta­tus on­line. The U.S. had ap­proved the ap­pli­ca­tion. That break­fast went un­eaten.

“Is it re­ally what I’m see­ing here? No!” Sha­bani said in dis­be­lief, as he re­called Thurs­day with a big smile. “It was a joy­ful day.”

The flip­ping of the sea­sons

from the South­ern Hemi­sphere took some get­ting used to, but Sha­bani said Namibia’s cap­i­tal is sim­i­lar to North­west Ar­kan­sas, hilly and roughly equal in pop­u­la­tion.

He’s in­ter­view­ing for a job at the Fort Smith Is­lamic Cen­ter and would move there if he gets it, he said. But he said Canopy and its team of vol­un­teers have been lov­ing, car­ing com­pan­ions for his fam­ily. About a dozen greeted them at the air­port in De­cem­ber, and vol­un­teers typ­i­cally help fur­nish apart­ments and get fam­i­lies to all of their ap­point­ments.


The Supreme Court has fi­nal re­view in the le­gal con­tro­versy over refugees. It said last week the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion lim­its could stand for the next few months for trav­el­ers and mi­grants who don’t have “bona fide” con­nec­tions to peo­ple and groups in the U.S.

The State Depart­ment later said peo­ple al­ready booked to travel and those with par­ents, chil­dren, sib­lings and spouses in the coun­try can

still come in. Be­ing as­signed to a refugee agency such as Canopy isn’t enough on its own, of­fi­cials told re­porters Thurs­day.

Linn said that means many refugees will likely be barred for now. A hand­ful will con­tinue to come to North­west Ar­kan­sas un­der a pro­gram al­low­ing Cen­tral Amer­i­can chil­dren flee­ing gang vi­o­lence to re­unite with fam­ily mem­bers who im­mi­grated legally to the U.S.

“The un­cer­tainty’s been un­for­tu­nate,” Linn said, not­ing can­celled travel plans mean can­celled de­posits for apart­ments and other trou­bles for Canopy.

Third Dis­trict Rep. Steve Wo­mack, a Repub­li­can from Rogers, and two other state con­gress­men last year wrote a let­ter to the State Depart­ment op­pos­ing the re­set­tle­ment of refugees in Ar­kan­sas, cit­ing con­cerns with the vet­ting process. Beau Walker, Wo­mack’s chief of staff, said Wo­mack is “still very con­cerned” with that process.

If the gov­ern­ment could guar­an­tee all refugees’ back­grounds are fully vet­ted, “that would help the sit­u­a­tion,” Walker said.


John Wider holds up a sign wel­com­ing Mus­lims in the Tom Bradley In­ter­na­tional Ter­mi­nal at Los An­ge­les In­ter­na­tional Air­port. A scaled-back ver­sion of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s travel ban took ef­fect Thurs­day evening, stripped of pro­vi­sions that brought protests and chaos at air­ports world­wide in Jan­uary yet still likely to gen­er­ate a new round of court fights.

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