Travel ban en­snares U.S. foster pro­gram

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NATIONAL - ELLEN KNICKMEYER

SAN FRAN­CISCO — Tianna Rooney has al­ready bought the poster board for the sign she’ll wave when the 16-year-old refugee boy her fam­ily is tak­ing in ar­rives in the United States. Rooney knows the ex­act words of wel­come she’ll write on it, in the teenager’s na­tive lan­guage from the African coun­try of Eritrea.

But Rooney’s fam­ily is leav­ing the sign blank, for now. She and her hus­band, Todd, fear ac­tu­ally writ­ing the words “Wel­come Home” could break her heart.

The foster son they’re wait­ing for is part of a small, 3-decade-old U.S. pro­gram for so-called un­ac­com­pa­nied refugee mi­nors that has been halted by a se­ries of new refugee bans and travel lim­its im­posed by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion in the name of fight­ing ter­ror­ism.

By block­ing the pro­gram, the U.S. travel bans have stranded more than 100 refugee chil­dren who were al­ready matched to wait­ing Amer­i­can foster fam­i­lies. With­out par­ents or other adult rel­a­tives, those kids are liv­ing on their own in coun­tries of tem­po­rary refuge, in limbo while their U.S. foster par­ents hope for a court rul­ing that will al­low the chil­dren to fin­ish their jour­neys.

Since the June day a refugee agency matched the Rooneys with their foster son, which turned out to be the same day of the first Supreme Court rul­ing bar­ring him, “we have ex­pe­ri­enced this very un­ex­pected ride of grief in our fam­ily,” says Rooney, a 39-year-old fam­ily ther­a­pist and mother of two from Brighton, a sub­urb of Detroit.

Mean­while, the boy who fled his home coun­try at 13 to avoid wide­spread forced mil­i­tary con­scrip­tion of chil­dren con­tin­ues to fend for him­self on the streets in his tem­po­rary refuge in an­other African cap­i­tal, with no phone or In­ter­net for the Rooneys to reach him to ex­plain the de­lay.

“There’s part of me that re­ally hopes he knows a fam­ily wants him,” Tianna Rooney says.

Since the 1980s, the pro­gram for or­phaned refugee chil­dren has brought in more than 6,000 refugee chil­dren, in­clud­ing 203 last year.

“Th­ese are kids on their own, and strug­gling to sur­vive,” said El­iz­a­beth Foy­del, pol­icy coun­sel with the In­ter­na­tional Refugee As­sis­tance Project, a Wash­ing­ton, D.C., le­gal-aid group for refugees.

The pro­gram for or­phaned refugee chil­dren from around the world is dif­fer­ent from one started by for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion in 2014 for Cen­tral Amer­i­can chil­dren flee­ing a surge in vi­o­lence there.

In the pro­gram for un­ac­com­pa­nied refugee chil­dren, kids liv­ing by them­selves in a refugee camp or else­where must first come to the at­ten­tion of a U.N. agency, which may choose to re­fer them for the U.S. foster pro­gram, es­pe­cially if the chil­dren are deemed to be par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble. The chil­dren must then pass U.S. se­cu­rity screen­ings and other re­quire­ments, and be matched with an Amer­i­can foster fam­ily or group home.

But a se­ries of Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion or­ders, and court rul­ings in­ter­pret­ing them, are now bar­ring refugees with no close fam­ily in the United States. That re­quire­ment shuts out the refugee chil­dren in the foster pro­gram, who have no rel­a­tives they can turn to any­where.

The child refugees newly blocked from wait­ing Amer­i­can foster fam­i­lies in­clude five Ethiopian sis­ters, ages 9 to 16. The girls lost both par­ents in 2009, and have faced abuse alone in the war zone of neigh­bor­ing South Su­dan and in Su­danese cities, said Jes­sica Jones, pol­icy coun­sel for the Bal­ti­more-based Lutheran Im­mi­gra­tion and Refugee Ser­vice. Along with the U.S. Con­fer­ence of Catholic Bish­ops, the Luther­ans are one of two U.S. groups run­ning the pro­gram on be­half of the U.S. State Depart­ment.

Other wait­ing chil­dren in­clude a 17-year-old cou­ple orig­i­nally from the Asian coun­try of Burma and the baby they had to­gether in a refugee camp, af­ter flee­ing at­tacks on their Ro­hingya re­li­gious mi­nor­ity in Burma.

Refugee work­ers say the fam­ily faces forced re­turn to Burma if their U.S. ar­range­ments fall through.

In San Fran­cisco, mean­while, Web de­signer Julie Ra­jagopal and hus­band Mike Gougherty, a se­nior plan­ner for a re­gional ferry sys­tem, are two of the lucky ones.

The 16-year-old boy they are fos­ter­ing also fled a life­time of forced mil­i­tary ser­vice in Eritrea, at 13. When he landed in March, a slight youth com­ing off the plane in an ill-made track­suit, he was among the last refugee foster chil­dren to make it into the U.S.

Mean­while, in Brighton, Tianna Rooney got out the poster board, think­ing to work on the wel­come sign. Af­ter a con­cerned look from her hus­band, she put it away.

“We want to think pos­i­tive thoughts” that their foster son will come safely, Todd Rooney said. “But with­out en­dan­ger­ing our­selves. With­out set­ting our­selves up for a heartache.”


Mike Gougherty (cen­ter) and Julie Ra­jagopal pose for pho­tos with their 16-year-old foster child from Eritrea at Dolores Park in San Fran­cisco. When their foster child landed in March, he was among the last refugee foster chil­dren to make it into the U.S.

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