Travel ban strands refugee children overseas
The tranquil home of James Isaacs, an Episcopal priest, and wife Maggie Brewinski Isaacs, a pediatrician, sits on a hill above a creek on 51/2 wooded acres in suburban Maryland. Inside, an unoccupied bedroom awaits a refugee ready to join the family.
But the 16-year-old girl, blocked by the Trump administration’s travel ban, is stuck in an Ethiopian refugee camp and might never see the room.
“The children ask us when their big sister is going to arrive,” James Isaacs said of his sons, ages 4 and 2, one of whom was adopted from South Africa. “We are left in this time of uncertainty because of the administration and the Supreme Court decision.”
The girl, from the East African nation of Eritrea and identified to The Washington Post only by her initials “M.T.” to protect her privacy, is an “unaccompanied minor refugee” — a young, displaced person without a parent or guardian who is seeking refuge in the United States.
On July 19, the Supreme Court allowed the Trump administration’s travel ban to stand, leaving about 100 unaccompanied minor refugees stranded overseas. The decision comes after months of judicial back-and-forth over the ban, casting doubt on the children’s plans to live in the United States.
“They are youth that are on their own,” said Autumn Orme, a director at Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area, which works with unaccompanied minor refugees. “I find it pretty extraordinary that they are managing this all on their own. These are children that don’t have parents to care for them.”
The result: M.T., an orphan who fled child labor in Eritrea two years ago and was approved by the State Department to live in the United States, remains in legal limbo.
“Not only is she missing out now, we’re missing out,” Isaacs said.
The Isaacs family is not the only one with an empty bedroom after the ban.
Irene Stevenson, 55, worked as a labor organizer in Russia and Central Asia before she was expelled by authorities, she said. She moved to Washington in 2007 and lives in a small townhouse near RFK Stadium with Kale and Lida, two Russian wolfhounds, and Nikulin, a longhair cat.
She considered adopting a child for years but was stymied by the paperwork. Then, about 18 months ago, reports about the refugee crisis caused her to “hit the wall,” she said.
“I was thinking about literally the millions of children who have no family, have no home, who are completely alone,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is stupid. I have a home. I can do this.’ ”
Stevenson signed on last year with Lutheran Social Services to become a certified foster parent for an unaccompanied minor refugee. She was approved after about six months of training and cleared out a bedroom for “A.A.,” a 17-year-old Somali girl who fled to Kenya with her grandmother in 2004 after war broke out.
Now, A.A.’s grandmother and father are dead, and her mother can’t be found. Though she was approved to live with Stevenson, she remains in Kenya, where aid workers fear she will be targeted because she is an ethnic minority.
Stevenson — who, like A.A., is Muslim — said she can offer the girl stability. The Trump travel ban, she said, makes that impossible.
“If you’re a 17-year-old girl refugee in Kenya without any living relatives, you don’t have any avenues to try to build something,” Stevenson said. “Building roadblocks seems crazy. It’s wrong.”
Kay Bellor, a vice president at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service in Baltimore, said her agency is one of only two nonprofit organizations in the country that work with the State Department to bring these children into the country. Thirtynine children it planned to bring to U.S. foster homes now cannot come.
About 200 unaccompanied refugee minors arrived in the United States last year, said Ashley Feasley, policy director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the other nonprofit that works with these refugees. Most come from the Congo, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Burma, and are between 15 and 17 years old when referred to the program.
Trump’s travel ban and subsequent court decisions, however, mean more than 60 children the organization was working with are stranded, Feasley said. The initial travel ban, which went into effect with little warning in January, was the first roadblock. After courts removed that, the Supreme Court’s ruling on a modified version of the ban last month blocked the children again.
Then, recently, a federal judge in Hawaii ordered exemptions to the ban for refugees — but that ruling was quashed by the Supreme Court.
Bishop Joe S. Vasquez, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, said the Supreme Court decision in June had “human consequences.”
“We are deeply concerned about the welfare of the many other vulnerable populations who will now not be allowed to arrive and seek protection . . . most notably certain individuals fleeing religious persecution and unaccompanied refugee children,” he said in a statement last month.
Citing the July 19 Supreme Court decision, a State Department spokesman said a refugee’s involvement with a resettlement agency does not qualify as a “bona fide relationship.” If a refugee has another claim to a bona fide relationship, it would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, the spokesman said.
The path to the United States for unaccompanied refugee children is already narrow.
They are identified overseas by the United Nations and must be cleared by doctors and the Department of Homeland Security. Depending on the rules of their home country, they may have to secure travel visas, which can expire if something such as a travel ban even temporarily halts their progress.
And if they turn 18 while waiting for paperwork, as A.A. will in less than a year, they cannot be part of the program. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, will not hear arguments on the travel ban until October.
“If it was something academic — whether a zoning issue is proper — it could wait until October,” Stevenson said. “These are people’s lives. Every time they postpone it, it gets worse.”
Tesfay Rezene ran this gantlet after fleeing his native Eritrea in 2008 at 14, fearing he would be conscripted amid that nation’s tensions with neighboring Ethiopia. He left his family behind, telling his father about his plan at the last minute.
“He told me that, ‘Well, if you think that’s better, you can go,’ ” Rezene said. “It was a very emotional moment. My younger sister, she followed me about a mile — I told her to go back.”
Rezene ended up at Shimelba Refugee Camp in Ethiopia, where he lived for about three years. He called it “one of the very worst places in the world.”
It was hot. There wasn’t enough food, and the need to collect water — available only for a few hours in the morning and afternoon — made it tough to go to school. He lived in two rooms in a small house with up to six people at a time.
After being identified as an unaccompanied minor refugee, he moved to Montgomery County in Maryland in 2011. Living with a foster family, he had his own room, his own computer and started learning English “from scratch,” he said. He’s since become a citizen and studies international politics at Pennsylvania State University’s campus in Berks, Pa.
“I’ve never seen a refugee that is an enemy to the U.S.,” Rezene said. “A refugee is a victim that is looking for someone who can save them. They are looking for someone who can listen to them or share their pain or understand what they are going through.”
Carissa Ralbovsky, 30, and Joe Ralbovsky, 27, are ready to take on the challenge. Before they have children of their own, the Greenbelt, Md., couple wanted to “help someone in need right now,” Carissa Ralbovsky said.
They are Christian — but faith is not the only reason they want to help.
“We think of it not just as a religious thing,” Joe Ralbovsky said. “It’s an American thing.”
Earlier this year, the couple became certified as foster parents and were ready to welcome “B.S.,” a 17-year-old boy from Eritrea.
Teenagers, especially males, are hard to place in foster care, Carissa Ralbovsky said, and they wanted “to take in someone no one else wanted.”
They prepared a room for the boy. They planned to pick him up at the airport on June 26, the day the Supreme Court allowed the travel ban to go into effect. They are still waiting. “I’m most afraid that we have already let him down before he even got here,” she said.
TOP: James Isaacs and his wife, Maggie Brewinski Isaacs, are shown with their children Jimmy, 4, center, and Joseph, 2, at their home in Potomac, Md. The family prepared a room to foster an “unaccompanied minor refugee” from Africa. ABOVE: Irene Stevenson plays with her cat, Nikulin, at home in the District.
TOP: Jimmy Isaacs, 4, left, and his brother, Joseph, 2, play on the bed inside the room that the family has prepared to foster an “unaccompanied minor refugee” from Africa at home in Potomac, Md. ABOVE: Irene Stevenson sits in the room prepared for a 17-year-old Somali girl stranded in Kenya.