Travel ban strands refugee chil­dren over­seas

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY JUSTIN WM. MOYER

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.

PHO­TOS BY SALWAN GE­ORGES/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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.

PHO­TOS BY SALWAN GE­ORGES/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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.

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