What Will America Look Like?
Families Seek Refuge in the Elm City
On a brisk and sunny Saturday afternoon, a line of marchers, old and young alike, make their way down Orange Street, from Wilbur Cross High School to the New Haven Green. “Say it Loud! Say it Clear! Refugees are Welcome Here!” they chant in unison, brandishing signs in the air. A giant, paper-mache President Donald Trump — platinum blond hair swept up with the breeze — is propped up on a wooden pole, his body bearing the words: “My immigrant ancestors forgot to teach me tolerance, humility and compassion.”
This is the March for Refugees, organized by New Haven-based refugee resettlement agency, Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, as part of a larger response to the recent executive order issued by the Trump administration. The order, issued on Jan. 27, would suspend the entry of all immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries — Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Yemen and Somalia — for 90 days and stop all refugees from entering the country for 120 days.
The crowd gathers on the Green, where one by one, speakers step onto podium to share their experiences: Azhar, a Sudanese refugee living in New Haven, steps onto the podium and begins to talk about her experience fleeing persecution in Sudan. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., speaks of his father’s journey immigrating to New Haven from Europe in the aftermath of World War II. Maher Mahmood, a freelance photographer from Baghdad, describes his experience arriving in Connecticut with his family, as a refugee. He greets the crowd with a youthful grin. “When I first arrived here, I thought it was called ConTENticut.”
“We ran away, we lost our homes, we sought refuge — not because we’re weak, but because we wanted to live in peace,” Azhar said. “We came for a land of dreams and security, but I ask you now, where is it?”
Each speaker touched on the same crucial questions: after so much upheaval, how can they create a new sense of home in New Haven? How will the president’s executive order threaten their attempt to do so? Where is the America that they dreamed of, and what will it look like tomorrow?
Rajaa and Majid* decided to leave Homs, Syria, with their children at the end of 2011. It had become too dangerous to stay: Conflict in the streets had escalated from bullets exchanged between protesters and the government to shellings and bombings of innocent bystanders.
The journey to America was a long, circuitous one. They began by traveling to Jordan, where they lay down temporary roots and waited for the call from United Nations Refugee Agency that would allow them to begin applying for refugee status in the United States. After three years, the call came: a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative invited them to begin the process of resettlement.
They sat for six interviews — two with UNHCR, two with the International Organization for Migration and one with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — and passed screenings by eight government agencies, including the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center and the departments of State, Defense and Homeland Security, along with international intelligence agencies. They were given health screenings, to ensure they wouldn’t pose a public health risk, and attended a cultural orientation session organized by IOM. Because of the United States’ extensive vetting processes, these intensive steps can take between one to three years — for Rajaa and Majid, they took 18 months. Finally free, they boarded a plane to the United States.
That they ended up in New Haven is no accident. It’s not that the city itself is particularly special — its “sanctuary city” status refers to its policy on undocumented immigrants, not refugees. But New Haven is home to the headquarters of IRIS, one of 350 resettlement organizations in the United States. Rajaa and Majid are two of the 420 refugees that go through the IRIS system to arrive in New Haven and surrounding towns, most of whom are Syrians, Iraqis, Afghanis, Sudanese and Congolese families who have been displaced by war or unrest at home, and come seeking sanctuary.
Maher’s family arrived in New Haven in April 2014. Back home in Iraq, because of his involvement with Americans through his work with the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, the local police shot his father and “they told my family that I was next,” said Maher. Their situation was too dangerous, and the family — Maher, his two brothers Mahmood and Mohanad, his sister Warood, his mother Bushra, his father Shakir, wounded but alive — decided to flee their home in Baghdad to Jordan. After a year and a half of limbo in Jordan, the family was successfully granted refugee status in the United States.
After a 16-hour flight from Queen Alia International Airport, Jordan, to John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York, they were picked up by IRIS representatives and driven to their first home in Fair Haven. Three weeks before their family arrived, the IRIS office was already preparing for their arrival: Volunteers and staff members had begun to find apartments, furnish them with donated goods and stock their kitchens with food. When they opened the front door to the new apartment for the first time, IRIS cooked them a traditional Iraqi dinner. In the next few days, the slow process of integrating into the fabric of the United States began.
Coming to America as a refugee means starting entirely from scratch. Friends, families, belongings and a sense of belonging — all left behind in favor of the security of America. Because the U.S. government invites refugees into this country, it is responsible for easing this process of rebuilding, linking families with resettlement organizations like IRIS. In turn, IRIS helps refugees become self-sufficient, providing a wide array of services including daily English lessons, child care, assistance with registering children in the local schools, access to health care provided by their partner institution Yale New Haven Hospital and a thorough multiday cultural orientation.
IRIS also works intensively with each new arrival to begin the important work of finding employment, offering resume assistance, a job club, interview assistance and job placement. With the help of IRIS, Maher was able to get a job working at a pipe insulation company in West Haven. Once a dressmaker in Baghdad, his mother Bushra Mahmood began to look for jobs in tailoring and alteration. A few months after arriving, she was introduced to local New Haven designer Neville Wisdom Fashion. “I walked in one day, and I said, ‘Hi, I’m Bushra, I’m from Iraq and I have 27 years of dressmaking experience,” she said. “I went in again for the next day for a test, and then a couple days later started working there full time.” In Syria, Rajaa worked as a chef; here in New Haven, he’s found a job working in the back of an Arabic-speaking pizza restaurant.
In these ways, families begin to feel tethered in tangible ways — finding stability through jobs, improved language and access to social services. But what’s harder to regain is the sense of home they’ve left behind.
“When I got here was when it really set in,” Gathe Kiwan ’17 said. “You get to that luxury point where you feel safe now, you finally feel like: Okay, now I can take a second to breathe and look around at what’s happening. Like, holy shit — what’s happened to my life in the past few years?” Gathe grew up in Damascus, Syria, and was a senior in high school when the conflict there started. Now, he’s a senior at Yale 5,500 miles and four years separate him from Damascus, but the memories are hard to shake.
When the uprisings started in 2011, the city of Damascus was relatively protected, the brunt of the violence concentrated south and north of the capital. But by the time Gathe graduated high school and started medical school in 2012, security checkpoints clogged the roads, public transportation had slowed, the supply of gas and diesel had been all but shut off. The streets began filling with protesters. Soon, Gathe became one of them.
“It was always very secretive: I wouldn’t tell anybody, and my parents didn’t know,” he said. He’d get a Facebook message, text or call that a protest was planned at a particular place and time. He’d show up at the meeting place, where a screaming crowd of hundreds would gather. And then, within two or three minutes, they would scramble. “The guards at security checkpoints would start coming at you, so we filmed the protests and ran away, and later uploaded it onto YouTube,” he explained.
After protesting like this for a year, Gathe decided to start doing paramedic work instead. Now in his second year of medical school in Damascus, he’d skip class and sneak into the countryside, working to treat victims of bombings in makeshift hospitals set up in tents, or the basements of houses. Other friends volunteered too, smuggling food or medicine or winter clothes. But eventually, friends started getting caught. Government authorized militiamen — called shabiha, which means “The Ghosts,” — who were also fellow students at the medical school would walk into classrooms and pull people out. “They took this friend of mine, Walid, and Walid never came back,” Gathe remembered. “That was the breaking point.” Gathe learned his name was on the shabiha’s list — so quietly, quickly and without explaining much to his parents, he left the country.
From here, Gathe’s trajectory diverges from that of many Syrians who end up in New Haven: He was born in America, which makes him an American citizen. This allowed him to avoid the extended process most refugees go through before settling in. He moved in with his uncle in Virginia, where he worked 50 hours a week at a Mexican restaurant and took five or six classes a semester at a community college, hoping to get enough credits to get into medical school again, this time in the U.S. He applied to Yale, and got in.
Now, Gathe is finishing his final year at Yale, a molecular, cellular and developmental biology major on a pre-med track who spends his time tinkering with proteins in the lab, playing rugby and reading. He likes New Haven, and sees himself staying here, at least for a few more years.
“There’s just this black cloud in my mind over Syria, constantly, and when that cloud is gone — whatever that cloud might be — I do plan on going back one day. I’m probably not going to leave for at least 10 years, if I’m going to be a doctor,” he laughed. “But we’ll see, in 10 years, what America looks like. I’ll make my decision then.”
Three years after arriving here, Maher has begun to regain his sense of grounding, this time in New Haven. In the morning, he wakes up, makes coffee and spends the morning in his room editing and sorting photos on Adobe Lightroom. A year ago, he left his first job working at a pipe insulation company in West Haven and started doing what he loved ever since Bushra bought him his first camera at age 16: photography. Back in Baghdad, the police broke his camera while he was out on the streets shooting, and he had to take pictures on the sly.
Now, as a freelance photographer, he shoots everything from protest coverage to advertisements to wedding photography, has a vibrant Instagram presence (@mahervisionphotography) and regularly updates his Snapchat story. While shooting the IRIS Run for Refugees last year, he bumped into two other photographers making a documentary on the refugee experience called “Welcome to America,” who liked his photos and invited Mahmood to join their company, Albatross Productions. His favorite assignments are always portraits (“I love to sit with people, listen to their stories and take pictures,” he said) and his preferred style is black-and-white. (“It adds more power to the pictures,” he explained.)
As Maher edits his photos, Bushra is in the room across the hall, altering a dress in her makeshift home office. Since she first arrived, Bushra has started her own thriving dressmaking and tailoring business. Chris George, executive director of IRIS, gave her a sewing machine and Maher designed her a business card. Warood, now a student at Gateway Community College, has inherited Bushra’s creative talents, and wants to go to art school and become a painter. Recently, she and Maher did a joint exhibition of their artworks (her paintings, his photography) at Albertus Magnus College. One of her favorite paintings — a colorful rendering of former U.S. President Barack Obama, which she made back when the family was still in Jordan — is now propped up against the wall of her bedroom. (“She’s still trying to figure out how to mail it to him,” Bushra explained.)
In the evening, after having prepared and eaten dinner — at times American fare of pizza and sandwiches, at times Arabic food such as shawarma and biryani with her family — Bushra attends an English as a second language writing class at Gateway Community College on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, from 8:30 to 9:50 p.m.
When they first arrived, of all the members of the Mahmood family, only Maher spoke English, which he taught himself entirely through Google Translate. Back in Baghdad, he used to write down the words of the American soldiers that he worked with, and would put them through Google Translate once he got home. “That’s why somebody told me I have a Google accent!” he explained with a chuckle.
One of Bushra’s greatest accomplishments has been passing her driving test in English. “For a long time, we would be like: ‘Where is mom?’ And she’d be in her bedroom studying for her written test,” her youngest son Mohanad said. “She passed it completely in English,” he added proudly.
When Bushra can’t get a point across in English, Mohanad, now a middle schooler at Fair Haven School, functions as her pocket translator, quick to come to his mother’s aid, translating phrases of Arabic into his second language on the fly. “When we first arrived, I thought there was no way I would be able to learn English,” Mohanad said. “But I had this amazing teacher Mr. Zack who would always push us super hard, and now, I’ve improved so much.”
As a student at Fair Haven School, he loves math, plays on the basketball team, wants to go into something related to “tech or coding or editing” and has his own YouTube Channel. “That’s my thing,” Mohanad announced proudly. “I make YouTube Videos.” The last one he edited was one of Maher’s friends snowboarding over a ramp and face-planting into the snow. With Bushra’s help, he has converted the large closet next to the living room into a snug bedroom cum editing studio. On his bed, next to a stack of honor roll certificates that he has collected over the years, is a microphone, a pair of headphones propped on a stand and a wooden block with a red YouTube Logo that he carved and painted in woodshop class. A small, feathered dream catcher hangs on his wall. “I found it in a thrift store and liked the way it looked,” he said. “So I bought it and hung it up in my room.”
On the wall next to the dining table hangs a colorful, tapestry that Bushra embroidered herself. It depicts a moment from Bushra’s own life, from back when she was in Jordan. In the scene, Bushra is sitting next to a friend, who is predicting her future with fortune-telling leaves. “She told me that in the future, I would go to a foreign place, and that I would make good friends,” she said. “I had no idea that all of these things would actually happen.”
Arriving in the United States, making friends and carving out a community, however, is not simply the product of chance. There are active structural forces that allow this to happen. “We use a community sponsorship model here in New Haven,” George said. IRIS has its own team of community volunteers that work on-site, but it also partners with other groups like the Yale Refugee Project, where student volunteers are matched with refugee families and college-age individuals. They do small things, like help pick up mail, shovel snow, cook dinner; and big things, like help them understand American culture. “We have to explain that just because people are running down the street you don’t need to be alarmed,” George said, by way of example. “They’re not running from snipers or shellings, they just want to get exercise.”
Fostering relationships within the refugee community itself is equally important, however. At IRIS-sponsored programs like ESL lessons and workshops, or at community mosques and churches, individuals from similar regions or countries meet, linked by language or culture or shared rememberings. Together, they tell stories from the past, trace alleyways that may no longer exist, recall restaurants they used to visit and exchange words of advice for the future.
Together, they reconstruct an old home through shared memories, and, in doing so, they begin to create a new one in New Haven.
On Jan. 27, 2017, 4:42 p.m. Eastern time, Trump signed an executive order that threw a wrench into the possibility for more stories like the Mahmood family’s — of fleeing persecution and creating a new life and new home in the United States.
If Gathe had been stopped from flying to Virginia back in 2013, he might have been killed by the shabiha. If Rajaa and Majid had been delayed in their journey to New Haven, they might still be waiting. Luckily, none of these people suffer from a chronic illness — for someone like Mahir,* a Syrian refugee, a stoppage would have been a death sentence: Mahir has cancer, and would have been delayed access to the vital chemotherapy he sought at Yale New Haven Hospital. Heba Gowayed, a Princeton Ph.D. candidate who studies refugee resettlement in the United States, Canada and Italy, and who organized the March for Refugees, works with Syrian refugees in New Haven. For three families she knows, a delay would mean long-term health effects for their children — one of whom is deaf, one who has severe Down syndrome and another with chronic spine problems.
For those who are stuck waiting in refugee camps, or for those who have already started the arduous process of security and health clearances, the order puts them in a dangerous purgatory. “People say, ‘What’s the problem with a 120-day stoppage?’ But if you stop somebody at the top of the roster, some experts have said that it would add two years to the process,” Gowayed explained. Bureaucracy moves slowly, especially when it comes to international security. One hundred-twenty days could soon turn into years of red tape, delays and vetting processes. It’s not just a temporary inconvenience, she says. “People’s lives are in the balance.”
The language of the order focused specifically on stopping more refugees from coming into the states, but George is deeply worried about the immediate and direct implications of the ban on the refugees currently living in New Haven as well. What’s scariest, George said, is the fear that future orders will be issued, and that they will be harsher. “Refugee clients are scared that the executive orders are just the beginning of a shift in the government attitude towards refugees,” he said. “They’re afraid Trump might do what he said, which is deport all recently arrived refugees.” Without a comprehensive understanding of the American constitution; or the judicial branch; or the extent to which an executive like Trump can, unchecked, alter the lives of U.S. citizens, refugees are left in the dark — a tenuous place to be.
To inform the refugee community and to allay their fears, IRIS has begun holding presentations most weeks on the real implications of executive orders, what their rights as legal citizens are and how the separation of powers in the government works. “It ends up being largely a kind of civics lesson,” said George. “[I talk about the] strength and independence of judiciary, the limitations on the executive branch … ” He made it very clear: refugees that are already settled in New Haven — and in the rest of the country — won’t be ejected without a fight.
Since refugees are legal residents, invited into this country by the United States government, there are only three ways they can be deported: If they commit an aggravated felony; if they’re accused of plotting terrorism; or if the basis for their refugee status turns out to be false. “We’ve assured them that some of the laws that actually protect U.S. citizens are the laws that would prevent them from being rounded up and deported,” said George. “The laws that protect you from deportation are old and deep and rooted in our Constitution. It’s unlikely they would be changed.”
What could change, however, is the level of federal funding available to organizations like IRIS, and the access to social services that recent refugees, like many low-income Americans, need to survive.
Refugees are only supported by government resources and organizations like IRIS for eight to nine months. During this accelerated adjustment period, refugees are expected to learn the language, secure health insurance, find jobs and become financially independent. What happens if federal funding to organizations like IRIS shrinks or dissolves completely? Would the period of access to resettlement services be shortened to weeks or days?
While IRIS depends on the government for most of its funds, private donations (through events like the Run for Refugees, for example) have the potential to bolster the organization even if federal funding dries up. The government gives IRIS approximately $2,000 for each refugee they take in; this year, the run raised almost $200,000. But it’s not enough: IRIS needs to pay its own overhead costs as well as stock family refrigerators and run workshops. “If federal assistance is cut, [IRIS] needs to be compensated,” says Gowayed. “We as a community need to contribute and find resources.”
Refugees also depend on services that support all Americans, like the Affordable Care Act — another program that is under threat of being repealed under the Trump administration. Aniyizhai Annamalai, director of the Primary Care Refugee Center at Yale New Haven Hospital, says that though refugees are expected to find their own health insurance after their nine months of Medicaid is over, many families go uninsured. Some people with dependent-age children can retain Medicaid under a Connecticut health program called HUSKY; other people apply for Yale New Haven Hospital’s free care program, which is offered to those whose income is less than two and a half times the Federal Poverty Level. And after the expansion of the ACA, many more refugees were able to sign up for the health plan at lower costs. Without it, fewer refugees will be covered, and more cases will go untreated. This is a reality many low-income Americans will have to grapple with. “It’s not just about refugees,” insists Gowayed. “This is a story of people of color, and poor people in America getting the raw end of the deal when it comes to this administration.”
Refugees are more likely than any other minority or low-income group to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety due to trauma, however. The subsequent upheaval of displacement and stress about finding jobs or supporting oneself financially only exacerbate these problems: Gathe remembers sinking into a depression his sophomore year at Yale, scarred by memories that were beginning to resurface; feeling alone in New Haven as war escalated at home. Treating mental health problems is crucial, but getting care without insurance is expensive. Annamalai worries that without the ACA, critical cases will slip through the cracks.
“You have to recognize that the American government resettles these refugees as part of a moral program,” Gowayed explains. “They’re picking the most vulnerable refugees, the ones that need the most help.” The current administration is thinking about the economics of it — ever-focused on the bottom line. But our refugee policy never used to be about that, she argues: it was always about taking responsibility for those who are most vulnerable in the world. “If we lose sight of that, we lose sight of the meaning of our country.”
There are also darker, more shadowy reverberations that ripple out from the order: an implication in the language of the order that refugees — at least those from the seven listed countries — aren’t welcome here.
“What crime is it that we have committed? Is it that we carry the mark of a refugee?” Azhar yelled on the Sunday of the march. Her eyes lock with the giant, glaring papier-mache Trump. “Who would choose to lose everything? We don’t know the motives [of the war], or the dates of its birth; all we know is that we spilled blood as though the ground was thirsty for it. If we wanted to destroy, why did we come here looking for peace?”
Azhar voices a concern many share: that in packaging this ban as a national security measure — framing refugees as potential terrorists — the Trump administration has propagated a rhetoric of fear that will color perceptions of all refugees, despite evidence that, in the years after vetting procedures were bolstered through the Refugee Act of 1980, no refugee has been responsible for an act of terror in the United States. New Haven has welcomed families like Mahir’s with open arms, but some fear that that openness will change if accepting refugees continues to be equated with the threat of terrorism.
“It’s something so jarring to these people who had just run away from war, who had just experienced displacement,” explains Gowayed. People like Azhar fear violence again, this time in the country that promised an escape.
This anxiety can manifest itself physically as well as emotionally. After hearing news of the order, Annamalai began preparing for the worst. “I was afraid it would cause a lot of hospital visits, even hospitalizations for anxiety or severe distress,” she explained. “And a handful of refugees did go to the ER in the few days after because they were so anxious — either experiencing physical symptoms or just severely anxious.” When Bushra first saw the news about Trump’s executive order on their living room television, she was so anxious that she became physically sick, and had to be sent to the Yale New Haven Hospital emergency room.
Annamalai sees dozens of refugee patients a week, and has observed a range of reactions since the ban was first put in place. “Some refugees have been quite upset, very worried about their families overseas. Some refugees have taken it in stride,” she said. “They’ve gone through several upheavals and they think this is just another wrinkle. Eventually things will be right.”
It is perhaps easier for Gathe to take the positive stance Annamalai mentions because he is an American citizen, who doesn’t have to share the uncertainty that many New Haven refugees live with every day. But he insists that the order won’t have much of an effect on the Syrians he knows who are left at home. “The people who have left, have left. The people who are in Syria now, they don’t want to leave,” he explained. “They’re still there because they want to be there or because they don’t find it plausible to leave.” He mentions his parents by way of example: they have stable jobs as an Information Technology consultant and pharmacist in Syria, and have no intention of leaving the country for the economic uncertainty they’d face in America. Their children are financially independent, and both Gathe and his sister are attending college in the U.S. “It sucks that I can’t bring [my parents] here, it sucks that I can’t afford to pay for it, but I don’t know if they’d even want to come,” he said. But for other families who were unable to travel to America as a unit, a ban means they won’t know when or if they will reunite with family members who have not yet been cleared.
The ban has also shifted the way people think about refugees in New Haven and the country in an unexpected direction, Gathe says. “I don’t know to put this in a way that doesn’t sound crazy, but I’m kind of glad Trump did what he did because it’s finally woken up America,” he explains. “When I came here in 2013 it was the most depressing thing ever to live every day knowing what was happening in Syria and to see everyone here give no shits at all.” Now, he says, people stop and ask him how he and his family are doing, and send him messages of support. Maybe the ban will serve as a call to action to individuals who had previously stayed silent regarding international issues. Maybe now, he hopes, there will be rallying cries to accept more refugees than the “pitiful number” they accepted before. In 2016, the United States accepted around 85,000 refugees. Jordan accepted almost 2 million.
Mahmood doesn’t go so far as to say the ban has positive ramifications, but admits that in New Haven at least, the change in attitude is clear. “Before the Trump executive order, not everyone knew what a refugee was,” said Mahmood. “But after Donald Trump, more people started thinking about refugees and seeing what IRIS does, how they work and start being friendlier to me.”
Even if the ban has acted as a wake-up call for some, it’s plunged much of the country into a darker nightmare. “A lot of people think that the Trump administration has made people wake up,” said Gowayed, shaking her head. “Some people can find silver lining to anything, I guess. But the reality is, this ban has a direct and clear impact on people’s lives.”
Refugees were promised that their situation here would be better than the one they left behind. With Trump’s January order, that promise seems to turn to dust. “They came to America to find a home, to find a place to settle and lay down roots after their home was violently taken from them,” she explained. “America invited them to come here; said ‘We will take you and here’s what we will offer.’ That we are switching the policy after they’re already here is a dangerous and scary thing.”
After spending the hours after the order was issued in the hospital, panicking and short of breath, Bushra said that her anxieties were assuaged the next day, when she received a slew of supportive text messages from her friends and neighbours. “Bushra, don’t worry! They were writing to me,” Bushra said. “I’m with you!” When she went to the IRIS March for Refugees, she was touched by the number of people she saw. “Look, these are American people,” Bushra remembered thinking. “They’re like me, they support me.”
Bushra prides herself on being optimistic and open-minded. “I don’t care about the nationality of the people who I work and live with,” she said. Warood, for example, has an American boyfriend, who is Christian, but “we don’t mind that, we love that,” said Bushra, who is Muslim. He was Bushra’s English teacher at Gateway, and came by their home one day to drop off a jacket for Bushra to alter. At their home on Orange Street, he bumped into Warood, and it was the beginning of a blossoming romance. Last year, Warood spent Thanksgiving with his family.
Bushra has imparted her open-minded spirit to her children. Maher adamantly rejects stereotypes and prejudices. “People often tell me, white people are racist, black people will kill you and Latino people will give you drugs,” explained Maher. “And I [say] no! You do not know anything! Have you met these people?”
“I try to be a very friendly, social guy,” he added. The first week Maher arrived in the New Haven, he went straight to the Green in search of new friends. “I walked up to this girl and was like excuse me, my name is Maher and I am a refugee,” he explained. “But then she was like, I have a boyfriend!” Maher laughs.
His default mode is to give everyone he encounters the benefit of the doubt. Once, while walking in New York City, a man came up to him and called him a “fucking terrorist.” “He shouted at me, and told me if I remembered 9/11 and to go back home,” said Maher. “Of course it made me sad, but I wish he would’ve just ask me to sit down for coffee and talk. After talking to me, he could judge if I were a good person or a bad person. He should’ve come to have dinner with my family. Then, he could’ve made a judgement.”
However, not everyone will able to take the anti-Muslim, anti-refugee rhetoric and fear mongering as lightly as Maher has. “Our clients from the Middle East have suffered a lot of insults, more than they have suffered before, using the language of rounding up people, of detaining them, calling them terrorists. Some of them are so terrified that they are afraid to leave their homes, afraid to take the bus.” said Sabrineh Ardalan, assistant director at the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic, and a visiting professor at the Yale Law School. “So we need to constantly emphasize to them that they have every right to be here, and no executive order can change that.”
According to Mohanad, after the announcement of the executive order, teachers at Fair Haven School organized discussions among the students, to address all of their concerns. “They were like if you need to talk, we can help you. If you need to sort out paperwork, we can help you,” said Mohanad. “It’s your own right to stay here, to focus on your education and make your family happy. Don’t worry about the stuff that they are saying. Focus on your future.”
The future is precisely what the Mahmood family has been focusing on. While the country waits for Trump to make his next move, while protestors continue to take the streets to denounce his policies, and while organizations like IRIS continue to help refugees build their own homes in New Haven, they have continued working hard to realize their dreams. Bushra is trying to gain more customers so that she can open up her own dressmaking store on Orange Street, Maher hopes to become a famous photographer, and her youngest Mohanad is studying hard so that he can attend Yale after graduating high school.
One day, Bushra hopes that the family can save enough money to buy a big house with a garden, like they used to have outside their Baghdad home. Their current apartment on Orange Street does not have a big garden, but their dining room is nevertheless lined with a row of potted plants — succulents and Chinese evergreens that Bushra bought from IKEA — and a pot of red poinsettias they received as a Christmas gift.
Bushra misses her mom and her siblings, some of whom are still in Iraq, and others who are stuck in a state of limbo in Jordan. But when asked where home is, Bushra says that home is America, and no executive order will change that. “I love this country,” said Bushra. “This is my country now.”
She gestures to their warm Orange Street apartment, to the living room, filled with framed photographs of Maher’s work, to the glass tea set on the dining table, to the rose taped to the kitchen cabinet (a Valentine’s Day gift from one of Bushra’s friends), to the mannequins in her office on which her carefully stitched dresses are proudly displayed. Most of their neighbors, whom they have become close friends with, and regularly host parties with, are immigrants like themselves; another Iraqi family lives on the seventh floor, and there is an Arabic grocery store just next door.
Will this, the America envisioned by the Mahmood family, the America of Bushra’s dreams, be what America will look like?
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the refugees.