Bushra Mohammed spent two hours in English class at a Methodist church Friday before returning to her tidy, one-bedroom apartment in West Raleigh, where she waits.
Mohammed came to the United States in 2015 with her daughter, Rita, then 13. They had escaped the violence in Diyala province in Iraq, which has been called a sectarian tinderbox and a safe haven for terrorists. They made it to Turkey, where Mohammed and her daughter applied for refugee status. The application went through and they arrived in Raleigh, but Mohammed’s son, Ahmed Saeed, now 21, had to apply under a different process because he was an adult.
Eventually, his second application was approved Jan. 18, two days before President Donald Trump was sworn in.
But an executive order Friday by the new president will delay Saeed from coming to America, or perhaps prevent it altogether, depending on the policies put in place by the Trump administration. The order cuts in half the number of refugees who can be admitted to the U.S. this year, and more immediately bars all refugees from entering the U.S. for four months, places an indefinite ban on refugees from Syria and bars all entry of visitors from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen – all predominantly Muslim countries – for 90 days.
“I’m establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America,” Trump said Friday upon signing the order. “We don’t want them here.”
Reaction was swift. Some tweeted the famous photo of a bloodied Syrian child and called Trump’s action inhumane in a nation built on immigrants. Others said the president’s move was a necessary step to protect Americans from those who could infiltrate the country and launch an attack.
“This is a post-9/11 world. We have to be very careful,” said David Ray, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile, refugees in the United States fear for relatives abroad who may not make it out of countries plagued by violence, terrorism and disintegrating civil order. Refugees who were on their way to the U.S. were detained in airports after the order was signed.
Hoping for goodness
The news is disastrous for Mohammed, who is divorced and cannot work because of illness. She has exhausted the cash benefits she initially received as a refugee. She and her daughter have applied for green cards. They have survived on temporary government food assistance and loans from strangers and friends.
Mohammed had a hysterectomy at UNC Hospital last fall. She suffers from diabetes, back problems and arthritis, and she uses a cane and walker to move around.
On Friday, she sat on a small couch under a framed passage from the Quran on the wall. Hanging from the picture was a tiny Iraqi flag; tucked in the corners of the frame were school pictures of Rita and Ahmed. She describes her son as tall and muscular; he dreams of becoming a pilot.
“I have hope,” she said through an interpreter, “that Mr. President ... that he will have some goodness inside him.”
Mohammed said she is wishing for “a kind decision.” But she can’t hold back her emotion when she ponders how close her son was to arriving in the United States. She wipes tears from her face.
She maintains contact with Saeed through phone calls and Facebook. She is desperate to be reunited with him, but the reality is she is also dependent on him. As long as he is in Turkey, she and her daughter are in financial limbo in the U.S.
“If I have him back here, he can support the family and he can look to the future,” Mohammed said. “In Iraqi society, we like the family to be together to help each other.”
Vetting isn’t flawless
Refugees seeking entry to the U.S. undergo a strenuous admission screening process, according to a State Department fact sheet published Jan. 20. The process includes multiple federal agencies, including the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center, Homeland Security and intelligence agencies.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees determines for a small percentage of worldwide asylum-seekers that they are eligible for a placement in another country. The basic standard for admittance in the U.S. is that they must be unable to live in their home country due to persecution based on their religion, race, political opinion, nationality or social group.
In the fiscal year that ended in October, the U.S. admitted about 85,000 refugees, according to the U.S. Refugee Processing Center. Since then, another 25,671 have been admitted. Before 2015, the U.S. averaged about 70,000 each year for several years. That figure is less than in the early 1990s, when the U.S. took in more than 100,000 refugees annually.
Once they’ve arrived, refugees must wait an average of five years before applying for U.S. citizenship. To be approved, a refugee has to first get a green card.
The public mood on refugees has been divided in recent years as acts of Islamic State terrorism play out across the globe and Muslims, among others, in war-torn countries seek asylum.
Federal officials have said the vetting process, particularly for refugees coming from Syria – where U.S. agencies have limited intelligence-gathering abilities – isn’t flawless. During recent congressional hearings, Department of Homeland Security and FBI leaders have said the screening process is rigorous and is constantly improved, but there are risks.
Trump said the immediate halt to the refugee program was to give agencies time to develop a stricter screening system.
U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson, a North Carolina Republican from Concord, introduced a bill last year that would have temporarily suspended refugee resettlement. He applauded Trump for pausing the flow of Syrian refugees, saying in a statement Friday, “The American people want our government to keep us safe.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan also supported the move, saying it was “time to re-evaluate and strengthen the visa-vetting process.”
Refugee advocates argue potential terrorists and criminals wouldn’t try to gain U.S. admittance through the refugee pipeline because of the long wait times and intense scrutiny on applicants.
The N.C. Justice Center, a left-leaning advocacy organization, issued a statement Friday saying that the U.S. had turned its back on human suffering. “A nation whose iconic symbol welcomes to our shores those who are suffering persecution and despair now substitutes a wall of isolation in its stead,” the statement said.
Help in N.C.
In North Carolina, refugees historically have arrived from a range of countries, including Syria, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia. Federal funds for refugee assistance in the state totaled more than $5.4 million in fiscal year 2016.
At a Raleigh church event last Wednesday, Felix Iyoko, 44, described his experience when he, his wife and four children came to North Carolina three years ago. He left the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2000 after a coup led to mass civilian casualties. His parents, two brothers and a sister were executed in 1999 for ties to a political party that had previously been in control of the government, he said.
“Unimaginable,” Iyoko said, during an interview, about the prospect of shutting out some refugees. “Where do you think they are to go?”
He spoke at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, at a gathering organized by the North Carolina Interfaith Immigrant/Syrian Working Group, a coalition of churches and people of faith.
The Rev. Dianne Knauf said Trump’s presidency has given a new sense of urgency to the group’s work. “We grow stronger as we welcome in new people,” she said. “We need to start making our voices heard.”
Under Trump’s order, the U.S. may admit refugees on a case-by-case basis during the freeze, and the government will continue to process requests from people claiming religious persecution.
In an interview with CBN News, Trump said persecuted Christians would be given priority in applying for refugee status.
“We are going to help them,” Trump said. “They’ve been horribly treated.”
The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants has operated in North Carolina for 10 years, one of four groups that assist refugees in the Triangle. It has helped about 3,000 in a decade, including 370 in the last fiscal year. About 1,000 refugees arrive in the Triangle each year.
Scott Phillips, executive director of the organization’s Raleigh office, said if past examples of anti-refugee politics are any indication, it’s likely that Trump’s executive order will result in a surge of committee volunteers in North Carolina. In 2015, when former N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory called for federal officials to stop sending Syrian refugees to the state, resettlement advocacy organizations saw an uptick in donations and volunteers.
The group has a “Welcome Home” initiative in which residents furnish apartments, provide home-cooked meals and meet refugees at the airport. “They serve as first friends, in a lot of ways,” Phillips said.
Mohammed said she has made a few friends in the U.S., but can’t truly be happy until her son is here. She has escaped the danger of Iraq, which became unbearable after 2006 because of escalating violence. Her former husband’s life was threatened. He fled to Jordan.
She has two married daughters who are still in Iraq. She said she misses her country, of course, “but Iraq is not a beautiful country anymore.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.