President Trump's hard-line on refugees is causing distress among some Seattle-area immigrants. One Iraqi Kurd, who served with the U.S. Army, fears he may not see his 76-year-old mother before she dies.
Alyas Saydo spread documents related to his service with the U.S. Army in Iraq across the coffee table in his Tukwila apartment: ID badges from the seven years he worked as an interpreter, certificates of appreciation, a glowing letter of recommendation.
“It was Mr. Saydo’s devotion to duty that kept him working regardless of the day, length of mission, or personal risk,” wrote 1st Sgt. Jeffrey Davis, describing the Iraqi Kurd as “a man who puts service to coalition soldiers above all.”
The recommendation helped Saydo immigrate to the U.S. in 2011 on a special visa reserved for those who worked with the American military. He was allowed to bring his wife and five children, but not other members of his family, including his mother. They would come later, he hoped.
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He’s been waiting for more than five years — and now he fears he could be waiting much longer, while his brother and 76-year-old mother, driven from their home by terrorists, live in tents in Iraqi Kurdistan.
As Saydo explained his family’s situation, President Trump was expected as early as Friday to sign an order suspending the flow of all refugees to the U.S. for 120 days and indefinitely bannig Syrian refugees while his administration evaluated screening measures. The president is also expected to temporarily bar entry to anyone from seven Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
Even when those measures are lifted, Trump is likely to order that the U.S. accept just 50,000 refugees in fiscal year 2017, according to a widely circulated draft. The country had previously committed to taking in 110,000 refugees.
“There are a lot of bad guys,” acknowledged Saydo, 50. He said he has no problem with the U.S. government looking into people’s backgrounds and taking their fingerprints.
But he seemed stunned by Trump’s move. “He can’t change [policy] this quick,” he said.
Other local refugees, and those who work with them, also expressed dismay.
“If the presidential executive action suspends or reduces refugee resettlement even for a short time period, it will disrupt the lives of refugee families in our communities,” said Sarah Peterson, chief of the state Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance, in a statement. “Most refugees arriving in Washington state are joining family members that are already here.”
She also pointed out that the expected order would delay visas for people who, like Saydo, worked with the U.S. military. In fiscal 2016, these special visas allowed 610 people to come to Washington.
In all, the state took in roughly 3,900 refugees in fiscal 2016, including 165 from Syria and more than 1,000 from the seven countries likely to be singled out by Trump.
‘Waiting, waiting, waiting’
Trump’s actions will affect more than those coming from Muslim countries.
“The biggest group coming right now are Ukrainians,” said Beth Farmer, who heads refugee and asylum programs across the north Puget Sound for Lutheran Community Services. Ukraine’s conflict with Russia brought nearly 800 refugees here in fiscal year 2016.
Many of the people Farmer employs are refugees themselves. As she walked around her SeaTac office, she introduced staffers from Somalia, Moldova, Afghanistan and Iraq. “The skills they bring with them … they’re incredibly talented,” she said as she paused by Abdi Hassan, a Somali native who worked for the United Nations for 25 years on health and development programs.
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Some staffers worry about their family members, given the likely presidential order. Hamed Hakimkhel, who came here on a special visa after working for the American Embassy in his native Afghanistan, said his brother-in-law has been “waiting, waiting, waiting” for his own special visa to come here. The brother-in-law worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army.
Because of that, nobody wants to hire his brother-in-law now, and he and his family are targets for extremists, Hakimkhel said. The children have even been lying at school when asked about their family background. “I don’t know how long they can continue,” Hakimkhel said.
A Kurdish mental-health counselor, who asked to be known by his initials, R.A., because of danger to his family back home, said one woman he knew worked for the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. Two of her brothers were killed when her family’s house was attacked. A sister was kidnapped. “The mother is still waiting for her [refugee] case to be processed and she’s over 80 years old,” R.A. said.
Saydo’s family members in Kurdistan have faced risks not only because of his association with the U.S. military but because they are Yazidis, a religious minority that the fundamentalist Islamic State group (ISIS) would like to wipe out. In 2014, after Saydo settled here, ISIS attacked his home village, killing thousands and taking women as sex slaves.
His mother and brother, luckily on the other side of a mountain from where the terrorists began their attack, escaped. They both now live in a Kurdish encampment for displaced people.
‘Before she dies’
Even before this week’s news about a presidential order, Saydo was frustrated by the lack of action on his application to bring them here. “I would like to see my mother before she dies,” he wrote in a letter late last year to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
As the security-clearance process for his mother and brother drags on, they have to keep updating their medical information. To get the necessary tests, they must travel six hours, through ISIS-controlled territory.
The trip, possible only by taxi and requiring a hotel stay, costs hundreds of dollars each time. Saydo, who works for a local interpreting service as well as a security firm, sends money home.
On Thursday morning, over sweet tea served by his wife, it was not clear to Saydo just how much extra delay an executive order might bring — or even whether there would be a delay at all. The draft indicates that Trump may make an exception for those facing religious persecution.
But the draft doesn’t say who, exactly, might be exempted, and Saydo’s concern was causing him to reassess his impression of Trump. “When he was elected, we were very happy,” he said of his family. Trump, they believed, was likely to act more aggressively against terrorism in Iraqi Kurdistan than President Obama had.
“It looks like we were wrong,” Saydo said of their pro-Trump views.
Soon to become a citizen, he plans to vote in the next election, and he said his family’s fate may influence his decisions.