The following essay is Kinder Institute Fellow Yehuda Sharim, who is directing a series of documentaries about refugees and migrants living in Houston. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research or its staff.
Just days before President Donald Trump signed the executive order restricting refugees and residents of seven Muslim-majority countries from the U.S., I met with Victor*, a refugee from Iran who for the last six years found refuge in Houston after feeling from the extremist ruling regime in Iran.
We talked about his inability to see his parents and siblings for a decade since he is unable to visit Iran again. And, sadly, his situation is typical. For most victims of extremism, the price of “safety” is their loss of home and the inability to look backwards. They must flee, and they often are forced to permanently separate from family.
After news of the travel restrictions emerged, Victor and I agreed, even more families would be separated. “I thought about seeing my mother soon, but it will not happen… I’m afraid to leave the U.S. now,” he said.
“I really don’t know if I will be able to return to my life here,” Victor continued. “Sometimes I am lost in this city.” He looked at me with a gentle smile. “I need hope,” he said. “I escaped war, and now I am in the middle of another war. Yes, I need hope.”
Friday’s executive order includes an immediate 90-day suspension of visas to residents of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. It’s been unclear whether that order applies to green card holders from those nations living in the U.S. Additionally, the order suspends all refugee admissions for 120 days and indefinitely bars Syrian refugees entry to the U.S.
Moreover, President Trump has expressed the desire to enact stricter caps limiting refugee admissions for Fiscal Year 2017 to 50,000 – down from the 110,000 Obama administration recommended – that could bring to an end many refugee resettlement programs and initiatives in the U.S. Such plans, of course, will have direct impact in Houston and our communities that house many refugees.
The irony of these orders can’t be understated. First, the U.S. invaded many of these countries. Then U.S. policies helped contribute to the rise of ISIS, which has plagued those places. Now, the U.S. is blocking people who are seeking refuge from the chaos it helped create.
The U.S. and other European countries pride themselves for being civilized governments with strong moral stance. Yet it's countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East that are the top hosting countries that support refugee communities during this time of humanitarian crisis.
For context, the U.S. accepted 12,486 Syrian refugees in 2016, compared with about 300,000 received by Germany the same year. Generally speaking, since the Syrian civil war began, it has been Middle Eastern countries that played a central role in aiding Syrians in search for shelter. Turkey has received about 2.7 million refugees, Lebanon 1 million refugees and Jordan 650,000.
Trump’s executive order is beyond counterproductive. It goes so far as to ignore our historical moment. Unlike any other moment in history, the number of forcibly displaced people is now beyond 65 million, of which 21.3 million are identified as refugees. As we speak, Eritrean, Ethiopian and other refugee communities spend their childhood and adulthood in refugee camps. But that term belies their true conditions. These refugee camps are more like prisons, where residents are forced to leave their homes and remain in concentrated spaces for an average of eight years. Some stay for decades. How long will they wait now following these orders?
The strategy behind the ban appears nonsensical. The order’s text calls for blocking people who engage in "acts of bigotry and hatred," "place violent ideologies over American law," or "would oppress Americans" – without even examining the vetting system that is in place or discussing the matter with national agencies.
A recent study found that of the 700,000 asylum seekers and 3.25 million refugees admitted to the U.S. from 1975 to the end of 2015, only 20 were later involved in terrorist acts. An insistence on new vetting procedures appears more like an impulsive act that would harm immigrants and refugees with little upside in terms of safety. Additionally, the Trump administration’s move could close the door to many children, mothers and fathers that face the danger of violence and war and further doom them to such troubling conditions.
Such a discriminatory order targeted towards Muslims should alarm all of us, regardless of religion. It underscores the need for our community to show solidarity and reminds us that taking pride in our city’s diversity isn’t enough. We should take action to defend it. Diversity is a long-term commitment and responsibility that should be protected. Diversity is at the heart of the moral blueprint of Houston’s history, present and future.
With Houston leaders and activists now officially seeking to make Houston a “Welcoming City,” and as Mayor Sylvester Turner outlines this proposal, immigrant and refugee families face a harsh reality: the country that once sought to welcome them now turns its back.
For months, I’ve spoken to hundreds of immigrants and refugees in Houston about their experience as part of the Houston in Motion project. The day after the presidential election, I was filming in a local clinic that offers medical support to Houston refugee and immigrant communities. A family of six new arrivals that just escaped Iran and later suffered from suffered deep depression as a result of being stateless in Turkey approached me.
“Why did you bring us here?” Jacob*, the father of the family asked me. “We wanted to begin a new life here… we escaped Iran… we just need safety… we are tired of wars.”
There is no justification for the Trump administration’s heinous assault on the vulnerable communities of immigrants and refugees. There’s no justification for carelessly identifying Muslim refugees as terrorists. And there’s no justification for ignoring the fact that some refugee groups (especially Special Immigration Visa Holders) had been recruited by the American government and made sacrifices in Afghanistan and Iraq for a country that is now rejecting them.
As we are reminded again that the old systems of media, government, and education do not necessarily act on behalf of the population that they are supposed to represent, the next question should be what we are going to do about this deep moral crisis? Can we set a better moral blueprint to our communities and city?
In many screenings of our film, “We Are In It,” (which will return to Rice Cinema Feb. 18), I am asked what should we do as students or ordinary Houstonians about this situation. How should we support the different immigrant communities across the city?
Reminding ourselves of our shared humanity could lead us to a number of small acts: signing petitions and volunteering are some ways to inform ourselves about the changing fabric of our communities and city.
While we can be intimidated and overwhelmed for a time, it is our obligation to recall that the history of this country is not merely of racism, cruelty, and exploitation, but also of deep courage, dignity, and compassion.
Chants of “We are all Muslims” or “We are all refugees” are calls to resist dogma and remain resilient while maintaining grace and dignity. “The time is always right to do what is right,” as great American leaders of the past remind us.
Hours after a federal judge blocks part of Trump’s executive order, my phone rings. It’s Henry*, a refugee, a poet and a painter, who has been living Houston for the last three years. Once a trained dentist who had a popular clinic in Baghdad, he just finished his U.S. dentistry exams and was ready to finally have his mother visit him in Houston. He is the only son of a single mother. He had expected to meet her by early February, but now, that’s unlikely.
"My mother cancelled her ticket. She will not come," he said.
"All night we have been crying together. Then we began cursing the moment and the war. Then we got tired of crying."
"All the gifts I have purchased ..." he continued. "Shall I go back, but where to? I have no home to return to. And what shall do with all these gifts"
* Pseudonym used to protect the identity of those interviewed for this story.