The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The U.S. has slashed its refugee intake. Syrians fleeing war are most affected.

Khaled Assaf enters his daughter's apartment in Indianapolis in March. He and his wife, Mariam Rastanawi, arrived in the United States as Syrian refugees after years of waiting. They are two of the lucky few, as the United States has all but stopped allowing Syrian refugees into the country. (Youngrae Kim/For The Washington Post)
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Mariam Rastanawi fled Homs, Syria, in 2012, hoping to escape a protracted civil war amid fears that remaining in her native country would amount to a death sentence. Seeking refuge in the United States, a country she saw as sympathetic to her plight, she and her husband waited years in exile without a permanent home.

In March, they were shocked to learn that they were being admitted to the United States as refugees, and their spring arrival in Indianapolis was akin to winning the lottery. The country used to allow thousands of Syrians to immigrate, but the flow of Syrian refugees is at an almost complete stop.

“We are so happy, thank God,” Rastanawi said through a translator. “We didn’t think it would be this long.”

Under the Trump administration, the number of refugees allowed into the United States has fallen to its lowest level since the resettlement program began in 1980. And few groups have been as affected as Syrians, who have been fleeing a brutal civil war that has left hundreds of thousands of people dead since it began in 2011.

Number of refugees down sharply, again, under restrictions set by Trump administration

The number of Syrian refugees allowed into the United States in fiscal 2016 was 12,587. In fiscal 2018, the United States admitted 62.

“Syrian refugees are the largest population of refugees seeking resettlement,” said Nazanin Ash, vice president of policy and advocacy for the International Rescue Committee. “Their vulnerability is increasing while U.S. policy is reducing admissions.”

The drop is largely the result of the Trump administration slashing the total number of refugees allowed into the country each year to 30,000, a historic low, and because of enhanced security screenings instituted for refugees from 11 countries, including Syria, that the United States consider threats to national security. The decline has been most precipitous among refugees from Muslim-majority countries, where admissions fell by 90 percent from 2017 to 2018, according to the International Refugee Assistance Project.

That includes countries where the United States has long been involved in military conflict, such as Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

The group said the number of Christian refu­gee arrivals, including members of persecuted Christian groups, has plummeted by 42 percent during the same time period. There has been a 98 percent drop in the number of admitted Yazidis, an ancient religious minority group the United Nations considers victims of an Islamic State genocide. Many Yazidis were killed when the extremist group overran their community in northern Iraq, while others were kidnapped, raped and forced into servitude in Syria. Some Yazidis who have instead sought refuge in Canada have been harassed by their former captors from afar.

Far from the crumbling caliphate but haunted by ISIS

Those who work with refugees said further limiting the number allowed into the United States imperils the world’s most endangered populations, denying them a chance at safety in a country that has traditionally protected the persecuted. The number of displaced people worldwide remains at crisis levels: 68 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes, and more than 25 million are refugees.

“The message we’ve been sending to the administration is: you’re basically undercutting your entire religious freedom agenda because you’re shutting the door on persecuted people,” said Jenny Yang, vice president of advocacy and policy at World Relief, a Baltimore-based refu­gee resettlement organization.

In remarks last year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the dramatic cut in refugees allowed into the United States does not mean that the country is turning its back on a worldwide humanitarian crisis. He said the country is committed to protecting the vulnerable while maintaining national security.

“Some will characterize the refugee ceiling as the sole barometer of America’s commitment to vulnerable people around the world,” he said. “This would be wrong.”

The State Department declined to comment on the country’s approach to Syrian refugees, referring to Pompeo’s remarks. It said the United States remains the largest donor to those affected by the Syrian crisis, providing $9.5 billion in humanitarian assistance.

The sharp decline in refugees has led some resettlement agencies to dismantle the infrastructure that has helped place those seeking assistance within the United States and leaving struggling U.S. towns short of workers they are eager to welcome. The nine organizations that resettle refugees in the United States have all had to lay off staff or close offices, sometimes both. Yang said World Relief closed five offices in 2017 and shuttered its Akron, Ohio, office in March.

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Those who work with refugees said the greatest number now are coming from Congo, Myanmar, Eritrea and Ukraine. While the number of Syrians allowed to enter has risen to 218 for the first half of fiscal 2019, it represents less than 2 percent of the refu­gee population that sought help in the United States just a few years ago, meaning thousands of people are being shut out.

In 2016, Exodus Refugee Immigration in Indianapolis resettled refugees from 13 countries, including Syria, Iraq and Sudan. Last year, Exodus placed refugees from Afghanistan, Myanmar, Congo and Eritrea, said Cole Varga, the group’s executive director. The drop in refugees means the group’s funding has been cut almost in half, and the group laid off or did not backfill more than a dozen positions.

“One of the most striking things, I think, is just how much disruption this has caused to the network,” Varga said. “The top level is all the missing refugees who are not in the U.S., but it’s also about how [the president] is dismantling the infrastructure of this program.”

Rastanawi and her husband, Khaled Assaf, are the first Syrians that Exodus has brought to Indianapolis in two years. In 2017, the group helped 100 Syrians settle in the city. Vice President Pence tried to bar Syrian refugees from resettling in Indiana while he was governor, but his move was blocked in court.

Mike Pence wants to keep Syrian refugees out of Indiana. They’re coming anyway.

The couple’s daughter, Malak Assaf, arrived in Indianapolis as a refu­gee in May 2015 and petitioned for her parents to join her a few months later. Three more of the couple’s 10 children also came to the United States as refugees.

The screening process for Rastanawi and Assaf moved quickly. Each was granted two interviews — part of a lengthy process to become a refu­gee that also includes security and medical screenings.

But after the president announced a ban on travelers from countries including Syria, everything stopped.

“After we heard about the travel ban, we always wondered where our next home would be,” Miriam said through a translator. They ended up in Jordan and didn’t think they would ever make it to their family in the United States. “We would have been better off dying in Jordan than going back to Syria.”

Malak Assaf became resigned to the idea that her parents would be shut out of her adopted country: “I lost hope about my parents ever coming to the United States,” she said.

Rastanawi, 73, and Assaf, 76, spent 2017 moving from place to place in Jordan. They “hated ourselves,” Rastanawi said, because they had no sense of security. The couple both have medical issues and could not work. There was a glimmer of hope last year, when the couple had an additional interview with U.S. authorities.

As Indiana governor, Pence failed to exclude Syrian refugees. Now the federal administration he serves is trying nationally.

Rastanawi was riding a bus to pick up diabetes medication in March when she got the phone call telling her that she and her husband were eligible to come to the United States. She immediately called her daughter. It was 4 a.m. in Indianapolis, and Malak Assaf was so excited she couldn’t go back to sleep.

The process moved quickly: the couple had to go to a hospital the next morning for a medical exam, pack their bags, pick up medication and get ready for a new life.

The couple arrived at the Indianapolis airport on March 23. Malak Assaf waited with 13 family members, including her three children and three brothers. The moment the group saw the couple, who were using wheelchairs, the family swarmed them, showering them with hugs and kisses. Rastanawi and her husband began to cry.

Rastanawi said the reunion was bittersweet. She still has children in Syria and Jordan, and a son was killed in the conflict. But she and her husband are thrilled to begin their new life and spend time with their children and grandchildren.

“I’m so happy,” Assaf said through a translator. “I can’t even believe that I’m here.”

Freelancer Barb Berggoetz in Indianapolis contributed to this report.