INDIANAPOLIS — When the Trump administration unveiled an executive order trying to bar Syrian refugees from coming to the United States, many who have resettled here in the American heartland felt a familiar sense of dread: Mike Pence is trying to ban us. Again.
Fadi Lababidi was shocked. He and his family arrived here in October 2014, greeted with a banner at the airport and kindness from strangers. Lababidi and his wife have made a life for themselves in Indiana, where they work at a hospital cafeteria. Their older children attend public schools and speak fluent English to their 1-month-old sister, a U.S. citizen named Selena.
Now the Lababidis and other families who came to live here during the past few years are angry and shaken, worried that they might be forced to leave the country. Over plates of sweets, they discuss the anguish of knowing that it is possible that their loved ones will not be able to join them in their adopted country, and they fret about their children, their jobs, their future.
“I don’t know what they will do to us here. Will they deport us back? Will they send us back? Will they keep us here?” asked Lababidi, a genial 48-year-old. “I started questioning my presence here and what will happen to me and my family.”
The national ban has a familiar feel to Lababidi. It was a little more than a year after he and his family arrived in the United States that a terrorist attack in Paris spurred Pence — then Indiana’s governor — to direct state agencies to stop the resettlement of Syrian migrants in the state.
Pence’s decision was “a surprise to us because it did not represent the American people, the way we were welcomed and the way we were treated in public,” he said.
Exodus Refugee Immigration and the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana sued Pence, asserting that he did not have constitutional authority to bar people from the state. Pence lost, with a federal appeals court ruling in October that the governor’s directive was “discrimination on the basis of nationality.”
The arrivals did not stop, and now more than 200 Syrian refugees live in this sprawling Midwestern city of more than 850,000. But now, Pence is vice president, and the administration moved to make a ban on Syrian refugees nationwide and indefinite. The apprehension and fear Lababidi felt in 2015 is back at levels he never imagined.
“This time it was the entire country, and it was specifically toward Muslims,” he said.
And it has rocked the small Syrian community in Indianapolis, a city that is home to a fast-growing immigrant population, including a growing number of refugees — a blue dot smack in the middle of a deeply red state.
“We won the battle, but we’re losing the war,” said Cole Varga, executive director of Exodus.
Exodus resettled 947 refugees here in the past fiscal year, including 556 from Burma, 146 from Congo and 122 from Syria. From Oct. 1 to Jan. 31, 83 Syrian refugees arrived in Indianapolis through Exodus, and a total of 108 statewide. At least one Syrian family did not come to Indianapolis because of Trump’s order, but another arrived recently after a federal appeals court struck down the administration’s decree. A spokesman for Pence did not respond to requests for comment.
Pence at the time said he was trying to keep Syrian refugees out of Indiana in the name of security, and some here agree.
“I’ve never met them,” said Steve Munn, a 66-year-old woodworker. “Supposedly we’ve got our fair share.”
At a McDonald’s on the city’s south side, a traditionally white, working-class enclave that is home to a cluster of Burmese refugees, Warren Gregory, 61, said he has not worked in a year. He is studying for an MBA and a degree in natural health, and he exalted the properties of myrrh oil and qigong. He will soon move 75 miles south, to a cabin where he can live for less than $300 a month.
“The refugees are treated better than normal folks,” Gregory said. “I have nothing against them. I have something against them being able to come here and make more money than us and not even have to worry.”
Gregory said that the United States has “no proof” of who the Syrian refugees are and does not think vetting is strong enough.
“I don’t trust the State Department right now, and I don’t like the U.N.,” he said of two agencies that conduct extensive vetting of Syrian refugees.
Refugees from Syria are subject to an enhanced security review, a process that can take years and includes numerous interviews, biometric checks, medical screening and security checks by multiple federal agencies.
But the Syrians living in Indianapolis said they have become accustomed to what people call “Hoosier hospitality.” Volunteers drive refugees to appointments and an international store, where they can buy the closest thing Indiana has to Syrian bread. Families use apartment courtyards for weekend get-togethers featuring kebabs, dancing and children. Schools ensure that Syrian refugee families are connected.
“We feel like we are not by ourselves,” said Alan Omar, who noted that he had to look up the city on Google because he had never heard of it before learning he would move here. “There are good people around.”
Omar, 21, fled Aleppo, Syria, — where he remembers fighter jet attacks and bomb explosions “all around” — for a small village in 2012 and then Turkey the following year. After nine vetting interviews where he was asked “every single detail” about his life, the United States granted him refugee status.
When he arrived here in May 2015, Omar barely spoke English and could not figure out where to take out the trash at his apartment complex. He found employment sorting packages in a warehouse and delivering pizzas. But he prides himself on his work ethic and wanted more.
He now works full time as a recruiter at a staffing agency, where colleagues “treat me like part of the family.” He speaks fluent English, attends adult high school classes at night with plans to continue to college and helps other Syrians navigate their new lives in the United States.
“This is our second country,” Omar said. “It’s our responsibility to take care of it.”
But Trump’s executive order has filled Omar and his family with trepidation. Most of his siblings are scattered around Europe, and one still lives in Syria. Omar’s mother recently received a green card and had planned to leave the United States to visit a sister who recently had a baby in Germany. Heartbroken, she put her plans on hold because the family is afraid that if she leaves she will not be able to return.
Lababidi’s father, who is ill, lives in Jordan and is in the final steps of the U.S. refugee-resettlement process. The two speak every day, the father asking the son for the latest news on the president’s decree and the son trying to maintain calm.
“Because of Trump, we cannot see him or take care of him or treat him here,” Lababidi said. “My father is old — 72 years old. Does this make him a terrorist?”
As Lababidi spoke, his eldest child, 14-year-old Ebrahim, wearing bright silver sneakers, quietly listened. Twelve-year-old Shimaa and 10-year-old Mohammad played with a cellphone, using Snapchat and Instagram. Eight-year-old Hamzeh alternated between rocking Selena in her car seat and snuggling under his father’s arm. Lababidi jokes that his children now speak so quickly in their new language, peppering their sentences with “cool” and “awesome,” that he needs an interpreter to understand them.
In school last month, one of Shimaa’s teachers told her class about Trump’s order and singled out the girl as an example of the kind of person the law would keep out of the country — an innocent sixth-grade girl.
“He said that no one can come to America no more, and he stopped and he said, ‘Shimaa’s Muslim. Is she racist? Is she a terrorist or something?’ ” the girl recounted.
“They said ‘no,’ ” Shimaa said, biting her hot-pink hoodie. She said she was a little scared and embarrassed, but she felt good telling people she is an Arab.
Hamzeh said that Trump’s voice frightens him and sometimes makes him want to cry. Mohammad, in a Captain America sweatshirt, said he finally feels safe in the United States and likes speaking two languages.
Trump’s order has spurred some here to respond in ways they never planned. Galen Denney, 36, an Indianapolis native studying electrical engineering, was so incensed after Trump’s order that he started a Facebook event for a rally at the Indianapolis Airport. Hundreds of people showed up.
“The same outpouring of support that was perhaps more reserved during Pence’s attempts at legislating discrimination are now simply amplified by the attempts to move from state-level politics to the national stage,” Denney said.
There is some optimism among refugees and refugee advocates after the court struck down Trump’s order. Varga, the director of Exodus, says there will be more battles to win, and Omar said the ruling allowed him to see “the equality in America again.”
While Omar and Lababidi have nothing but thanks and gratitude for Americans, transitioning to a new life is difficult, and not everyone has been welcoming.
Ebrahim Lababidi said he ignores nasty comments at school. Sixteen-year-old Rama Batman has dealt with insults from fellow students. Her mother, Lona al-Moghrabi, said that two students got into a fistfight over Trump at her son’s middle school and police had to be called.
“It was very scary, especially at the school,” she said as her daughter interpreted in their living room. “Trump took a lot of votes from Indiana.”