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Cleveland Refugee Community Still Feeling Effects of Trump's 'Travel Ban'

Reem Atia’s family arrived in Cleveland just days after a heavy December snowfall in 2016.

It was her first time seeing snow and a stark contrast to life in Jordan, where her Syrian family had first sought refuge.

“In Syria, the airplane threw something on my relative’s house, it’s like a bomb. And seven people [got] killed that day. And it’s like a house of two floors, you can’t tell there was a house there. We were collecting people’s bodies,” Atia said. “It was hard for us, and we couldn’t imagine being there no more, so my dad and my mom decided to move to Jordan since it’s more safe.”

Atia’s family spent four-and-a-half years in Jordan, but prospects for work and education were slim. Atia was approaching college age, and an international agency offered a chance at resettlement in the United States for Atia, her parents and four younger siblings.

“Our family members [were] saying, like, just don’t go, it’s dangerous now, and since the Trump speech was all against us, we were afraid. But we also know for sure that there is not going to be a life for us in Jordan,” she said.

Early in the 2016 presidential race, then-candidate Donald Trump had called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” but Atia said she thought that kind of rhetoric wouldn’t apply to her family’s situation.

“Our English wasn’t that good, so we didn’t know actually what was going on,” she said. “We thought, like, we are probably in the right spot, like we came as a refugee and they called us to come here. We have Social Security numbers, we have papers. That was, a little bit, make us not going crazy, like scared.”

Almost exactly four years ago, Atia’s family settled in, just before the first iteration of President Donald Trump’s so-called travel ban on refugees from some Muslim-majority countries, including Syria.

The ban would spark court challenges, ultimately receiving support from the U.S. Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Roberts declared that if the president presents reasons for a travel ban at least plausibly related to a legitimate national security objective, then the action is on firm constitutional ground.

But that also means a new president could determine a new direction.

One of President Joe Biden’s early executive orders lifted the stringent Trump-era travel restrictions on refugees and immigrants.

But four years of seriously restricted entry of refugees to the United States, plus the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, have forced local refugee agencies to make hard decisions and operational pivots to survive.

US Together is one of the organizations that resettles refugees in Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo, and relies on federal funding.

Director of Development Maria Teverovsky said the federal government provides her agency with a one-time payment of $2,075 per person to help with expenses during their first three months in this country, and US Together’s funding is tied to resettlement totals.

Presidents usually set a total cap on entries at between 50,000 and 100,000 per year.

“The last determination gave us 15,000,” Teverovsky said, “which is, first of all, horrible for refugees and, secondly, it’s almost unsustainable for organizations like us.”

Last fiscal year, which ended in September, US Together saw 23 families, or 72 individuals, settled in Cleveland. So far, from October 2020 to now, it's just four families – or 13 people.

“You know, I see the travel ban kind of going hand-in-hand with the overall approach to immigration and refugee resettlement,” said Patrick Kearns, Executive Director of The Refugee Reponse, a Cleveland organization providing services for refugees once they’re resettled. “I don’t necessarily parse it out between different policies because I think they were part of one strategy, which was a very nativist and xenophobic strategy.”

The Trump administration cited national security concerns for its immigration policies. Kearns said those restrictions caused structural problems for the immigration system.

“The system itself atrophied,” he said. “So the staff members that were here, the offices that had been set up and had been operating for decades, and staff that had decades of experiences —offices were closed, staff had to be put on furlough or let go, and the overseas processing was also strangulated, as well. So looking forward, it’s not a light switch, right? You can’t just flip it back on and the system is going to automatically restart. It’s going to be a process.”

The Refugee Response does not rely on federal money directly, and unlike US Together, Kearns said his agency’s work has actually increased through the so-called travel ban, and now the pandemic.

“We worked this year with about 250 individuals, and reach hundreds of families,” he said. “That number is a three-fold increase of direct people we are serving compared to four years ago.”

The Refugee Response’s clients can be served for anywhere from six months to eight years, Kearns said. The organization targets employment and education and operates the Ohio City Farm.

But Kearns said there’s another reason for an uptick in his organization's client pool.

“Cleveland is a destination city for people who have been resettled to other cities in America,” he explained. “So let’s say you get resettled to Tallahassee and it’s just not for you, you know Cleveland has become a magnet because of the affordable housing stock and the availability of jobs.”

Kearns said his organization now has close to 30 full-time staff, up from 10 a couple of years ago.

Staffing has been a challenge for US Together, but Teverovsky said the organization has tried to restructure itself. US Together maintains one of the largest interpreting services in the state, she said, and many staffers have specialized skills or experiences to relate to refugees.

But it wasn’t just immigration policies that forced refugee organizations to change; the pandemic has also had profound impact.

“We also have to talk about the mental health and level of anxiety and fear among refugees in Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo,” Teverovsky said, adding there were maybe four months without any refugee arrivals at all. “But we had so much anxiety, and as I mentioned suicide ideation, confusion with all of the regulations related to COVID.”

Teverovsky said that prompted an application for funding from the Cleveland Foundation, which provided money to hire a social worker. Private donations have also been strong, she said, as have the number of volunteers.

At The Refugee Response, the pandemic has changed the way the organization delivers services.

“All of the social services that people could be eligible for moved to either online, or call-in, as opposed to drop-in services,” Kearns said. “And there was only English, right? So we’re talking about somebody who’s recently been here who’s out of work, now their kids are home, and they have to call in to the unemployment agency? It just didn’t happen. It meant that, essentially overnight, all of those things became impossible. And for us, that’s where we really pivoted and directed a lot of our work in that area to make sure, okay, people were getting their unemployment, getting their stimulus checks, they were eligible for certain things.”

Atia, the former Syrian refugee, is now working as a part-time pharmacy technician. She also is a student at Cleveland State University and Cuyahoga Community College and helps her siblings stay on track by translating and guiding their school work.

The Biden administration has taken a drastically different tone and stance toward immigration policy than the previous administration. Atia’s first impression has been relatively positive.

“To be honest, I can’t tell if it’s good or not. But for me and my family, my point it’s to get a good life in the US, there is a freedom,” Atia said. “It’s hard, it’s difficult, but we’re working on it. So I hope other people will get a chance to start their new life and be safe.”

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