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Immigration, Refugee Resettlement and Rogers Park – Part One


This is the story of Cumar and Axlam (not their real names), two recent arrivals to Chicago and to Rogers Park. Unlike just about everyone reading this article, Cumar and Axlam were not able to simply book a flight or rent a U-Haul and move. In fact, when they began their odyssey, the odds of them successfully getting to the United States were almost laughably remote.

Cumar and Axlam are refugees – two people out of more than 65 million worldwide, according to estimates by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Since the United Nations began keeping these statistics, the number of refugees across the globe has never been higher.

Under the Obama administration, the United States permitted 110,000 refugees to resettle in the country in 2016. The Trump administration has proposed reducing this number to 50,000. The Trump administration has repeatedly attempted to temporarily ban all immigration and refugee resettlement to the United States and limit the countries from which refugees may be admitted.

Even at 110,000 refugees per year, the United States was taking in less than one-fifth of one percent of the world’s refugees on an annual basis. These were the odds that Cumar and Axlam faced as they began their efforts to resettle in this country and start new lives.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s begin at the beginning.

Cumar was born in 1991 in Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya. His parents had recently fled to Dadaab from Somalia, a country where civil unrest and political turmoil had made life for its citizens difficult, if not impossible. Axlam was born in Somalia, but remembers nothing about it. She was brought to Dadaab by her parents at the age of one. Her parents fled Somalia in the early 1990s for the same reasons that Cumar’s parents had. Life in Somalia had become too difficult. Faced with no good choices, they chose to leave the country and flee to Kenya.

In one of life’s many ironies, Cumar’s birth certificate states that he is a Somali. Yet Cumar has never once set foot in Somalia. His Kenyan birth certificate is stamped with “refugee,” and the laws of Kenya granted him no rights of citizenship in the country of his birth.

Dadaab is one of five refugee camps that are more or less

contiguous in eastern Kenya. The camps are less than 50 miles from the Kenya-Somalia border. According to Wikipedia, these camps are home to almost a quarter of a million people and constitute the second largest refugee complex in the world.

Cumar says that life in Dadaab was not easy. The residents of this camp live in a strange limbo. They have none of the rights of citizenship inside of Kenya, but are unable to return to Somalia without fearing severe political repression or worse. As long as they live within Kenya, they are subject to its laws which limit their movements outside of the camps and prohibit travel to Nairobi and other major cities. Above all, they are not allowed to work. Cumar says that an informal economy has developed within the camps, but that its residents struggle to survive. Survival would probably not be possible at all were it not for the organized relief that flows in under the auspices of the UNHRC and other non-profit refugee relief organizations around the world.

The food provided by the UNHRC is the lifeline for residents of the camps. Cumar says that lines often form early in the morning when food is delivered. If the food runs out before you get to the front of the line, then you are simply out of luck. Now that Cumar is no longer in Dadaab, he worries about his mother and two sisters getting enough to eat.

Cumar and Axlam were both able to take advantage of the free education available at the schools in the camps. They were both able to complete their educations through the high school level, graduating in 2012. But there is no college or post-graduate education available at Dadaab or at any of the other camps, and continuing their education elsewhere in Kenya was not an option available to them, or to anyone else living at Dadaab as a refugee.

In 2010, against all odds and in the face of the daily deprivations that defined their lives in the camp, Cumar and Axlam began the arduous process of applying for resettlement to the United States. According to Jims Porter of Refugee One, only a lucky few are ever able to do this. Typically, you must be recommended for resettlement. Preference is given to the most vulnerable or those with family connections.

This process began with interviews with UNHRC personnel. Not just one interview, but several, and over a two-year period. Their stories had to match up from interview to interview, and there were often periods of many months between them.

After two years, they were told that they were eligible to continue the process with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Studies (USCIS), the subsidiary of the Department of Homeland Security that is charged with processing immigrant visa petitions and refugee applications (not to be confused with CIS, a vehemently anti-immigration lobbying group headquartered in Washington DC). The first interview with the USCIS took place in 2012. Again, there were multiple interviews held over a period of months. The stories had to be consistent and had to match up with earlier interviews with UNHRC.

By the end of 2012, the interview process was complete. But the waiting was far from over. For several years, Cumar and Axlam heard nothing until, one day, they did! On November 18, 2016, Cumar and Axlam were informed that they had been accepted by USCIS for refugee resettlement in the United States!

This was truly a dream come true. But they also knew that, until they were on that plane, they could not relax. First, there was one more interview. Like past interviews, it had to be consistent with the information Cumar and Axlam had previously given.

They had the interview, and all went well. They were told to be ready to leave the camp on short notice where they would be taken to Nairobi for a medical examination and a mandatory orientation to their new lives in the United States. One step closer to America!

At any point in this process, they could still be denied the right to emigrate. A poor medical exam, or any contradictory information given in the last round of interviews was all that was needed to send them back to Dadaab.

As Cumar and Axlam were waiting patiently for permission to travel to Nairobi, big changes were sweeping across the United States. Donald Trump had just been elected President. He ran on a platform that can reasonably be described as unfriendly toward immigrants with particular animus toward Muslims.

On January 27, the new President signed an Executive Order banning entry into the United States for at least 90 days for anyone from seven majority Muslim countries, including Somalia. Among its other provisions, this first order also put a halt to all refugee resettlement for a four-month period, and an indefinite halt to refugee resettlement from Syria.

On January 29th, the Executive Order was temporarily blocked by a federal judge who found its provisions to be potentially unconstitutional and in violation of Due Process rights. On February 3, a federal judge in Seattle ordered a halt to enforcement of the travel ban. This ruling was appealed by the Trump administration, but upheld by a three-judge panel in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on February 9. The three judges sided with previous rulings that found a high likelihood that the travel ban would be found unconstitutional. The Trump administration decided not to appeal the Circuit Court ruling to the Supreme Court, effectively rendering the travel ban moot (at least for the time-being). This was the opening in the door that Cumar and Axlam had been praying for.


The timing of these events in the United States had a direct and dramatic impact on Cumar and Axlam. On February 7, Cumar and Axlam got a call from USCIS that they were to get their few possessions and get ready for their trip to Nairobi. On the very next day, they got another call saying they should unpack and wait as the legal dispute on the other side of the Atlantic raged. But the delay proved to be a very short one. On February 9th, shortly after the Circuit Court ruling came in and the Trump administration decided not to appeal to the Supreme Court, Cumar and Axlam received another call. This time, the message was to get ready to leave for Nairobi immediately. The final push to leave Kenya was about to begin.

Now it was a race with time to get to the United States before something changed again in Washington. Cumar and Axlam boarded a bus for Nairobi, a city they had not previously been allowed to visit. As they watched Dadaab recede into the distance, they thought about leaving the only place they had ever known, including their families who were not among the refugees approved to resettle in the United States with them, and the many friends who would probably never be allowed to leave the camps for new lives abroad.

As they looked back, they also looked forward. What would life be like in the United States, a country they could hardly imagine, and were still not entirely sure they would ever be allowed to enter? It was a moment of great excitement, but one mixed with considerable fear, loss and uncertainty about what the future held. Would their families be alright? Would they be able to make new lives for themselves in a place so completely foreign to them? Would their families someday be able to join them in America? Most frightening of all, would their bus ride to Nairobi turn out to be another dead-end? Would the now-reopened door to America suddenly slam shut again before they could get out?

The race was on. They were so close – but they also knew America was still a half a world away, and that their ability to get there was something over which they had little control.

Cumar and Axlam’s story will be continued in the next Newsletter.



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