The change in refugee policy between the Obama and Trump administrations has been quite dramatic and many in Denver’s refugee community are feeling the impact.
One of the noticeable shifts since the presidential election is more people are feeling emboldened to say whatever they want, no matter how hateful it may be. Melissa Theesen, Managing Director of the ECDC African Community Center (ACC), a refugee resettlement organization, said, “Historically, there have been verbal attacks committed against refugees, but we are hearing an uptick in activity. Arrivals from countries included in the travel ban (Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen) are particularly worried.” Theesen said she and her staff have also been working to train refugees on how to respond in these situations and who to call for help.
Omar Algmili arrived in the U.S. with his wife and two children in January 2017, just before the executive order for the travel ban was signed. Algmili and his family left Syria as refugees and came to Denver in hopes of escaping war and starting new lives. Photo by Sara Hertwig.
In late January, there was a bomb threat at ACC’s youth program site in Aurora. None of the youth were there at the time and the situation was resolved without incident. Representatives from ACC are also in contact with police to report what they are seeing and hearing, even if it is anecdotal information.
The executive order issued by President Trump on January 27, which was later halted by federal judges, only to be revised and reissued on March 6, has caused a lot of turmoil in the refugee community. The second version was blocked from enforcement by a Hawaiian judge in mid-March, hours before it was to go into effect. The President is undeterred and said he will take the case to the Supreme Court.
The latest version suspends travel to the U.S. by foreign nationals from six Muslim-majority countries—Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen—for 90 days unless they have a valid visa. It halts the Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) from all countries for 120 days. It also cuts the overall number of refugees allowed into the U.S. in 2017, from 110,000, as set by President Obama, to 50,000.
The resettlement policy that has been in effect only allows approximately one percent of the global refugee population into the U.S. each year. Applicants sometimes wait for years in camps to hear whether or not they have been approved.
Six federal agencies, including the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and National Counterterrorism Center are involved in screening applicants. Refugees submit to a variety of checks, including biometric security checks. They are also interviewed and go through a medical screening.
Despite all the changes coming out of Washington, Theesen says ACC and other Colorado refugee resettlement organizations have received strong support at the state and local levels. On February 22, Governor Hickenlooper, Representative Diana DeGette and Mayor Hancock hosted a welcome event for recent arrivals at Union Station.
Rep. DeGette said, “Demonizing refugees goes against everything this country has long represented. We are a beacon for those displaced by war, the dispossessed and the politically persecuted. President Trump’s recent Executive Orders have prompted further concerns among refugees in our community and have damaged our moral standing around the world.”
South High School, located in Washington Park, is the DPS magnet high school for refugees. It has the most well developed ELA (English Language Acquisition) program in the district. Approximately 500 of South’s 1600 students are enrolled in the ELA program and over 65 languages are spoken at the school.
Marisa Vasquez is a South Assistant Principal and runs the ELA program. When asked if things have changed since the presidential election, she said, “The most noticeable difference is the number of students who have approached me and other adults to report incidents of hate (not hate crimes) that have happened to them on public buses and other places outside of South. This is something all the staff is noticing. Post-election, we had to have a number of mental health counselors come to school to work with students who were upset.”
Mayor Hancock and DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg have both visited the school since the inauguration in order to reassure students and staff. DPS has also established a district-wide protocol outlining policies and procedures if immigration officials show up looking for a student.
Nesthio Andi and Nasteho Abdi are Somali and seniors at South. They had very minimal education before coming to America and enrolling at South. Both were living in refugee camps in Africa prior to being admitted into the United States.
Sophomore Rokaya Abdulameer is from Iraq and came here when she was six. Her father and his friend were employed as translators for U.S. forces. When her father’s friend was killed by the Iraqi army for the work he was doing, her parents decided they had to leave.
All three young women ride RTD buses 45-60 minutes each way to school. While things can be more uncertain in the outside world, they feel very secure at South.
Abdulameer said, “South has made us feel very welcome. They have opened their arms to us and we feel safe. We have people that are fighting for us here.”