For Mideast Christians, US refugee policy puts a damper on Christmas

Why We Wrote This

The vision of life in America has long been a beacon of hope for Christians in the Arab world. But President Trump's refugee policy has left families in transit to the US torn in two – half in, half out.

Taylor Luck
Laith Yakona stands by the Christmas tree in his rented apartment in Amman, Jordan, Dec. 9, 2018. Yakona is one of hundreds of Iraqi Christian refugees in Jordan whose arrival on American soil has been suspended indefinitely.

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President Trump’s imposition of tighter border controls, which require enhanced vetting and security checks for refugees from the Middle East, has disproportionally impacted Christian refugees from Iraq, Syria, and Iran. The US intake of Christian refugees from across the region was down 99 percent from 2017 to 2018, according to State Department statistics analyzed by World Relief, a Christian organization that advocates for refugees. Laith Yakona is one of thousands whose arrival on American soil has been put on hold indefinitely. As Iraqi Christians who had worked alongside the US military, his family was prioritized for resettlement. But three years after his parents left for the US to join their eldest sister and her husband, Mr. Yakona and his younger sister are still in Jordan, caught in mid-migration by the new restrictions. It’s especially hard at Christmas. “As soon as my parents left for America, our lives here have been on hold,” Yakona says. “Our family is torn in two…. As Christians, we are bearing the brunt of the wars, sectarian violence, kidnapping, and terrorism in the region. Now we are bearing the brunt of this US policy.”

Laith Yakona wants only one thing for Christmas, the same thing he has prayed for the last four Christmases: to spend the holidays with his family.

War, bombings, kidnappings, death threats, and death squads failed to break up the Yakona family in their hometown of Baghdad before leaving for Jordan. Yet after a decade of their navigating the increasingly polarized war-torn Iraq and then a life in exile, one event has split the family in two: a new life in America.

“As soon as my parents left for America, our lives here have been on hold,” Mr. Yakona says from the sparse rented apartment he shares with his sister in Amman, a Christmas tree propped in the corner behind the television. “Our family is torn in two, and we have been given no reason why.”

Yakona is one of thousands of Christian refugees from the Middle East whose arrival on American soil has been put on hold indefinitely amid the Trump administration’s slowdown and downsizing of the US refugee program.

Many refugees have relatives who reached the United States shortly before that overhaul, leaving hundreds of families divided and thousands abandoned in host countries like Jordan and Lebanon. This Christmas, persecuted Christians from the Middle East have been left on the outside looking in.

Although the US has never specified quotas based on religion, persecuted religious minorities have long made up a large portion of the 70,000 or so refugees per year the US has taken in on average ever since the refugee program was introduced by Congress in 1980.

Yet with the policy to tighten the borders, the US intake of refugees has dropped dramatically. In fiscal year 2017, the US government accepted a quota of 110,000 refugees. Under President Trump, the ceiling was lowered to 45,000 for fiscal year 2018. But according to the State Department, the US only took in half that number, 22,500, in 2018.

According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, the US has shifted its refugee intake mainly to Africa, taking fewer refugees from the Middle East, who now require enhanced vetting and security checks. This new policy has disproportionally impacted Christian refugees from Iraq, Syria, and Iran.

The US intake of Christian refugees from across the Middle East was down 99 percent from 2017 to 2018, and for Iraqi Christians, down 98 percent, according to State Department statistics analyzed by World Relief, a Christian organization that advocates opening US borders to refugees.

“American churches, primarily evangelical churches, may not realize that there is a dramatic slowdown in refugee resettlement, and they definitely don’t realize that persecuted Christians have been so dramatically shut out,” says Mathew Soerens, US director of church mobilization at World Relief.

Tale of separation

Yet the tightening of borders to refugees has not only hurt those fleeing persecution and war who wish to travel to the US; it has stopped those already approved by the US government from completing their journey.

As they were targeted in Iraq both for being Christians and for having worked alongside the US military, Yakona’s family was prioritized for resettlement; in 2008 Yakona’s eldest sister immigrated to the US with her husband, a translator for US forces, after he received death threats.

Yakona and his father stayed in Baghdad until ISIS’s advance drove them to finally leave for Jordan and apply for refugee status in 2014, and they were approved for resettlement to the US. Yakona’s parents traveled to the US to rejoin their eldest daughter in Michigan in December 2015.

Yakona and his younger sister were to follow within months, but their trip was delayed by bureaucracy and then thrown up in the air by the Trump administration’s executive order temporarily halting the refugee program and banning Iraqi nationals in January 2017.

Since then, the two siblings have passed all the required additional security clearances and are informed their papers are in order. Their father, who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, calls each day to hear if there has been “good news.” Each time the reply is the same: Not yet.

“As Christians, we are bearing the brunt of the wars, sectarian violence, kidnapping, and terrorism in the region. Now we are bearing the brunt of this US policy,” Yakona says.

Dozens of stories like Yakona’s can be found among a 300-strong Iraqi Chaldean congregation at a church in central Amman, at one of several services for the community held each week in the capital.

At the door, an usher passes out pamphlets advertising a food drop and a “Santa gift drop” the following Sunday – few here can afford toys for their children – but prayer-goers have no interest in gifts.

“We want people to pray that we reach America,” Saad Manuail says to a white-robed priest.

No answers for the families

Mr. Manuail and his sisters Zena and Reem fled to Jordan with their parents and two younger sisters in 2009 after their father was kidnapped for 20 days and armed gunmen ordered that “all Christians leave” the Baghdad neighborhood or risk being killed.

Their father, Muhaned, was granted refugee status on American soil while visiting as a tourist in 2013, and their mother and two younger sisters soon followed.

Saad, Zena, and Reem had to stay behind in Amman and were accepted for resettlement in 2015, passing security checks, interviews with US Citizenship and Immigration Services staff, medical checkups, and a cultural immersion course.

On Dec. 4, 2016, the three were told to ready their bags as they would travel “any day now” to rejoin their family, but the January 2017 executive order by Trump put everything on hold. They have been waiting for their travel date for more than two years. 

“What has happened in the past is that refugees sent to the US are told ‘You made it through the process, you can get on the plane now and don’t worry, your siblings are in the same process right behind you,’ ” says Mr. Soerens of World Relief.

“Now almost no one is coming, and there are no answers for the families that have now been separated.”

According to IRAP, a US organization that provides legal assistance and advocacy for vulnerable refugees wishing to enter the US, a duplicated vetting process introduced by the Trump administration requiring multiple security organizations to carry out similar background checks for each refugee has created a backlog, adding years to what was once a two-year resettlement process.  

IRAP has filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration over the slowdown, which staff call a “de-facto way of preventing approved refugees from traveling to and entering the US.”

“Everyone is waiting. There is a huge stall in the pipeline and no one truly knows where things stand in the process,” says Trinh Tran, senior attorney at IRAP’s office in Amman. “We tell our clients to think of the more long term, closer to five years and perhaps as many as seven.”

For those waiting in host communities, conditions are tough. In Jordan and Lebanon, where most Iraqi Christian refugees have fled, it is illegal for Iraqis to work. Most have spent their life savings in Amman and now try to get by on church donations.

Money from mother in America

Meanwhile, the bulk of aid provided by international organizations is earmarked for Syrians, and even that has dried up.

Last week Yakona was informed by the UN that their monthly cash assistance, 125 Jordanian dinars that they relied on to help pay rent and utilities, was ending. Yakona and his sister are now reliant on the money their 62-year-old mother sends back from working in a hotel in Michigan.

“We are paying two rents on one salary, when I should be in the US supporting my parents,” Yakona says. “There is pressure from all sides and no relief.”

There are few alternatives. According to the UNHCR, while the US intake of refugees residing in Jordan dropped from 23,000 in 2016 to 3,300 this year, only Britain and Canada have been able to add to their quota – 1,000 each.

If refugees accepted by the US wish to withdraw their application and apply for another country, they must start at the very beginning of the process with the UNHCR at the back of the line, adding several years to their wait.

Munir, who fled to Jordan when ISIS took over his hometown of Mosul in 2015, took a different tack. He petitioned the Australian government for resettlement rather than go through the lengthy process to the US.

“I want to start a new life. I don’t want to spend years stranded waiting for the US like my friends and other Christians here,” says Munir.

Yakona will spend this holiday remembering pre-war Christmas feasts of dolma, meat- and rice-stuffed grape leaves and zucchini, while the Manuail family recall midnight mass and receiving friends and relatives who would come and go to give their season’s greetings until early Christmas morning.

“The house would be filled with laughter. You could feel the love and the energy,” said Zena Manuail. “Now everyone is separated by borders and oceans. For us, the Christmas we know is dead.”

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