The bodies behind the ban

Co-authored with Marnie Shaffer and Sowdo Husseini*, and the image sourced from the Columbus Crossing Borders Project.

As we marked the first 100 days of a Trump presidency riddled by fear, fake news and chaos, it is worth reflecting on the bodies affected by some of the more harsh policies and rhetoric that have been unleashed by the new American president.

Whilst the White House debated whether it was a ban or not, and the rest of us scrambled to decode “extreme vetting”, for thousands of people, the message from Trump’s second executive order is very clear: you are not welcome because of who you are. One of these people is Mariam, a young Somali journalist who endured repression and persecution in Mogadishu because of her beliefs and writings on human rights. She fled to Kenya in 2008, after two of her colleagues were killed, beginning a four-year journey that would take her first to South Africa and then to America. During this time Mariam lived in refugee camps, crossed borders in the back of a truck, or on foot in the dead of the night, faced arrest and deportation, risked criminals who prowl on refugees and rapists who sexually assault women as they make their way to freedom and protection in South Africa. Once in Johannesburg, Mariam struggled to find work or peace in a country wrecked by xenophobic violence. Over the next two years she attended countless interviews, completed hundreds of documents as files went missing, and ran from pillar to post navigating a resettlement process that included the UNHCR, the South African Department of Home Affairs, the International Organization for Migration, the South African Police Service, hospitals, clinics and education departments, and of course the US Embassy. She was aided by the intervention of numerous academics, human rights lawyers and activists, eventually being offered resettlement to the United States.

She was the lucky one. Less than 1% of the world’s 23 million refugees are granted resettlement; two-thirds of them are taken in by the United States. Trump’s executive order shuts the door on the refugee programme for 120 days, and indefinitely for Syrian refugees, and is a heavy blow to people like Mariam who have endured severe violence, persecution and repression, who have invested time and money and hope in the dream of a better future. Trump’s ban effectively means that Mariam’s friends and family cannot visit from overseas. Confusion surrounding the executive order leaves Mariam and other refugees fearful to travel out of the country, not knowing what awaits them upon their return to the US. For many, the executive order has derailed years of plans and vetting, cautious hopes of family reunification and raised costs and anxiety amongst refugees who have already endured years of trauma and turmoil. Staff at refugee centres across the country have seen how the executive order has delayed and at times cancelled carefully planned resettlement programs which would have reunited mothers and fathers with their young children; families separated by war and continents.

In 2016, Community Refugee & Immigration Services (CRIS), a local refugee resettlement agency in Columbus, Ohio, welcomed 833 refugees to the United States. These were people who were stringently vetted, people like Mariam who had never been a security risk and had no ties to any terrorist organisation; in fact, many like Mariam herself were targeted by al-Shabaab and other fundamentalist organisations for their commitment to the democratic values of equality and human rights. Yet in a cruel twist of irony, and with the signing of a hastily prepared executive order, all are now considered threats to national security.

Once in the United States, Mariam and countless refugees like her work tirelessly to give back to the community and country which offered them a helping hand. CRIS facilitates many new refugee arrivals to the city – including those traveling from South Africa. CRIS staff and volunteers, many of whom are refugees themselves, secure appropriate housing and collect necessities before new arrivals reach Columbus. Staff members meet new arrivals at the airport, conduct home visits, provide orientation, and help with specific needs like children’s school and adult English class enrolment, public assistance applications, health screening appointments, and employment training courses. CRIS’s services ease the transition as refugees learn to navigate a new land. Moreover, the federal government provides a one-time grant for each new refugee, used by resettlement agencies to pay for basic necessities and with any leftover money given to the refugee individual or family.

Forty-five percent of arrivals at CRIS in 2016 were from Iran, Iraq, Syria and Somalia, four of the countries which had been banned in the initial order. Staff had planned for similar arrivals in 2017, and are concerned that for many the confusion and chaos will spin into more delays. Many of the CRIS staff feel secondarily traumatized by this – that these refugees have gone through the legal channels and did everything they were asked to do to bring their families, and without warning – literally in mid-air – Trump’s order put a stop to it. CRIS staff sees these refugees as their family, brothers and sisters, and they’re hurt by the inhumanity of it, not to mention the staff cuts that it now faces as a result of federal funding cuts.

Given the administration’s impulsive and unpredictable behavior, CRIS and other agencies don’t know what to expect and can’t plan for the future. Already Trump’s threat to sign a new immigration order hangs over the heads of staff and refugees risking further chaos, injustice and trauma.

Jinnah is a researcher at the ACMS, Wits University, Shaffer holds a PhD in Anthropology and has conducted extensive research and advocacy with Somali refugees; Husseini is a Somali refugee who has been resettled in Ohio.

About Zaheera Jinnah

Zaheera Jinnah has a PhD in anthropology and a background in development studies and social work. Her research interests are in labour migration, gender and diaspora studies. She is a research associate at the ACMS where she teaches, supervises graduate students, and engages in policy and academic research. Her recent publication is the co-edited book (Palgrave) ‘Gender and Mobility in Africa: Borders, Bodies and Boundaries'.