Sunday night, Alaskans gathered in multiple places to protest a strict travel ban, via executive order, issued by President Donald Trump.
Three and a half miles away and 24 hours earlier than Anchorage’s gathering at the federal courthouse on 7th Ave., I found myself in a living room with six refugee women from South Sudan. They were organizing a new advocacy and educational group for the Sudanese community in Anchorage.
Trump’s executive order freezes refugee admission for four months, denies green-card holders entry, and outright blocks Syrian refugee relocation indefinitely. The four month freeze includes citizens of seven countries with populations that are majority Muslim: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen. The affected in those countries cannot enter the U.S. at all, period. It additionally enacts a reviews suspending the Visa Interview Waiver program, which permits “travelers from 38 countries — including close allies — to renew travel authorizations without an in-person interview,” according to CNN.
On Sunday’s edition of Meet the Press, Trump’s chief of staff and former Republican National Committee chair, Reince Priebus, hinted that the policy could expand to allow Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) “discretionary authority” to question U.S. citizens traveling from any of the seven countries. (The Atlantic points out that they already had this authority.)
“If you’re traveling back and forth, you’re going to be subjected to further screening,” Preibus explained.
The New York Times reported that,
United States Customs and Border Protection instructed airlines to stop passengers from the banned countries from boarding flights and to remove any who had already done so. Airline crew members from the seven named countries were also barred from the United States, it said.
An official message was sent to American diplomatic posts around the world instructing them to immediately stop visa interviews for citizens of the seven banned countries and to halt the processing or printing of any pending visas.
The intent of the sweeping policy, according to Trump, was to “protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals admitted to the United States” by restricting travel between the U.S. and “countries of concern.”
However, as The Wall Street Journal notes, “None of the major U.S. terrorist attacks or plots on or since Sept. 11, 2001, appear to have been carried out by people from the seven countries. The 19 men involved in the Sept. 11 attacks were from Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. The same is true of other prominent incidents since the Sept. 11 attacks.”
85 percent of suspects in terrorist activity inside the U.S., the report adds, were U.S. citizens or legal residents.
The immediate effect left “refugees, who had gone through the years-long process before being approved to come to the U.S., stranded in third countries” as well as “Iraqis who had worked for years with the U.S. military “ and “Iranian students stuck overseas.”
Protests broke out nationwide — including at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport — and, by Saturday evening, a federal judge blocked part of the executive order, barring the deportation of people detained at airports in the interim. The decision stopped short of any ruling on the overarching constitutionality of the policy, meaning that the freeze still applies to those who are currently undergoing the immigration process or are stuck abroad.
“I have a husband in Nigeria,” one of the South Sudan refugee women told me Saturday evening. She said that she’s been in Alaska for five and a half years. “I got a letter last week saying that’s he’s been approved. And then today, what I heard — it broke my heart. Because it seemed like it would be hard for an immigrant to come. Maybe, even, if you have a green card, you can’t even come back to the U.S. I’m so afraid of that.”
Another said that her mother was stuck in Ethiopia, and she’s been working to bring her to the U.S. the entire time she’s been here — over 20 years — but her income is too low. She has to find someone to co-sponsor her. U.S. immigration law requires an affidavit of support to accept financial responsibility. Without immediate family in the country, her only option is sponsorship from her employer. That hasn’t worked.
None of the women wanted me to use their names in this article, citing safety concerns. I complied, because I am worried about their safety too. I spoke with them in the kitchen of the Anchorage Community House, where they sipped tea after an evening of organizing.
They’re forming an advocacy and educational group called the United Neur Women of Alaska.
The Nuer are one of the largest of 64 recognized tribes in South Sudan. They have been in conflict for decades with a rival tribe, the Dinka. After decades of bloodshed, the Republic of South Sudan established independence in 2011, but has been locked in civil war since 2013. The feud splits along the tribal lines and bears all the hallmarks of nightmares.
“Already, ethnic cleansing appears to be underway, with a U.N. commission on human rights reporting on massacres, gang rapes, and the destruction of whole villages” Foreign Policy wrote in January of this year. “A recent Associated Press investigation found evidence that people had been rounded up and burned alive in the Equatorian town of Yei.”
A full quarter of the state’s population of 12 million has been displaced. Up to 300,000 have been killed.
So, imagine for a second the entire population of Anchorage going away. That’s the reality these women live every day. And they live it a long way from home.
When I asked if they liked Alaska, one woman responded, simply, “No. Too cold. Too cold!”
Alaska has received refugees from African nation-states since 1966, from South Sudan, Burma, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Kosovo, Laos, Moldova, Nepal, Russia, Rwanda, Ukraine, and Somalia. Catholic Social Services works to settle roughly 130 refugees in Alaska per year, mostly in Anchorage.
They are vetted in an onerous process that can take years.
Even when approved (the U.S. only approves and receives about 0.5 percent of the total number of all refugees in the world), the experience is not without challenges. When I asked the group if they had experienced racism or hate during their tenure in Anchorage, I was met with universal nods.
“I work at Walmart. I was a cashier at the time,” one woman told me.
A white guy came and, maybe he’s tired, I don’t know. I asked him “How’s your day today?” He said, “I’m okay. How about you?” I said, “I’m okay too.” And then he started cursing Obama and Obamacare. And I asked myself why he said that to me. Is it because I am black and the president is black? For what reason? But the way he was telling me the things he tried to tell me, it made me sad. And that was the first day I got mad and I got angry about why I’m here in the United States. I questioned myself. Because I don’t even know Obama. I just saw him on TV. I never met him. He’s not my cousin or anything like that.
Another told me that her first apartment’s landlord flat out told her she didn’t like foreigners.
“You’re color and the same continent, you know? So you get labeled like that.”
And then the statement that floored me:
This is my first year in Anchorage. I’ve been in the U.S. since 1999. I’ve lived in Jacksonville, Florida. I’ve lived in Minnesota. But I never experienced racism. But, in Alaska, I cry. I cry. I shed tears. Because I had two people who told me to go back to Africa. I cry. And some of them, sometimes, when they approach me at work, because of my color and my accent. So, that breaks my heart. Because here, come on, I’m human. Just be happy because I am your fellow human. You can’t treat me like that because of my color, because of my nationality. That’s not right. But, I feel like I have nothing to do with it. I just let it go and then move on. But, on the other hand, it hurt. Right now, I’m more, more frightened. Because I don’t know how many people will tell me to go back again.
They all told me that they wished to return home — that they were homesick — but that wasn’t possible. The U.S. government offered them a way out of the violence, death, and destruction and they took it. The isolation and separation came with the deal. That was the only viable option and they’re trying to do the best they can with it.
One woman compared racism to flora, quite beautifully, albeit tragically.
“You see different flowers. Yes, they come with multiple colors and they are so beautiful,” one of the woman said to me. “You can’t say that you don’t like red ferns, you can’t say that you don’t like yellow roses. God made us. We come in multiple colors. I cried. I was, like, what am I doing here in Alaska?”
“We’re here now. And we also have a lot of extended family and neighbors who are suffering out there who couldn’t get the same opportunity to come here,” one of them told me. “And what are we going to do about them?”