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Distant taillights were the only beacons in the darkness. In the minivan trailing the twin red dots sat Diaa Abood, his trusted friend, and a driver they’d hired to ferry them to safety. The friend palmed a metal bar, making sure the driver saw the crude weapon so he wouldn’t have to wield it. Along with these three were Diaa’s wife, Hoda Tawfik, their six kids, who ranged in age from one to 12, and the friend’s family—a baker’s dozen crammed into the escape vehicle. As the van crept through the Iraqi desert, they quietly prayed.
They were tailing an American military transport whose soldiers scanned the shadowy landscape for trouble. Diaa and his friend figured that following it at a cautious distance was their surest route toward Syria, which in September 2006 was still a relative haven. In the three years since American troops and their allies had invaded Iraq, Diaa had survived on instinct and guile, like always. He’d already endured torture and imprisonment, forced military conscription, failing health, the petty corruption of Iraqi life, and the chaos unleashed after the Westerners liberated his home from Saddam Hussein’s rule. Under the dictator, fear was commonplace, but the de-Ba’athification of the country—removing Saddam and his minions—had spawned countless rebel militia groups with competing and murderous agendas. Virtually every Iraqi male between 10 and 70 knew how to use a gun, and if you couldn’t trust two out of five people during Saddam’s reign, by 2006 you couldn’t trust four of five.
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Like all Baghdadis, Diaa navigated this transition as the war smoldered and popped around him. He even found temporary work as a guide for United Nations troops, introducing them to the right people and steering them away from perilous areas along their patrol routes. Ever mindful of the adage that you should never put more weight on your shoulders than you know you can carry, he had willed himself and his family this far.
Only now his burden was nearly unbearable. As the militias emerged, so too did ancient grudges. When the Sunni Diaa married Hoda, a Shiite, in the 1990s, there was no prohibition to their union; Sunni and Shiite Muslims had coexisted, albeit uneasily, for at least 1,300 years. But by 2006 the couple began to feel threatened. Some Shiite men tried to drown their seven-year-old son, Marwan, in a river near their house because his name is Sunni, but he was rescued after nearby children screamed for help. After that, Diaa and Hoda stayed awake at night while their kids slept. Diaa landed on a “kill list,” and after some members of Hoda’s family finally gave him an ultimatum—leave Hoda with us and take your children or we’ll kill all of you—he knew his home had vanished for good.
He left Hoda and their children for a few days while he arranged for passage out of Baghdad with his friend. The clan left Iraq with two suitcases. Now, as the minivan crawled along, the driver suggested they break off and take a faster way. Diaa and his friend, both physically imposing, sensed that this meant they’d be handed off to a militia group, a surely fatal detour. We don’t care if it takes a month, they told him. Stay close to that military vehicle.
Squeezed into the back with her mother and siblings, eight-year-old Israa Hussein, the fourth of the family’s six kids, watched Diaa closely, with all the confidence she could muster despite this sudden and confusing exodus. (In keeping with Arabic tradition, Diaa’s children’s surname is his father’s first name.) Too young to grasp the complexities surrounding their escape, Israa leaned on her undying trust and adoration of her father. The only thing she couldn’t understand was why they weren’t allowed to say goodbye to everyone they’d left behind.
He had willed himself and his family this far. Only now his burden was nearly unbearable. As the militias emerged, so too did ancient grudges.
Under the watchful eye of the Heritage Windows—stained-glass depictions of Colorado settlers with Native American, African-American, Hispanic, Chinese, and Japanese roots—the March 14 Refugees 101 event unfolded in the state Capitol’s Old Supreme Court Chambers. Refugee and immigration organizations, religious leaders, and others recounted their own experiences and explained how our recently maligned refugee resettlement process works. That this system has become maligned doesn’t mean someone’s found a smoking-gun flaw in it, but after the ISIS-inspired terror attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, California, and Brussels, refugee resettlement and immigration now face renewed scrutiny.
A featured speaker in this hourlong refresher course was Obeid Kaifo. With his wanly olive complexion and dark hair and eyes, he looks Arab but sounds like any other American college kid—because that’s exactly what he is. Kaifo’s parents were Syrian immigrants who first settled in Los Angeles, where Kaifo was born, before the 1992 Rodney King riots and the 1994 Northridge earthquake chased the family to Colorado. Kaifo’s father initially ran a travel agency out of Obeid’s childhood bedroom—an early client was former Nugget Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf—but after enough friends complimented the family’s cooking, they decided to open a restaurant. Since 2004, the Shish Kabob Grill has sat directly across Colfax Avenue from the Capitol. The Kaifos are well-known among Colorado’s political class, and the restaurant provided the food for the Refugees 101 event.
With his father watching, Kaifo described how his assumptions about being Muslim changed after 9/11. The day after the attacks, a longtime classmate told the 11-year-old Kaifo, unprovoked, to “go back to his country.” When Kaifo later boarded the school bus, no one would let him share a seat, forcing him to squat in the aisle, his backpack wedged above him as kids pelted him with wadded-up paper and spitballs. One of them would later report Kaifo to a teacher after he checked out a book on Islam from the school library; to the kid’s eye, it was a book about bomb making. “I couldn’t imagine why all this was happening; I wasn’t getting it,” he told the hushed audience. “Why would I? It woke me up to the realities of this world, to how cruel it can be.”
Recent horrific terrorist incidents have reawakened his awareness and reignited broader fears of Islamic extremism’s threat: More than 25 state governors, all Republican, responded to President Barack Obama’s administration’s plan to welcome more Syrian refugees to the United States in 2016 by declaring their intention to bar these refugees from entering their states.
One who didn’t was Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper, who announced in November 2015 that Colorado would welcome refugees from Syria and cautiously endorsed Obama’s goals. As ongoing refugee crises in conflict-ridden areas such as Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, and Africa have reached historic levels—displacing almost 60 million people worldwide from their homes—the recent attacks have prompted certain politicians (including both Republicans and Democrats), pundits, and citizens to assert that the United States should pause or halt refugee resettlement. In this presidential election year, immigrants and refugees have received even more attention than usual, most of it inflammatory. At federal, state, and local levels, countless political figures or their surrogates have lumped all new arrivals to the United States—be they victims of religious persecution in the Middle East, undocumented aliens from Central America, or political prisoners from Asia—into a singular “other” category that we must fear, suspect, and possibly ban. One of the most graphic examples of this in Colorado came from former Republican U.S. Representative and longtime immigration foe Tom Tancredo, who responded to Hickenlooper’s announcement by posting a disturbing image on his Facebook page of dead bodies in the Bataclan theater in Paris with the caption, “Celebrating diversity, one massacre at a time. Coming soon to a concert hall near you.”
Such views willfully ignore the differences between refugees and other immigrants. By the United Nations’ definition, refugees have a “well-founded fear of being persecuted” because of race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group, or for having certain political opinions. They’ve been displaced outside their home countries and can’t receive protection from them or their governments. Anyone who fits this description and has completed the U.S. government’s rigorous and protracted screening process may qualify for admission here and a path toward American citizenship.
Although that seems straightforward, it’s anything but. Refugees who clear the Byzantine screening process still spend years in poverty and debt and lack upward mobility. They face physical, psychological, and emotional barriers to success that researchers are only beginning to understand. And they must confront social pressures and biases, from tradition-minded communities and new neighbors alike, that make them question their own identities and senses of belonging. After surviving or witnessing atrocities most Americans can’t imagine, there’s no guarantee they’ll ever thrive again.
Since the federal government decides who’s allowed into the United States, it’s tempting to dismiss gubernatorial anti-immigration stances as political posturing or placating the base; individual governors can’t stop federally sanctioned immigrants from entering their states. But working with simpatico state Legislatures, they can defund English language classes or table federally funded contracts for refugee-focused job-training programs. After Hickenlooper’s announcement, 37 Colorado Republicans signed a letter urging the suspension of Syrian refugee resettlement efforts until the U.S. Congress can pass a joint resolution affirming the reliability of the refugee vetting process. As of press time, no such measure was pending.
Neither the Colorado contingent—nor anyone else—has yet offered a blueprint for how this deferral would be imposed, or for how long. These vagaries are why national security and foreign policy experts have called these proposals unenforceable and counterproductive to fighting terrorism. Former CIA director Michael Hayden has said presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant statements have already helped the recruitment and radicalization efforts of ISIS and related groups; and Michael Chertoff, former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has described Trump’s plans as simply “preposterous.”
Refugees who clear the Byzantine screening process still spend years in poverty and debt and lack upward mobility.
The Obama administration has promised to admit 85,000 refugees in fiscal year 2016, up from 70,000 in 2015 but far below the numbers we’ve welcomed at various historic junctures. Colorado, which boasts one of the top refugee resettlement programs in the United States by job placement and retention rates, usually accepts about three percent of the total each year, which would be about 2,500 people in 2016. Of those, less than two percent are expected to come from Syria. That would mean about 50 Syrian newcomers; virtually all of them would land in Denver or Aurora.
For some, that’s 50 too many, and that multistep, multiyear screening process can never be meticulous enough. As Kaifo recounted during the Refugees 101 event, some politicians who have frequented the Shish Kabob Grill for years were among the signers of the Hickenlooper rebuttal letter. “They’ve come back time and again and sometimes bring their families to eat here, so I know they trust me to some extent,” he told me later. “But some politicians I’ve known really well have been changing on a dime. It’s shocking to see how quickly they’ll change their positions on Muslims.”
When our leaders gin up anti-Muslim sentiment, it impacts those who should be able to expect the same rights and treatment afforded to any other citizen. This past December, after the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, an Englewood bookstore called Goddess Isis Books & Gifts altered its sign, though not its name, after someone shattered it with a brick. A January fire that caused $50,000 worth of damage to a delivery truck at the Zamzam Halal International Market, which caters to Muslims, was investigated as arson. News organizations have chronicled dozens of recent incidents of Islamophobia throughout the United States. “Refugees are fleeing persecution and aren’t tied in any way to the conflicts in their home countries; in fact, through no fault of their own, they’re often targets of [Islamic] terrorists,” says Hans Meyer, a Denver immigration attorney. “This criticism of them is like blaming a domestic violence victim for being beaten up by her husband.”
This past April, Diaa sat in his southwest Denver home surrounded by his wife and three youngest children, the spicy aroma of Arab beef stew and rice wafting over from the oblong kitchenette. The townhouse is small and immaculate, with the first floor living and dining areas crammed into about 500 square feet and even less space for the bedrooms upstairs. Lush plants roost around the living room alongside colorful textiles—ruby red drapes and a matching tablecloth on the dining table, weathered brown leather couches, woven woolen throws—and kitschy bits of Americana, the kind of tabletop knickknacks your grandmother might collect, such as a small wooden boat and a Rockwellian cottage. As we talked and snacked on the baklava the parents had prepared, Hoda, son Mehdi, 14, and daughter Doha, 11, listened intently and played with Lulu, the rambunctious family cat.
Diaa, barrel-chested and cherubic with eyes that remain almost soothingly dark despite the horrors they’ve witnessed, related his memories of Iraq with dispassionate frankness. He spoke through now 18-year-old Israa, serving in her accustomed role as her parents’ translator, a duty that’s plainly cemented their already indelible bond. Israa regards her father with palpable admiration, tenderness—she once told me that seeing him in pain about anything hurts her 10 times worse—and an occasional flicker of awe. “If I’d just met him I’d automatically fall in love with his character,” she told me. “After all he’s been through he can still throw up his hands and thank God for everything. How is that even possible?”
Though it’s an improvement over their first American home, the family’s neighborhood near Ruby Hill isn’t exactly welcoming. The area has above-average crime rates, and neighbors have done things like deflate Diaa’s tires when he parked in the “wrong” spot in the complex’s parking lot (the slots are unassigned) or dinged his bumper with their own cars. The family initially lived in an immigrant enclave near East Colfax, so they have attained some of the upward mobility that many refugees never realize. And whatever is still lacking in these modest surroundings, the trek that deposited them here was far more stressful and dangerous than anything they might face in Colorado.
After taking about 16 hours to complete the 350-mile slog to the Syrian border from Baghdad, the minivan stopped at a checkpoint, where Diaa paid a bribe to the patrolling militia group that allowed them to proceed. Middle Eastern men who have survived well into adulthood can thank the alchemy of intuition, grit, and luck, and Diaa personifies it. In the 1980s, Iraq waged a catastrophic eight-year war against Iran. The conflict began—with the diplomatic and military backing of the United States and other Western allies—when Iraq preemptively invaded its neighbor before Iran could extend its Shiite-led Islamic revolution into Iraq. At least one million soldiers and civilians ultimately died in the war, and it marked the first times Saddam used chemical weapons against both his foes and his own citizens.
Then in his 20s, Diaa was legally obligated to join the army, a mandate enforced by Saddam’s wide network of loyalists, which by then had sown extreme mistrust among Iraqis. Merely being suspected of having anti-government opinions, let alone expressing them, could get you jailed, and when Diaa refused to leave his family to join the army, he was incarcerated. His trial involved a quick reading of the charges against him before guards ushered him away.
From 1985 to ’88, Diaa bounced in and out of jail. The prison was a remote, repurposed junkyard, a fenced-off plot that held up to 3,000 other inmates. The desert’s savage heat radiated off the scrap metal and rubber, swathing the men in a sweltering cocktail of toxic chemicals and festering waste. Twice a day guards brought troughs of water, and the men herded around them, feverishly ladling gulps with their hands. More fortunate prisoners—those with connections or money—slept on newspapers rather than in the dirt. Every few days, Diaa heard about someone who had died from exposure, execution, or suicide.
The guards tortured Diaa repeatedly and once broke his arm. They also released him several times, usually right before his sentence was up, and then re-arrested him. (They once jailed him for smoking a cigarette on the street during Ramadan.) After one arrest they sentenced him to execution, but he and a friend managed to flee into the desert. The escape landed him on a military police wanted list, and he was eventually recaptured. Now his only option was Saddam’s “forgiveness plan,” instituted whenever the dictator’s supply of soldiers thinned. Diaa became a military cook, a daily exercise in scarcity and ingenuity in the ill-supplied army, and he was occasionally required to fight alongside his fellow soldiers.
After the war ended and the United States–led Desert Storm invasion passed, Iraqi life settled into its new normal. Diaa became an inspector of sheepskin for jackets and bags. He met and married Hoda, and they started a family. Diaa, the brood’s sole breadwinner, says he was able to avoid further military service—as long as he forfeited up to 90 percent of his income back to his bosses so they would shield him from Saddam’s many enforcers. By decade’s end, the dictator’s ruthlessness had saturated Iraqi culture with a raw survivalist mentality; among friends and neighbors, and sometimes even within families, any sense of mercy had died.
When hijacked airplanes pierced the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, the incident barely registered among Baghdadis. After suffering carnage at home for 20 years, another bombing a world away was unremarkable; by then most Iraqis had seen such violence and misery firsthand. So when Americans turned an accusing eye toward Iraq, the citizens were mystified. Despite the militarization, they were hardly a nation of well-armored warriors; many Iraqi soldiers fought in street clothes and flip-flops. “We can barely survive in our own country,” Diaa says. “When are we going to have the chance to bomb someone else across the world?”
Iraqis initially hoped that incoming American and NATO troops would improve their lives—until they realized that the capture and execution of Saddam merely replaced one nightmare with another. The country plunged into lawlessness as the militias took up arms and agendas. By the time the family fled in 2006, Iraq was entering a rudderless phase. Western support of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim who’d been living in exile for 20 years, eventually helped create an environment in which religious divisions deepened, crime and corruption flourished, and accountability vanished. “Some people think that if al-Maliki had told Sunni Arabs, ‘We want you to stay and not be afraid of being in the minority,’ maybe that would’ve helped a little,” says Christopher Hill, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and now the dean of the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies. “But that would have been expecting pigs to fly.”
The day after the attacks, a longtime classmate told the 11-year-old Kaifo, unprovoked, to “go back to his country.”
Diaa and his family spent about a week in Syria before heading to Lebanon; they wanted to be as far from Iraq as possible. He hired an “escaper” to shepherd them around danger zones, but these men were just as likely to steal your money and leave you with a militia group. Relying again on instinct, Diaa broke off from the convoy of refugee families the escaper was leading, and the family walked for nine hours into Lebanon.
Once there, Hoda worked for a cleaning service at a university, and the two older Hussein sons sold produce in local markets. But the family mostly lived off of Diaa’s meager savings and often ate only one meal a day. As Diaa looked after the younger children and the infant, Doha, years of exposure to toxic sheepskin treatment chemicals and the pressure of rescuing his family finally overwhelmed him. He began showing symptoms of diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, and chronic pain. Although they had secured six-month visitors’ visas, the family moved around occasionally to avoid immigration officials once those permits expired. This ended when the family was discovered; the offense cost Diaa three days in jail and made him realize his family’s security in Lebanon couldn’t last.
The family had applied for refugee status and asylum with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) within its first month in Lebanon. This launched a nearly three-year screening process. Interviews often included the entire family and frequently required all of them to wait up to 10 hours at overcrowded interview sites. Although they didn’t know it yet, the UNHCR had referred the family to the U.S. refugee admissions program; like many refugees, the family never had a preference about where they should be resettled. The agencies compiled the family’s personal data, fingerprinted everyone, and sent their information to the DHS, which set up more interviews. With all refugee applicants, the DHS and the State Department run numerous security checks—all participating agencies have continued to add layers of new safeguards since 2008, including additional anti-fraud measures adopted in 2015—and repeat steps if doubts arise. Someone who’s been flagged for providing material support to a terrorist organization, for example, might have that disqualifier waived if the “support” is determined to have been a ransom payment for a kidnapped family member.
Once applicants pass these benchmarks, more interviews determine if they still meet our refugee criteria, and only then can agencies issue conditional approval. Refugees undergo medical screening, sometimes including blood and DNA testing, and a U.S. sponsor resettlement agency determines where they might live. As they await final approval, applicants can take cultural orientation classes, and they must pass a final round of security screenings before they’re granted formal admission to the United States.
When Diaa and his family arrived for their appointment in April 2009, they quickly realized something had changed. Within 30 minutes of an official telling them they’d probably have to wait until the following morning—going home wasn’t an option—a woman appeared and ushered the whole family into her office. She gave Diaa enough encouraging words that he decided to pay to keep his cell phone charged, and for the next two weeks he checked its screen constantly. Finally, at 11 one night, he got the call: Congratulations, you’re going to America. The family celebrated in the most luxurious way it could, over a homemade falafel dinner.
The family still had two months before their flight to the States, a wait Diaa calls “the sweetest pain you could ever feel” because they still feared that someone could come along and boot them right back to Iraq. But at last their eight plane tickets arrived at the refugee-processing center, and they headed to the Beirut airport. They flew through Germany and landed in New York, where they passed another security check. On their first night in America they dined on chicken wings from KFC, and the bathtub in the family’s hotel room was so clean, wide, and inviting that Israa slept in it.
Upon arriving in Denver, a representative from Ecumenical Refugee and Immigration Services (ERIS), a resettlement agency in Colorado that has since closed, met them at the airport. Two other groups, Lutheran Family Services and the African Community Center (ACC), now handle the bulk of these efforts. They first try to resettle newcomers where they have family, friends, or an established community. (If refugees have known mental health issues, the agencies try to resettle them somewhere with a robust mental health care system, like California.) In Colorado, the largest refugee populations to date hail from Somalia, Ethiopia, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Congo, Bhutan, and Eritrea, among others; the number of Iraqi newcomers has risen sharply in recent years, but Syrians still comprise well under 10 percent of the state’s refugee population.
The resettlement official took the family to its new home, a cramped, furnished apartment along a section of East Colfax that’s become a densely populated refugee community. Resettlement agencies typically get about four months’ notice for new arrivals, and they use it to set up housing, contact refugees’ family members or friends who are already here, and make connections with the appropriate houses of worship. The agencies pay the security deposit and sometimes a month or two of rent, arrange transportation options, and supply basics such as warm clothes, plates and silverware for each person, and an alarm clock. They must accomplish all this with $1,125 per person in federal funding—the agencies also solicit private donations and partner with mattress and furniture stores to cut costs—an astronomical sum to the typical refugee but barely enough to get started in the increasingly costly Denver metro area. “It would be hard for anyone to outfit their entire life with that amount of money, which is why finding them work ASAP is so important,” says Zewdu Hailegiorgis, a data manager at the ACC. “After everything these folks have been through, if they don’t speak English it can take time to get them ready for a job.”
The federal assistance refugees receive is a loan, not a gift; nearly a decade after arriving, Diaa is paying back the $10,000 the family still owes the U.S. government in $100 monthly installments. If there is a hole in the resettlement program, it’s that it ends too soon; regular contact with the agencies starts to wane after a refugee family has been here for about five years. But the humble beginnings give them hope that can’t be quantified. Today Israa says she remembers almost nothing from her life in Iraq and Lebanon but can recall virtually every detail since she landed on American soil.
Refugees must have timely medical screenings and register with the U.S. Social Security Administration right away so they can start working and paying taxes. They also must apply for green cards after one year and can begin the citizenship process five years after their arrival. (In Diaa’s family, only Israa isn’t a naturalized citizen because no one has been able to locate her birth certificate.) Among the ACC’s job-training classes is one that teaches women how to use industrial-grade sewing machines. They create vibrant bags, aprons, and other textiles they can retail at the ACC, through Aurora’s Safari Thrift store, at outdoor markets, or online.
The occupational classes can be a tough sell. Refugees frequently hail from cultures where women aren’t expected to hold jobs and might even be prohibited from earning outside incomes. And even when men are accomplished back home—many Afghan refugees, for example, have advanced degrees in law, medicine, or business—American employers often won’t honor their credentials. “You might be an IT specialist from the University of Baghdad, but employers here can’t call and check your references. Or you might be an experienced electrician, but the systems here are different,” says Lisa MacClure, a job developer for the ACC. “It’s hard to accept having to start over in a profession you’ve been doing for 10 to 15 years.” But in most cases, pride eventually succumbs to necessity. “A good candidate who speaks some English might not want the airport or gas station job you get for him,” says Hailegiorgis, whose first job in America, after he emigrated from Ethiopia, was at a 7-Eleven. “That person has to suffer a bit before he comes back and says he wants to try it. It’s all about setting up your kids so they can go to college and be somebody, so when they run for president someday they can say, ‘My father came to this country with $200.’?”
Diaa’s health issues immediately qualified him for disability benefits, which his three older children supplemented with side jobs once they were of working age. Hoda stayed home to care for her ailing husband and three younger children. As the family adjusted to its new life, Israa, then 11 years old, in fifth grade, and speaking no English, began attending Place Bridge Academy, a DPS ECE-8 school that serves the local refugee population. Her first day at the school was the first time she’d ever been in a classroom.
Toward the lonelier end of Cherry Creek sits what must be one of the most diverse patches of real estate in Colorado. On a Friday evening in early May, Place Bridge Academy hosts its annual International Night, a showcase for the cultures and traditions of the school’s students. About 70 different languages or dialects are spoken at Place, whose pupils come from more than 80 countries. Amid tables topped with vivid trifold cardboard educational displays about each nation, children, families, and guests weave through the festive chaos, many of them dressed in colorful, flowing, and sparkling attire from their home countries. The school’s adjacent windowless gyms grow steamy on the first summery night of the year from the food, bite-size samples of pungent native dishes such as Ethiopian shiro, Moroccan pastries, and vinaigrette salad from Kazakhstan—though the longest line is at the stand selling hot dogs and pizza.
The event kicks off with a group of preteen girls unselfconsciously belting out “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Between performances of Mexican, Somali, Nepalese, and Iraqi dances, African drum circles, and Russian and Burmese singing—captured on smartphone cameras by proud parents—the guests shuffle past a replica Statue of Liberty in the entryway and through the school’s hallways, all marked with aspirational street signs: University of Colorado Parkway, Metro State Drive, Rutgers Road. Many of the middle school boys are already well-versed in American teens’ obsession with cool and sport Nikes, baggy pants, and flat-brim baseball caps, like any kid you’d see at a skate park or the mall. Toward the evening’s end, a half-dozen of them climb onto one of the stages and encore the international performances with a spirited rendition of the Nae Nae.
About 65 percent of Place’s 1,200 students are refugees; the rest are mostly area kids whose parents choiced them into the school for its multicultural environment. Place has an array of newcomer classrooms where kids are slotted primarily based on English skills, and students of high and low English abilities are often paired so they can help each other. Many refugee students are physically smaller than their nonrefugee peers because of chronic malnutrition, and when the school first opened in 2008 they often needed to learn basic skills and norms, such as how to hold a pencil or scissors or that it’s appropriate to keep their shoes on indoors. The students must take the same standardized tests as other DPS pupils, even though the school is under constant pressure to achieve a two- to four-grade-level increase per student every year. The lone area where these kids need little assistance is in the global sport of futbol; Place’s middle school team won the DPS district championship in its most recent season.
Place teachers initially improvised much of the school’s unique curriculum, often learning their own valuable lessons. Mandatory exercises such as fire or lockdown drills, for example, can be terrifying for children who have lived in war zones. And in this real, live melting pot, cultural differences sometimes boil over. In her first year as a Place third-grade teacher, Louise H. Kreuzer-Yaafouri had several kids from Myanmar in her class and sat them together, figuring they’d be logical study companions. It turned out they all came from warring tribes and didn’t speak the same dialects, though “they still knew all the ugly words to call each other,” she says. And a task as seemingly innocuous as having the kids draw pictures of things they remember from home—limited English makes art an even more valuable teaching tool—can quickly turn disturbing, such as when one of Kreuzer-Yaafouri’s students rendered a scene of, as the child described later, “the men who came in the night to stomp on babies’ heads until they died.”
It’s not uncommon for newcomers to be mute during their first several months at Place—“and then it all just suddenly comes out,” Kreuzer-Yaafouri says. These children frequently have PTSD and suffer culture shock that appears in visceral symptoms such as nausea, stuttering, depression, or being obsessively organized. The teachers and staff also must recognize myriad cultural idiosyncrasies: For some kids, writing left-handed was discouraged back home, or giving a child a friendly pat on the head or the OK sign might be considered insulting. The school uses dozens of teacher’s assistants who are well-educated adult refugees and provide invaluable assistance in managing the classrooms and conflicts.
Bolstered by emerging research about refugee populations, Place strives to assimilate its students into the American lifestyle while also honoring and preserving their traditional cultures, and the school’s mission stretches far beyond education. Place has also become a de facto refugee community center that offers legal services and job and language training for parents, along with seminars about mental health and cross-cultural bonding. It boasts a Denver Health medical and preventive dental clinic on-site that serves any DPS student, including siblings who aren’t yet in school. “It’s better to take care of a health problem here in 30 minutes rather than having them miss a whole day of school at an outside clinic,” says Place principal Brenda Kazin, who calls the school’s clinic the Cadillac of such facilities. “Most of our parents rely on public transportation, so it’s easier to do it all here.”
Despite the extra assistance, Place students, usually the first or quickest in their families to learn English and American mores, often are thrust into a caretaker role whether or not they’re prepared for it. (One of the non-English-speaking parents’ biggest frustrations is being unable to help their kids with homework.) When Israa arrived at Place, her brother Mehdi, then a first-grader, was so inconsolable he’d run through the halls screaming for his sister until she came to sit with him in his classroom. “She always had this little spark and is one of the most curious people I’ve ever met,” says Kreuzer-Yaafouri, whose book, The Newcomer Student: An Educator’s Guide to Aid Transitions, was published this past spring and helps refugee educators better understand what their unique populations require. “She was so ready to learn she thought it was a waste of time to be sitting in her brother’s first-grade classroom. But it worked out over time.”
Kreuzer-Yaafouri says Israa’s burdensome family position—she also became the actual poster child for Place after being featured in a video for a developer of language and literacy software—is common among refugees. “Even in families that are doing well, there’s often one kid who’s just off the charts,” Kreuzer-Yaafouri says. “Israa wants to make a difference. She’s real and will call things out. She’ll tell you flatly if she likes something or doesn’t. She’s really got something different. I don’t know a lot of American students who have that, but it’s another level of stress. It’s more people looking up to her, more to live up to.”
Even though refugee children can encounter biases from the surrounding community, and given how many Place students should be mortal enemies, most bullying issues at the school are surprisingly self-correcting. “We’ll often have kids from warring tribes, or from Iran and Iraq, sitting at tables together; it took a lot of working to get to this point, but once they’re in here, they’re just kids,” Kreuzer-Yaafouri says. “The school’s focus on being a family means they really stick up for each other. They understand that, as refugees, they’re all in this together and are unique in really wonderful ways.” It’s a lesson the outside world is still struggling to learn.
Obeid Kaifo visited Syria once, in 2008, to meet his extended family for the first time—precisely the kind of trip certain policymakers propose that we now limit or suspend. That position isn’t unreasonable; one of the San Bernardino shooters was an American-born Muslim who brought his radicalized wife back here after a trip to Saudi Arabia. (They originally met online.) But so far no one’s suggested an effective way to restrict or monitor such travel without treading perilously close to fear-inspired chapters of American history such as Red Scare blacklists or Japanese internment camps. “I understand why some people think the safest thing to do would be to shut everything down,” Kaifo says. “But we have to solidify our understanding of the [global terror] situation to remove the fear and warm people up to Muslims gradually. I’m hoping people will be more willing to listen to me because I don’t speak broken English or have an accent.”
Since the Syrian civil war exploded in 2011, Kaifo has lost two uncles. One was shot in the street by a sniper—his body lay exposed for two weeks because it was a magnet for more sniper attacks—and the other was burned alive in his apartment of 30 years because it happened to be next door to a headquarters for political police. The building’s walls had been blown out by anti-government rebels trying to liberate fellow freedom fighters, and pro-Assad forces questioned the uncle about his involvement in the blast before, in Kaifo’s words, “sending a message to potential rebel sympathizers” by tying up the uncle and setting his home ablaze. Kaifo has tried to find some way to rescue his remaining family from Syria, including leveraging his political connections, but he fears his relatives’ patience has waned. “I don’t think my family would believe or trust me anymore,” he says. “I doubt they’d even pick up the phone.”
Still, Kaifo remains hopeful. The recent Metropolitan State University of Denver graduate has founded an organization that will develop outreach programs and counseling services for Middle Eastern refugees and their children. “I want to create a safe place where people can go to defend their hopes, dreams, and ideals,” he says. “To rise above the hatred only builds your character more. I don’t feel like I owe anybody anything, but at the same time, I feel like I owe everybody everything. Other kids might not have that sense of self-worth, so I want to create something that intercepts what groups like ISIS are trying to do.”
Kaifo’s optimism isn’t just youthful naïvety. Experts say that if we’re truly concerned about terrorism, one of the most compelling strategies for diffusing the threat lies in welcoming more refugees, not fewer, and helping them assimilate, because refugee camps and purposefully isolated immigrant neighborhoods can be potent incubators for radicalization. Before he was ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill worked on the Bosnian peace negotiations in the late 1990s and saw what a powder keg the camps can be. “You try to police that activity, but there’s nothing to do in refugee camps, so that kind of proselytizing has been present in every situation I’ve seen,” Hill says.
Emerging research shows that the more you effectively quarantine an ethnic group, ghettoize their surroundings, and discriminate against them—as has happened with the Muslim enclaves in France and Belgium—the more resentment becomes the fuse that can ignite radicalization. Given that Muslim cultures and traditions vary widely, forcing them all into a monolithic category for assimilation, even if it’s well-intentioned, can have grievous consequences. “When you destroy these nation-states, where do people find refuge?” Hill asks. “Their [home] governments have become hopelessly corrupt, if they even still exist, so they look toward sectarian rather than secular identities.”
With global terrorism more likely to become a permanent, amorphous reality than a singular, tangible entity that can be forever vanquished—there will always be someone hell-bent enough on havoc to find a way to wreak it—terrorism’s potential targets must develop methods that distinguish real fears from imagined ones. Any victory will almost certainly depend on trusting our shared humanity, taking the universal conviction that no one wishes harm upon someone they know and love and expanding it to include people we don’t necessarily know or love. That’s why adding a layer or two (or 10) to our resettlement process can’t ever fully guarantee our safety. (Several new laws addressing resettlement are currently pending in Congress, but the American Civil Liberties Union, among others, has expressed opposition to them, and Obama has pledged to veto at least one of them should it land on his desk.) “I think our [refugee vetting] process is pretty robust, but one political party has made the lack of confidence in government not just a position, but an anthem,” Hill says. “So you’re going to have trouble convincing a substantial percentage of people that our government will ever have a system that will properly do this.”
Apart from the occasional episode of déjà vu, she still remembers almost nothing from her childhood abroad.
Refugee and immigrant families want the same things most Americans take for granted: security, acceptance, and a fair shot at a better life. As devout as Diaa is, he’s also progressive enough to let his older sons live on their own—an uncommon dynamic in Muslim families—to let his daughters forego the hijab, and to encourage them to educate themselves and be professionally successful. Diaa’s forward thinking has sometimes alienated his family from more traditional Colorado Muslims. The brunt of this, the weight on the shoulders, often falls on Israa, who gets impatient with her Muslim peers when they criticize her Western attire and extroversion. “I never worried much about what anyone thinks of me,” she says. “I only care about the truth.”
If anything interests Israa as much as her academic achievement and making her parents proud, it’s a good night’s sleep. She played sports in ninth grade but began working as soon as she could. In addition to her course load at South High School, which includes several AP classes, she works 40 hours a week at a Denver Goodwill store and gives most of her paycheck to her family. “It’s not a direct order from my parents, but I know it’s a duty,” she says. “They’ve been through so much it would be disrespectful of me to know I have the option to help but choose not to.”
To Israa, misbehaving means not studying quite as hard because she can’t keep her eyes open. “There have been times when I didn’t perform to my full potential because all I wanted to do was sleep, so I learned to be fine with getting a B,” she says. “Some of my friends have more room to make mistakes. I don’t really have that. But I would love to be able to go skiing with them or hang out more. This is the time when you’re supposed to be having fun.”
The eager but uncertain fifth-grader who spoke halting English in the Place videos has grown into a gregarious, blunt, and whip-smart 18-year-old. Like most kids her age, she’s almost visibly impatient about rushing into adulthood. And like most kids her age, she still has that underlying glint of adolescent uncertainty and vulnerability. But unlike most kids her age, Israa has a visceral drive to achieve that even she doesn’t fully comprehend. Apart from the occasional episode of déjà vu, she still remembers almost nothing from her childhood abroad. Sometimes sparks of it burst open during moments of chaos. She’ll hear a siren or a distant gunshot, or see two kids fighting at school, and a din pulses through her head, thumping and roaring. She squeezes her eyes shut, covers her ears with her hands, and it soon quiets. She knows she’ll need to face her past eventually—just not today. “I have so much on my plate right now,” Israa says, “that the last thing I need to remember are the times when I was in fear.”
Although she says her family’s tendency to overly rely on “the good daughter” might change as her younger siblings mature, for now Israa accepts her role even if she doesn’t always embrace it. “Sometimes I just want a small house in a good neighborhood, but we can’t get something as simple as that yet,” she says. “I’m just tired; I want to close this book and start another one.”
She’ll get her chance in August. This past spring, Israa was accepted to the University of Colorado (Boulder and Denver), along with several other colleges around the state. She wants to study something entrepreneurial that will help deliver her family—and maybe someday, her home country—from its tragic and trying circumstances. Even though Boulder is only an hour away and might offer the most prestigious and financially rewarding degree, Israa has decided to attend CU Denver. That way, she can be closer to home.