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*Names have been changed for the safety of the subjects.
It had been a 19-hour journey from Cairo to Denver, but for Ramy Naser,* his wife, and their five children, it was just the final leg in a multiyear odyssey to find safety. The family had fled the war-torn city of Homs, Syria, in 2013 and found temporary refuge in Egypt. Now, almost four years later, on January 20, 2017, they were making their way through Denver International Airport, ready to begin a new life in Lakewood.
The family had been waiting for this day since their referral to the United States, which came after they applied for and were granted refugee status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The screening process, which often takes up to three years, included multiple interviews and medical checkups—and a lot of waiting. They had settled into an ephemeral life in the rural Egyptian province of Sharqiya: Naser’s two oldest children attended school, and he was able to find work as a cafe waiter (his longtime career was in tailoring), but the family never felt completely at ease. Naser says the local schools offered little in the way of real education, and he wanted a better future for his children. More than anything, he wanted them to grow up in a freer society.
After years of living in a state of uncertainty, the life-changing call came in early January: The International Organization for Migration had booked the family’s travel to the United States. But there were a few final details that needed attention. Multiple international and U.S. agencies, as well as the host country’s government, are involved in approving and scheduling refugee resettlement, and with all the moving parts—and Egypt’s strict control of people entering and departing the country—there was unfinished paperwork. With less than 24 hours until the family was scheduled to board a plane, they piled into a taxi before dawn for the three-hour ride to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where they finalized their exit papers in time to make their flight.
The irony of arriving in America as a Muslim refugee from the Middle East on President Donald Trump’s Inauguration Day was not lost on Naser. He had followed the presidential campaign and was aware of the increased threats and hate speech being leveled at immigrants and refugees, particularly those from the Islamic world. What he had seen concerned him, especially for his wife, who wears a hijab. Says Naser, “We were thinking the president supports racism in the country.”
Still, Naser and his family were optimistic that once inside America they would experience something they hadn’t in far too long: the snug sensation of sanctuary. For that, they were willing to push aside their fears and embrace the growing ambiguities that come with being a refugee not only in the United States in 2017, but also in the upper-middle-class, predominantly white suburb of Lakewood.
If you drive toward the plains along East Alameda Avenue or East Colfax Avenue to Havana Street or thereabouts, you’ll soon see evidence of Aurora’s status as the most ethnically diverse community in the metro area. About 20 percent of Aurora’s approximately 350,000 residents were born outside the United States, and that statistic has continued to balloon in part because the city has purposefully established and centralized offices and services to accommodate foreign-born residents, including refugees. Over the past five to 10 years, parts of the city have gradually morphed into unofficial hubs for refugee resettlement.
An abundance of affordable housing and easy access to public transportation were likely what initially made the city most attractive to resettlement agencies. And for a while, new refugees—who need to become self-sufficient before their financial assistance from the resettlement agency runs out—found these crucial amenities in Aurora. But a low cost of living and ubiquitous buses weren’t all that Aurora offered: Denver’s neighbor to the east also afforded the relief that comes with being able to blend in. Through the years, the area sprouted businesses that cater to various cultural needs, like markets that sell halal meat and ethnic breads that King Soopers might not always stock. Aurora’s refugees also support each other by helping their neighbors with errands, offering quick translations, or practicing tenets of familiar faiths together. Those may seem like small things, but it’s often these everyday interactions that make new arrivals feel at home.
Today, though, Aurora is feeling the effects of the Mile High City’s booming real estate market. The neighborhoods along East Colfax Avenue have become more dense and increasingly expensive. “The patterns we see with the resettlement program are the patterns we see with the broader population,” says Colorado’s state refugee coordinator, Kit Taintor. “People forget refugees are subject to these forces, too.” So, when the International Rescue Committee, a New York–based nonprofit that provides assistance to people around the world affected by conflict and disaster, proposed to open a new office in the Denver metro area in 2016, it chose to look west of the Mile High City rather than east.
Lakewood was the obvious choice, says Jennifer Wilson, IRC Denver’s executive director. It’s reasonably affordable, transit-friendly (in some areas), and accessible to existing refugee and Muslim communities in suburbs north and west of Denver. Plus, it has long been committed to being an inclusive and diverse community. For all its advantages, though, Lakewood was likely not, at least immediately, going to be as comfortable for new transplants as Aurora. For people who feel out of place, whether it’s because they don’t speak English or don’t know what Starbucks is or are struggling to find employment, there is power and respite in numbers. According to the 2015 U.S. Census American Community Survey, Lakewood’s population is approximately 89 percent white (including Latinos). Still, the IRC’s plan was to establish and encourage a similar kinship in Lakewood and expand it enough so that people settling there would no longer want or need to travel to Aurora for groceries or casual conversation.
After opening its Lakewood office in December, the IRC had plans to resettle about 300 refugees in the Denver metro area by September 2017. Two months later, however, Trump’s late January executive order (and then a revised order in early March) on immigration—which included a temporary ban on all refugees to the United States and slashed the total number who could ultimately be accepted for the year—changed the course of the Lakewood resettlement program. Wilson says her expectation in the post-travel-ban era is for the IRC to transplant about half as many refugees as it had anticipated in 2017. Taintor expects the state’s total number of resettled refugees, which was projected to exceed 2,000 this year, to be cut by almost 50 percent as well. The reduction in refugee arrivals has already caused ripple effects, including agencies around the country laying off dozens of staff members or closing offices altogether. Here in the Denver metro area, it has had a fundamental impact on the fabric of the Lakewood community that had just begun to form.
“We spend our days riding buses,” says Anwar Rahim* with a laugh. The 33-year-old Somali routinely makes the trip to Aurora, which can take up to two hours using public transportation, to eat and converse in restaurants and coffeeshops. “There are no people here to talk to in Lakewood,” he explains, using heavily accented but fluent English, which he learned in school at a refugee camp in Kenya.
Rahim, who is slim, wears loose-fitting, traditional Somali pants, and has an easy smile, arrived in mid-December, just weeks before Trump declared refugees from Somalia as persona non grata in America for 90 days. Rahim and his brother, along with their sister, her husband, and their four young children—who all share a four-bedroom apartment not too far from Naser’s three-bedroom unit—were the first refugees the IRC settled in Lakewood. Originally from Somalia, the family had been living in northern Kenya’s Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, since 1991, when Rahim was seven years old. The rest of his immediate family—his parents and three younger siblings—were also in line to be resettled in the United States from Dadaab. Now they’re all hoping, nervously, that they will still be allowed to travel—but they have no way to know when or if that will happen.
Rahim’s parents and siblings in Kenya are not alone in this executive order purgatory. Countless people who’d already been approved to enter the United States were en route to airports when the order was issued, having taken children out of schools, sold their belongings, and vacated their homes. Many more people had checked off some of the boxes in the refugee application and vetting process, but because certain steps must be completed within specified amounts of time, years’ worth of interviews and screenings might become worthless. The IRC Denver is seeing this firsthand: Wilson says she recently welcomed to Lakewood a group of Syrian refugees whose immediate family members were scheduled to join them before those plans were disrupted by the executive order. While they were waiting to be rebooked, some of their paperwork expired. They may have to start the process over.
While he awaits word about his family, Rahim has been working an entry-level construction job. For immigrants to this country—refugees or not—skills and certifications obtained overseas typically don’t transfer, and educated people who were, say, engineers in their home countries are often forced to drive taxis here. “Even if you went to college, you cannot start with a good-paying job in America,” says Rahim, who took university-level classes while living in Dadaab and is eager to further his coursework. “You have to start from scratch.” Financial independence is a priority for him, and he says he is prepared to work two jobs if that’s what he needs to do to fund a modest lifestyle and his education here. “In general, I am happy here,” he says, “and if I start work and can pay my own rent and stand on my own, I will be very happy.”
Wilson and her IRC Denver staff do what they can to help refugees secure meaningful work: They teach refugees the finer points of writing a resumé and educate them about American cultural norms when it comes to interviewing and the workplace. They are also busy reaching out to businesses in and around Lakewood, trying to identify job openings that newly arrived refugees could apply to fill. Wilson’s team has already built a solid network of local employers and hopes to continue to grow those connections. It’s a slow process, but a number of the refugees in Lakewood (including Rahim, his brother, and his brother-in-law) have already found employment, either with the IRC’s help or through channels they’ve established themselves. Naser—who, like Rahim, will take any job he can find but hopes to use his skills as a tailor—has scouted opportunities near his home, including at an outdoor gear assembly facility and a carpet-repair outfit.
Forging relationships with institutions and community partners around Lakewood to facilitate a smooth and safe integration for the refugees is high on the to-do list for the IRC. Staffers have been talking with the sheriff’s office and police department, for example, to find ways to incorporate the new communities into their patrol routines and with public school officials to prepare them for incoming students. “They’ve gone out of their way to create a welcoming environment for the students and their parents,” Wilson says of area schools, pointing to things like educating teachers about the students’ cultures, providing appropriate foods in cafeterias, and having an Arabic-speaking paraprofessional in one classroom.
Establishing these ties has been relatively smooth so far, Wilson says, but she confesses that Lakewood’s refugees have encountered some bumps. Eileen Plumb, an IRC intern who helps with translation, says when she assists families with running errands, they sometimes get nasty looks or snippy attitudes from people they encounter—even if the families don’t always recognize the hostility. Often the rudeness gets lost in translation, or the refugees simply don’t yet understand what is a normal interaction between strangers in the United States and what is not. Plumb also says some local residents have been frustrated with their new neighbors, whose families are sometimes more multitudinous and significantly louder than many apartment complex residents are accustomed to. For the most part, though, both Plumb and Wilson say they’ve seen the community warmly receive these new residents, and volunteers have been signing up to do things like help them learn the bus system. And despite their fears on that first day, Naser and his wife say they have yet to feel like targets of fear or hate. In fact, they say they’re settling in fairly well.
Sitting on the living room floor next to their aunt and siblings, Naser’s older children say they’ve been enjoying both learning and socializing in school. One daughter, a third-grader, recently went to a classmate’s home; the friend only speaks English, but they were able to use smartphone apps to communicate, and they played with the family dog, an activity that needed no translation. Rahim says his sister’s two older kids have similarly been able to transcend language barriers and had started walking to school with the children of a neighboring Syrian family.
Despite the many uncertainties and challenges that lie ahead—not least of which are those created by Trump’s executive orders and whether or not new restrictions will be issued in the future—one thing that’s clear is that the refugees now in Lakewood feel safer and better off than they did in the circumstances they left behind. Rahim says when he first arrived, despite having no other refugees—Somali or otherwise—in Lakewood to greet him, he felt an enormous sense of relief after years of uncertainty surrounding his refugee application. He stepped off the airplane in Colorado feeling overjoyed that he had finally arrived home.