Open Land, Closed Spaces

By on July 11, 2018

As anti-immigrant sentiment rises in the U.S., will the door close completely for refugees in the state?

(Robyn Vincent)

RAMALLAH, PALESTINE – The morning is silent as the sun creeps over the water tanks positioned precariously on the rooftops of al-Am’ari Refugee Camp. The stillness is suddenly broken by a series of gunshots ricocheting through the tightly-clustered cinder block homes. The morning’s early pink is stained by a child crying amid the confusion. After an hour of gunshots, another moment of silence is punctuated again, this time by the Islamic call to prayer. It fills the air, just like it has for hundreds of years, and then circulates through the broken-down cars and once-sleepy faces of those roused by the commotion.

The violence resulted in an unconfirmed number of people from the refugee camp being arrested and detained by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) in connection with the death of a soldier two weeks prior. Gunshots and raiding soldiers are a common part of camp life here.

Every year a few of the children “are sponsored to go to France, and they come back and ask me, ‘Why are the children not afraid there?’” said Iyad Shadid*, director of the Palestinian Society for Care and Development (PCSD). In digestible terms, he tried to explain how difficult life can be in this impoverished section of the West Bank.

The UN Refugee Agency counts 68.5 million forcibly-displaced persons throughout the world. Humanitarian aid, then, has never been more crucial for sustaining the lives of vulnerable populations. The world’s largest economy and most affluent nation, the U.S., has resettled more than 3 million refugees since 1975, but Wyoming has remained unmoved. It is the only state in the Union without a refugee resettlement program. While the U.S. has historically resettled more refugees than all other countries combined, its contribution is nearly mute against the countries now hosting huge numbers of unsettled refugees. Turkey hosts approximately three million refugees, Lebanon has around one million, and Jordan has taken in nearly 700,000, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The situation in Palestine has left multi-generational refugees in poverty and in need of external assistance. But, as President Donald Trump and his administration push “America-first” isolationism, the plight of refugees fades deeper into the background. In Wyoming, a refugee resettlement program has faced great resistance.

As the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and hard-line immigration policies continue, is the potential for a resettlement program in the state fading away?

From East to West

Wyoming spans nearly 98,000 square miles and is the 10th largest state in the Union. With a population of around 579,000 people, it is also the least populous state. For a perspective on population density, the West Bank is home to more than 775,000 registered refugees. Al-Am’ari Refugee Camp hosts nearly 11,000 of them on nearly one third of a square mile of earth on the outskirts of Palestine’s de facto capital, Ramallah. Education is limited in the camp, and social services are nearly non-existent.

Despite the growing demand for humanitarian aid, relations between the Palestinian Territories and the United States continue to deteriorate. Trump’s decision to move the United States embassy to Jerusalem was a definitive move in favor of Israeli dominance in a volatile region.

The tense relationship has hit Palestine hard. Permanent refugees, like those in al-Am’ari Camp, have had their funding from the United States cut by nearly 83 percent. The Congressional Research Service released a report recording the Trump administration’s withholding of monetary support totaling approximately $300 million worth of U.S. contributions to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). According to the report, total contributions to date have only reached $65 million.

Historically, those contributions have aided approximately 5.4 million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. The full repercussions of this decision will not be fully known until later this year. Now the UN is scrambling to gather “emergency funding” from other countries and donors. Through foreign-based funding, the UNRWA attempts to provide services for Palestinian refugees, including medical and dental services, education in the form of UN-schools, community mental health initiatives and environmental health through quality drinking water and sanitation projects.    

 

“People have been finding safety from persecution inside our borders since the time of our nation’s founding.”

– Attorney Suzan Pritchett

 

Domestic affairs are also shaky for refugees, especially those from Muslim backgrounds. On June 26, the Supreme Court voted to uphold Trump’s travel ban on several majority-Muslim countries. The so-called “Muslim ban” took a backseat to the chaos of the President’s “zero-tolerance” policy that separated more than 2,300 migrant children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

America once led the world in refugee resettlement. According to the Migration Policy Institute, “The United States has historically accepted more refugees for resettlement than all other countries combined.” But “this gap has all but disappeared in recent years.”

This year, Trump set the target for refugee resettlement in the U.S. s at only 45,000 refugees, and the country is unlikely to reach even that goal. That number is roughly half of what it was under President Obama and qualifies as the lowest target post-9/11. In fact, the United States will have admitted fewer than 100 Syrian refugees this year. From 2006 to 2016, the U.S. shouldered roughly 70 percent of all global resettlement efforts (at just under half a million people); however, less than one percent of all refugees are ever resettled.

The State Department noted that in Obama’s final year as president, he approved a resettlement project that would provide refuge for 110,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, of which 15,479 were from Syria. According to the UNHCR, this year, under Trump, refugee resettlement in the United States will fall to 41 percent of global totals. That is the lowest it has ever been on UNHCR record.

The refugee crisis is more real than ever for many civilians in the south of Syria along the country’s border with Israel and Jordan in the rebel-held city of Daraa. Daily airstrikes have made the city nearly uninhabitable. According to the United Nations, some 320,000 Syrians have been displaced (approximately 120,000 of which are children) since June 19, making it the largest migration in the civil war’s long and brutal history.

Trump admitted the situation is untenable and that civilians in Syria are suffering, but this has not informed his policies concerning resettlement. In fact, in many cases, Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has been aimed specifically at provoking public backlash about refugees from majority-Muslim countries.

At a rally in Rhode Island in April 2016, Trump repeatedly announced that Syrian refugees being resettled there could potentially be members of ISIS. “We don’t know who these people are,” the President said. “We don’t know where they’re from. They have no documentation. But you know what? We can’t let this happen. But you have a lot of them resettling in Rhode Island. Just enjoy your… lock your doors, folks.”

He later continued, “We have our incompetent government people letting ‘em in by the thousands, and who knows, who knows, maybe it’s ISIS.”

Trump has employed dozens of quotes just like this one. Of course, America’s rigorous vetting system means that Syrian refugees statistically pose a non-existent threat to American citizens. In fact, Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration expert with the Cato Institute, found that of the  more than 3 million refugees resettled in the U.S. between 1975 and 2015, none from countries on the travel-ban list have killed U.S. citizens.

Cowboy Intolerance

Statistical anomalies aside, the Equality State maintains a fairly homogenous population. It is 92 percent white and the most conservative state in the Union edging out Alabama, according to Gallup. That state’s perennial conservatism hasn’t stopped it from resettling refugees. According to Refugee Council USA, in 2015 Alabama resettled 105 refugees, largely from Iran, Iraq and Cuba. In addition to that they also settled 808 unaccompanied minors predominately from Latin America with sponsor families.

In Wyoming, the American Immigration Council (AIC) estimates roughly 4 percent of the state’s population is comprised of recent immigrants, contributing some half a billion dollars to the state’s economy every year. The AIC contends that, “As workers, business owners, taxpayers, and neighbors, immigrants are an integral part of Wyoming’s diverse and thriving communities and make extensive contributions that benefit all.”

Despite immigrants’ positive impact, refugees have been met with everything from varying levels of indifference to outright animosity in the Cowboy State. Governor Matt Mead has held varying positions on refugees in Wyoming. He suggested that the establishment of a refugee resettlement program would be in the state’s best interest and then oscillated to strong statements calling for a halt toall new refugee resettlement in the U.S.. Specifically, after the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks carried out by DAESH. Mead wrote a letter to then-President Obama. In no uncertain terms, Wyoming would not become a haven for refugees until they could be certain none of them were terrorists, he wrote.

Lately Mead has been more ambiguous. His spokesperson, Chris Mickey, danced around questions concerning the Governor’s stance on refugees. The closest answer Planet Jackson Hole received came from Mead himself: “The refugee discussion has been ongoing for many years in Wyoming. Currently, Wyoming doesn’t have a plan or program for accepting refugees. Because of this, Wyoming relies on the federal government and other states to properly vet people who were legally granted refugee status.”

This is the language that Mead used when he was petitioning the legislature for a refugee resettlement program. It is the great unknown of not having an official resettlement program that bothers him. “Other states that have refugee programs that get quarterly reports of who’s coming in, how many are coming in. We just are—we get secondary refugees. I don’t know that number. I don’t know what services they have. I certainly don’t know where they’re from,” Mead said.

Whatever the impetus for creating the program might have been, Wyoming’s small, vocal population has historically had a large effect on the Governor’s policies. Such was the case when Mead initially moved to form a refugee resettlement office in 2014. But it was close to election season and the incumbent governor faced serious backlash for the suggestion in the form of protests in Cheyenne and heated online criticism.

It takes approximately two years of vetting before a refugee can be resettled in the United States and involves more than 20 steps, each of which can be a point of rejection. The U.S. is very selective about which refugees it takes, even after refugees are approved by the United Nations. Citizens’ fears that a low-populous, homogenous state like Wyoming might not be able to accommodate the religious and cultural practices of certain refugees is something the legislature has clearly noted.

 

As workers, business owners, taxpayers, and neighbors, immigrants are an integral part of Wyoming’s diverse and thriving communities and make extensive contributions
that benefit all.
– American Immigration Council

 

Wyomingites have openly displayed their intolerance for religious pluralism. On August 27, 2016, the Gillette group, Americans for a Secure Wyoming, held a Quran burning to protest plans for a mosque to be built in their city. That protest was called “Ban Islam in Wyoming” and was predicated on the fear that the mosque would encourage more Muslims to move there.

Ironically, the targets of the protest are a combination of legal immigrants and American-born citizens, the Khan family. They originally hail from what is now Pakistan. However, their family has roots in Wyoming that date back more than 100 years to a time before Wyoming was even recognized as a state, making them more Wyoming than many of the people protesting their right to religious freedom.

Even though the family has been in the area for more than a century, they did not have a place of worship until recently. In 2015, the family established a mosque inside a Gillette home. Many members of the community reacted positively to their decision, but a small, very outspoken faction did not approve. Threats aimed at the family became severe enough to eventually attract the attention of the local police and the FBI.

Chelsea Roan, one of the orchestrators of the protest, said she was hoping to “raise awareness about some of the legit reasons so many people have concerns about Islam and mass Muslim immigration.” She considers herself publicly anti-Islam, saying that she hates Islam “with the heat of a thousand suns.” That  sentiment is rooted in the belief that Islam and the American way of life are incompatible, which is an ideology shared by the President of the United States.

“Well, I would hate to [shut down mosques],” Trump said in a campaign speech in November 2016, “but it’s something you’re going to have to strongly consider. Some of the absolute hatred is coming from these areas. The hatred is incredible. It’s embedded. The hatred is beyond belief. The hatred is greater than anybody understands.”

This isn’t the first time Wyoming has seen anti-Islam hostility. Duncan Philp also publicly announced his intent to burn a Quran in front of the state’s capital on September 11, 2010, with the Wyoming Tyranny Response Team, an unofficial political organization that advocates for gun rights, but backed down after what he called, simply, “an exercise in freedom of expression.”

Nearly every refugee resettlement program in the country is predominantly federally-funded. This absolves states of financial burden for the integration of refugees into their communities, said Suzan Pritchett, former University of Wyoming co-director of the Center for International Human Rights Law Advocacy. Pritchett said Americans are obligated to help integrate refugees into society.

“Notwithstanding the legal and economic aspects of refugee resettlement, our nation has a moral duty to provide the chance to begin again for some of the world’s 60 million individuals who have been displaced by persecution and conflict,” Pritchett wrote in a letter to Mead in 2015. “Wyoming’s moral duty to participate in this program is no less. People have been finding safety from persecution inside our borders since the time of our nation’s founding.”

Another important aspect of state refugee resettlement programs is independence and integration of those resettled in the area, said Jim Barclay of Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains. That organization specializes in refugee services from New Mexico to Montana (with the exception of Wyoming). Barclay clarifies that the objective of refugee resettlement is not about amassing people on welfare. Refugee resettlement programs work with the intention to equip refugees with the skills and aid they need to find jobs and integrate into society as quickly as possible. “It’s about self-sufficiency,” he said.

Because Wyoming is the only state without a refugee resettlement program, it is almost impossible for refugees to obtain the aid they need to integrate into the state. This is prohibitive because after fleeing war and governmental abuse, many refugees cannot get by without government assistance for the first few years as they try to cobble together a new life. Wyoming, then, is an unpalatable option for many. That doesn’t mean states with poor, or non-existent, refugee resettlement programs do not host refugees, but it does make the likelihood of their success dismal.

(Courtesy photo) “I hope they can give me a second chance. That’s all I needed. This country and this state and this city provided me a second chance.” – Mayor Wilmot Collins 

 

Wyoming’s conservative neighbor to the north, Montana, also has not resettled any refugees in the last two years. However, to the shock of many, a former Liberian refugee was elected mayor of Montana ’s capital city, Helena. Wilmot Collins started out as an impoverished man fleeing war-torn Liberia in 1994. He told NPR that he and his wife were once so poor they had nothing to survive on but toothpaste. He is now the first black mayor of any city in Montana, and is a huge advocate for refugee rights and resettlement in the area. He believes that it is well within Wyoming’s power to adopt a policy that would resettle refugees here. However, without the political drive, he doesn’t see it happening in the near future.

Collins’s story is significant because it exemplifies the drive of refugees and the contributions they are making in the American West. They often feel such a deep sense of gratitude in their new country that they dedicate their lives to giving back.

Collins told The Guardian, “My only thing was, I hope they can give me a second chance. That’s all I needed. This country and this state and this city provided me a second chance.” Collins beat out a four-time incumbent mayor and now continues to advocate for refugee rights.

Although the stories are few, Collins isn’t the only one in the region. In Gillette, Wyoming, the 2015-2016 Teacher of the Year is former refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bertine Bahige. He received his citizenship in Wyoming in 2011 and has since become a valuable member of the Gillette community, alongside his wife and two daughters.

Initially settled in the Washington, D.C. area, Bahige moved to Wyoming 13 years ago after receiving a scholarship to the University of Wyoming. He has not looked back since. According to Bahige, planting roots in Wyoming secured his future. “When you come from nothing, it’s not easy to find your way in a big community,” Bahige told the Casper Star Tribune in 2014. “That’s the beauty of Wyoming: small and family-oriented communities. If you fall, people will pick you up.”

(Reiley Wooten, Gillette News Record) “That’s the beauty of Wyoming: small and family-oriented communities. If you fall, people will pick you up.” – Bertine Bahige 

His story wasn’t always so happy. When Bahige was 15 years old, he was captured and used as a child soldier for two years before he escaped and fled to a refugee camp in Mozambique. He was one of the lucky few allowed to resettle in the U.S. in 2003. His family was not quite as fortunate; Bahige has not seen his mother or nine siblings since he was taken. Now, Bahige uses his charisma and compassion to inspire students in Gillette, and advocate for refugees. He also represents Wyoming as the state’s delegate to the United Nations Refugee Congress.

Despite the increasing barriers refugees who hope to move to the United States face, many members of the refugee communities scattered across the globe do the best they can with what they have. In the al-Am’ari Refugee Camp, its annual summer camp is set to begin next week. The summer camp specializes in providing medical and social services for children with disabilities. It is here that Shadid sits in his office, eyes wincing.

“I have had this pain since I was 13,” said the 33-year-old of his leg. Shadid was shot by the IDF and imprisoned for three years without cause, along with two of his cousins. Since then, he has been on pain medication every day. “We do this for the children,” he said, referencing the long days people at the camp work to secure medical and mental health services for attendees. Most days of the week, Shadid arrives at the PSCD facility early in the morning and stays well into the night. Ramadan is the Muslim holy month of performing intentional acts of charity; this year, it lasted from mid-May to mid-June. In one of the poorest areas of the West Bank, this man, and many refugees like him, live Ramadan 12 months a year.

With anti-Muslim sentiment on the rise in the U.S. and Wyoming, people like Shadid continue to be viewed as a threat, “to the American way of life,” as Trump put it. Meanwhile, Shadid, his wife and two daughters, live their lives in the tiny, bleak microcosm of humanity that is al-Am’ari Camp.

*This person’s name has been changed to protect his identity, as the al-Am’ari Camp is under direct Israeli Administrative control, where public and political activities in the West Bank are suspect.


About Natalie Harrison

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