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A Refugee Family Arrives in Arkansas, Before the Door Shuts

Andrea Morales for The New York Times

Andrea Morales for The New York Times

Originally published by The New York Times

Watata Mwenda’s family had it good.

There was no electricity in their village in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but Mr. Mwenda, an itinerant salesman of cattle, gold and other commodities, could afford a battery to power a television. They lived in a brick-and-mortar house, with enough room for his nine children and then some. There was always food on the table.

“Ah, we lived well in the Congo,” Mr. Mwenda, 60, said this week in French, one of the languages he learned in his travels.

But eight years ago, six militiamen invaded the family compound, murdered his oldest son and his son’s wife and briefly kidnapped Mr. Mwenda. The family left everything behind, and after four days of travel by foot, car and dinghy made it to safety in a refugee camp more than 1,000 miles away in Malawi.

This month, they were again lucky to make a skin-of-their-teeth escape, when an International Organization for Migration vehicle pulled into the camp and transported them to an airport, with one-way tickets to the United States.

That made them one of the last refugee families without close relations in the country to be allowed in before President Trump’s moratorium took effect.

Beginning Thursday, only refugees who have a “bona fide relationship” with a close relative or entity in the United States will be eligible to enter for the next 120 days, following a June 26 Supreme Court order that allowed part of Mr. Trump’s travel ban to proceed.

An estimated 60 percent of refugees resettled in the United States already have family ties here, but only about a quarter of those from Congo and Syria, two blood-soaked countries that are among the biggest sources of refugees, have any connection to America, according to Church World Service, a large resettlement agency.

Among the other “free cases” fortunate enough to arrive before the doors closed on Thursday were a Somali mother, Nadifo Farah, and her three children, including one with spina bifida, who have been resettled in Grand Rapids, Mich. “I am very thankful I am here and able to get medical support for my son,” Ms. Farah, 31, said.

Two Ugandans who were imprisoned and tortured for their sexual orientation also made it through, one to Columbus, Ohio, and the other to Oakland, Calif.

Yet other cases have been derailed, such as that of a Somali family of 10 originally headed this month to Columbus. On the eve of their flight, word came that their travel had been canceled because one member’s medical exam had expired.

“People like this family are completely out of luck because they have no U.S. relatives,” said Angie Plummer, the executive director of Community Refugee and Immigration Services, an Ohio resettlement agency. “We don’t know when, or if, they will arrive.”

Even for the Mwendas, the joy of reaching the United States is tempered by the pain of leaving a loved one behind. John Feruzi, 21, a nephew raised since infancy by Mr. Mwenda and his wife, Nyasa Safi, fled with them to Malawi but was not allowed to travel to the United States for reasons that remain unclear. Since a nephew does not qualify as a close relative under the State Department’s definition, he will most likely not be able to join the rest of his family for at least four months.

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Jackson Mwenda made a call to Mr. Feruzi, his cousin back in Malawi. He will most likely not be able to join the rest of his family for at least four months. CreditAndrea Morales for The New York Times

“We are very happy to be here, but we are not complete,” said Mr. Mwenda’s son Byaombe Mwenda, 23, his eyes welling up with tears as he described Mr. Feruzi as a brother. “We have never lived without him.”

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the fall about whether the president’s executive order temporarily barring all refugees and all travelers from six majority-Muslim countries unconstitutionally discriminates against Muslims. The Trump administration says the order is a legal exercise of the president’s national security powers, and necessary to ensure that everyone entering the country is properly vetted.

Refugees like the Mwendas already undergo extensive background checks, and it is extremely rare for any of them to engage in terrorist behavior. But supporters of the president point to a small number of cases in which immigrants or their children have become radicalized. A number of young men in Minnesota from Somali refugee families have been convicted of plotting to join militant groups, including the Islamic State.

While the court awaits the arguments, it has allowed the travel ban to take effect for those without “bona fide” ties to the United States, the foreigners who the justices said were least likely to win legal protection.

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Baraka, 8, played at the apartment complex into which his family just moved in Fayetteville.CreditAndrea Morales for The New York Times

Knowing no one in the United States, the Mwendas have relied on an Arkansas affiliate of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. It worked with local churches to help them set up a couple of apartments in Fayetteville, center of a prosperous region that is home to the University of Arkansas and the corporate headquarters of Walmart.

It is a world away from Swina, their village in Congo, one of the world’s poorest countries and where rebels and government-backed militias have committed atrocities for years.

In late 2009, under the cover of darkness, six members of theMai Mai militia took the lives of Mr. Mwenda’s son Richard and his son’s wife — possibly, Mr. Mwenda said, because they were well off. The fighters then kidnapped Mr. Mwenda.

The rest of the family — Mr. Mwenda’s wife, eight other children and two grandchildren — fled to another village. They assumed Mr. Mwenda was dead until word arrived that he had been tortured and dumped on a roadside, discovered alive by missionaries who hospitalized him.

The family reunited, and traveled for four days across Lake Tanganyika and through Tanzania to reach the Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi. There they joined thousands of refugees fleeing genocide, violence and war in Congo, Somalia, Burundi and Sudan.

“We had no documents, no nothing; we had left everything behind,” Mr. Mwenda recalled, noting that they had “just a little money.”

The family built an adobe hut that would be their home for seven years. The children, who spoke mostly Swahili, enrolled in school, where they studied English.

To supplement the rations of corn and beans provided by the United Nations, Mr. Mwenda started a business selling timber to fellow refugees who needed wood to mount tarps over their shacks. He rented trucks and headed for the woods with his older sons, where they spent three or four days at a time chopping trees.

In June 2016, after completing interviews and security checks, the family was notified that it would be resettled in the United States.

Family members celebrated when the American authorities informed them in early January that their departure was imminent. Everyone, including Mr. Feruzi, Mr. Mwenda’s nephew, completed medical exams, one of the last steps in the process.

The Mwendas checked a United States map to see where they would be living. “We had never heard of Arkansas,” said Jules Mwenda, 24, reciting the names of big cities and states he knew.

At the end of a 20-hour journey, the Mwendas arrived last week at Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport to a gaggle of well-wishers hoisting American flags and welcome-home signs.

The local resettlement agency, Canopy of Northwest Arkansas, arranged for church groups to take the Mwendas on their first outings. In the produce section of a grocery store, Mr. Mwenda was bewildered by the abundance and wide variety of apples on display, promptly plopping two dozen pricey Pink Ladies into a bag. His sons were taken aback by the pet food aisle, and the idea that food would be manufactured specifically for cats.

Back at their apartments, they had to learn how to use the oven, the toaster and the toilet. None had ever lived in a place where they could flush.

They hope to soon find work, in the poultry, food service, construction or retail sectors. “I want to work and study to be an electrician,” said Jules, the eldest son.

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The Mwenda family. After a militia attack at their home in Congo in 2009 they fled to Malawi, where they lived for years in a refugee camp. CreditAndrea Morales for The New York Times

Mr. Mwenda, who still suffers from searing pain in his right leg from the torture he endured in 2009, will see a doctor.

“Life will get better here with time,” Mr. Mwenda said on Monday as his wife prepared a lunch of beef stew, corn meal and rice. “This country is very organized.”

Later, on a WhatsApp call, they spoke with the nephew they had to leave behind, who has already been fingerprinted, photographed, interviewed and medically cleared. “I am ready to leave even today,” Mr. Feruzi said.

Read more: www.nytimes.com/2017/07/13/us/trump-refugee-ban.html?hpw&rref=us&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=well-region&region=bottom-well&WT.nav=bottom-well

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