They’re the refugees that Trump tried to stop. But now they’re here, and they’re ‘becoming Americans.’

They’re the refugees that Trump tried to stop. But now they’re here, and they’re ‘becoming Americans.’

Originally published by The Washington Post

On the day that President Trump slashed refugee admissions to their lowest level in four decades, the arrival of a dazed traveler at Dallas’s international airport last month offered a quiet rebuke.

The newcomer was walking the final steps of an improbable 15,000-mile odyssey. There to greet him were four others who had followed the same epic path to an American life, along with a native-born citizen clutching a hand-drawn, red-and-blue sign: “Welcome to Texas!” 

None would have been there had Trump had his way. 

In a nearly three-year campaign that has encompassed wallstravel bans and the forced separation of children from their parents, the Trump administration has reshaped vast tracts of the U.S. government’s approach toward refugees and immigration. 

But in one of his first attempts to bend policy to his will — an effort to block the arrival of refugees who had been detained by the Australian government on remote South Pacific islands — Trump lost. 

“I guarantee you they are bad,” the president said during a testy exchange with the Australian prime minister a week after his inauguration. “That is why they are in prison.” 

Now more than 600 of them are in the United States, living freely from California to Georgia and dozens of places in between. 

After enduring years locked up by Australia for seeking asylum, they are making the most of their second chance — finding jobs, honing their English and putting down roots in a country half a world away from the one they had intended to reach. 

To refugee advocates, their largely successful integration in their new land proves that the president’s loss has been the country’s gain. 

“The resettlements have been incredibly smooth,” said Krish Vignarajah, chief executive of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, whose organization has helped dozens to get started in the United States. “They’re becoming Americans.” 

Here in the sprawling suburbs west of Dallas, Ali Reza Ataie and Ali Hesar — “the Alis,” as the pair of slim and soft-spoken 22-year-olds is known by friends — have been emblematic of the speedy transitions. 

A year and a half after their arrivals, they both work full time and volunteer to help other refugees in their free time. Having left home as children and finding only closed doors as they ventured thousands of miles by land, air and sea, they have finally found a home in Texas. 

“We were never welcomed anywhere before,” Ataie said. “But we were welcomed here.” 

They have even become part of the family for Holly Walsh, an Iowa-born, Mississippi-raised flight attendant who the young men affectionately call “Mom.” She, in turn, treats them as sons.

Animosity toward refugees “hasbeen in my face plenty of times, with people saying ‘Why are you bringing these terrorist-cell groups into our country?’ ” said Walsh, who is one of the Dallas area’s most active volunteers in helping refugees to resettle. 

“I say, ‘Let me just tell you about my boys.’ I mean, how can you not love my boys?”

A long path to America

Refugees detained on the Manus and Nauru islands weren’t criminals, as Trump had assumed. But they were treated like they were, held for years amid wretched conditions as a warning to others not to follow their lead.

A long path to America

Refugees detained on the Manus and Nauru islands weren’t criminals, as Trump had assumed. But they were treated like they were, held for years amid wretched conditions as a warning to others not to follow their lead.

The pair shared much: Both were teenage, firstborn sons whose families opted to send them abroad rather than keep them in a country where they faced ethnic persecution and a war without end. But they had never met in their native Afghanistan. 

They each set off alone. First to India, then Malaysia, then Indonesia. A harrowing days-long sea journey in a rusty fishing boat packed to twice its capacity brought them to Australia’s Christmas Island and, they thought, their new lives. 

But instead of entry to Australia, they were given a one-way ticket to Nauru — an eight-square-mile nation in the Pacific. The rocky land had been long since exhausted by strip mining, and with few other resources to offer, converted into a detention center for Australia’s unwanted migrants. 

“We had gone through all of these countries, gone through the ocean. And then we were in prison,” said Ataie, who was 15 years old when his journey began. “It was the most terrible situation of my life.”

Despite sweltering temperatures, the detainees were housed in overcrowded tents. They were each given two minutes to shower, and addressed by staff with an alphanumeric code, rather than their names. As desperation grew, some detainees sewed their lips shut in protest. Others committed suicide.

“Everything I had heard indicated that the situation was very grim,” said Anne Richard, who was then the Obama administration’s point person for refugee policy. 

As Obama’s presidency came to an end in late 2016, and as the global population of displaced people swelled to record numbers, the administration was looking for ways to accept more refugees. It also wanted to encourage other nations to do the same. 

Richard struck a deal with the Australians that fall that was intended to accomplish both: The United States would accept up to 1,250 refugees from Nauru and Manus if the Australians took in more people from other parts of the globe.

In Nauru, the deal offered a rare dose of hope.

“As soon as I heard about it, I signed up,” Hesar said.

Ataie was more skeptical. He wasn’t sure the United States would actually follow through. 

Then Trump was elected, and the transcript of his combative call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was published in The Washington Post. 

Obama’s agreement, Trump told his Australian counterpart, was “disgusting.” What if the next Boston marathon bomber was among the refugees, he asked?

“They are not going to be wonderful people,” the president fumed before abruptly ending the call.

Across the globe, in Nauru, a familiar despair returned. 

“I stopped dreaming about what life would look like in the United States,” Ataie said.

But both Alis kept going with a process for screening refugees that Trump had dubbed “extreme vetting.” In interviews, every moment of their lives was reconstructed. The investigators homed in on possible inconsistencies. Medical and background checks followed.

After more than a year, they got approval. But they still didn’t know for sure that Trump would let them in.

“I thought, ‘We’re either going to be the luckiest people because we’ll get out, or the unluckiest because we’ll have everything done and then we’ll sit in Nauru,’ ” Ataie said. 

“Even when they gave us a flight date, we were like, ‘Is it going to happen?’ ” Hesar added. 

On Feb. 11 last year, they left Nauru for the first time in four years. Under intense pressure from the Australians to uphold the agreement — “a deal is a deal,” Turnbull had told Trump — the president had relented. 

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