By Brenda Flanagan
“The family that was assigned to us was scheduled to arrive today, Jan. 30,” said David Mammen.
Mammen’s still shocked. Sitting in a gleaming kitchen, at a table for eight. But the Khojas — a family of Muslim Syrian refugees — won’t be sitting here. The Trump administration’s ban left them stranded in Istanbul, sending forlorn text messages.
“Apparently we are still here and waiting for an order from the United States to be able to travel,” explained Mahmoud Kohja.
“It was pretty devastating. It was such a blanket ban and bar, against not only the family we’re working with, but thousands of others… And I don’t want to mislead them by saying we think they can come this week,” said Mammen.
Mammen’s with Rutgers Presbyterian Church, which together with Church World Services, helps refugees settle in the U.S. The Khojas fled Syria in 2013 and 2014 and successfully passed security vetting a year ago. The groups moved fast, renting a four-bedroom apartment in Union City, furnishing it, filling closets with clothes and shoes and even stocking the kitchen with Syrian favorites.
“The day after the election, we all agreed we wanted to sponsor a family as soon as possible,” said Mammen. “Hopefully before Inauguration Day, because we thought he’d take some drastic action… So, we knew we were in a race against the administration’s plans… Until it gets sorted out, this family is clearly in limbo.”
“Right now, they’re just looking for any kind of answers or clarification on where they can go for help, where they can go for assistance,” said Leila Amirhamzeh.
Amirhamzeh volunteers at Hackensack High School, teaching English as a second language to refugees — many of them Syrians without green cards. The first-generation American is proud of her Iranian heritage and says Trump’s executive order caused panic among her students.
“Confusion, fear, anger and disappointment, feeling of being unwanted and unwelcome in the United States,” said Amirhamzeh.
But Amirhamzeh’s family faces another problem: Her beloved grandmother died back in Tehran, and her dad, Hamid, and Uncle Mustafa wanted to join the family there to mourn. Hamid’s a citizen, but Mustafa is a permanent resident.
Amirhamzeh said, “And so they’re not sure if one or both of them will not be allowed back in the country.”
What is that like for them?
“It’s very scary. It’s very upsetting,” she said.
Amirhamzeh works for New Jersey Citizen Action. She advocates for people fighting for their fair share. She’s heartbroken for her family.
“To think that you’ve been living and working in a place for over 40 years, a place you called your home… to think that you’re being told that you are less American… I feel outraged. I feel outraged for my family. I feel outraged for my students,” said Amirhamzeh.
But, like Mammen, she’s unsure of what legal action she can take. ACLU of New Jersey’s not sure, either.
Should people travel?
“They should be consulting with lawyers before they do, depending on their immigration status and where they plan to travel,” said Alex Shalom, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of New Jersey.
Mammen’s a social rights activist from way back. But this issue, he says, feels different than the old protests.
He said, “The other protests I was involved with were about wars overseas. And this feels more like a war at home.”