Less than two weeks ago, President Donald Trump signed an executive order blocking all refugee resettlement from Syria. He also placed a temporary ban on refugees, visitors and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iraq. While that order has since been temporarily suspended by a federal judge, it has created an air of uncertainty for some of Montana’s recently-resettled Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
All Shadi wants to do is cut hair. In fact, he’s so excited about it that he leans really close into my microphone and says:
"I want to be the best and most famous barber in Missoula."
Shadi is a Syrian refugee and he arrived here, to this small apartment in Missoula, with his wife and two young children a little less than a month ago. He doesn’t want us to use his last name out of concern for his family’s privacy. They are one of two Syrian refugee families who were resettled in Montana just before Trump signed the executive order on January 27th.
"They turned back refugees from New York and Florida and Texas and returned them. If I was one of them they would have returned back me," Shadi says through a translator.
He is only 36, but he looks a lot older. His hair is thinning and gray, he says, from the worry he experienced while while waiting to leave the region. Shadi says that it’s a shame that Trump banned refugees from Syria.
"You need to let in refugees because they are fleeing and they are trying to live in safety and in peace," he says.
Safety and peace were two reasons Shadi and his family sought refuge in the United States.
"They lived in a complex with their family, there were two houses with four floors. There started to be bombing and shooting around our house, and my older son, he started hearing the shooting around the house and he started crying at night and started hugging us tightly," he says.
That son is playing with some toys behind me.
"This kid wants to study, wants to learn, wants to go to University and graduate and become a doctor … or a pilot, and there’s no future for that in Syria," Shadi says.
So, Shadi and his family decided to leave Syria in 2012 and crossed the border into Jordan. They lived in an apartment for a while near Ammon and Shadi said the water was so bad that his teeth started falling out. After a few years in Jordan, they were contacted by the United Nations and told they could go to the United States.
"Even before the war I wanted to come to America. It’s a nice, beautiful, democratic and free country."
All Syrian refugees bound for the U.S. currently go through a twenty-step vetting process. It includes fingerprint screenings, background checks, and two extensive interviews with both the United Nations and the Department of Homeland Security. Shadi says the vetting process took eleven months before he and his family were allowed to come into the U.S.
However, critics say that vetting process isn’t enough. Trump’s temporarily-suspended executive order calls for an even more stringent vetting process to make sure that refugees coming into the United States aren’t terrorists. There is a lot of fear, both around the country and in Montana, that refugee resettlement could bring the same kind of ISIS-related terror and violence that has inflicted Europe in recent years. But Shadi says that the Syrians coming here … are good.
"I would say that we are peaceful people, that we have lived as peaceful people in Syria. As Muslims living alongside as brothers with Christians and Druze. we didn’t have these problems before, but when the war happened, they came along with it," he says.
Shadi’s friend, Wahlid, who is sitting next to him on the couch, agrees.
"We are fleeing from terrorism and from murder. These are the countries of freedom here. There's not supposed to be this kind of decision taken here. I am certain that everyone who comes here is good hearted and nice," Wahlid says.
Wahlid isn’t from Syria, he's from Iraq. He and his family arrived to Missoula, as refugees, last October. He also doesn’t want me to use his last name out of concern for his family’s safety.
"When Shadi said that his son used to feel scared in the middle of the night and cry and hug his mother, Wahlid says he has felt that way," he says.
Wahlid worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army for seven years. He says he received death threats for helping the United States. His cousin was killed in a bomb attack, and the constant threats forced him to move around a lot. Here’s Wahlid, speaking in English now.
"I didn’t want them to discover where I am to catch me and kill me with my family. I have two kids. One year and the other one three years. I came here to live in safe, for real. For my children, for my family and life there is very dangerous for me … I can't," Wahlid says.
Since 2007, interpreters for the U.S. Army, like Wahlid, in Afghanistan and Iraq have been eligible for a special visa program, which helps them resettle in the United States. Trump’s administration has granted a waiver for Iraqi interpreters who currently hold this visa. But, if his executive order is reimplemented, other citizens from Iraq could still be barred, at least temporarily, from resettling in the United States.
This upsets Wahlid. He’s speaking in Arabic now.
"We have to help these people. There is no doubt that they feel a great fear and since I was young, when I was working with the army, I felt a great need to help people. And these people, you may not always know it, but they feel a great fear within them," he says.
Shadi’s wife, Ghalya, comes in from the kitchen and hands us small cups of coffee. We start drinking and conversation turns lighter. The violence of Syria and Iraq melts back into memory.
As I leave the apartment, Shadi’s kids come running out and look down at me from the balcony. They don’t know a lot of English yet, but they know how to say goodbye.
"Good night, good night, good night!"