Nayef and Nisreen Ghazoul are seated in a circle around their living room with their children, sipping hot chocolate on a dreary evening in January, beaming as their 18-month-old granddaughter, Shahed, entertains the family with the newest addition to her lexicon.
After coaxing in Arabic, she giggles and lets out a sheepish “I love you” in English.
It’s a soothing end to a hectic Monday, packed with shuttling the children to school, doctor’s appointments and other errands to prepare for the week.
Such is the pace of life in America, the family says, with a palpable hint of relief.
Around this time last year, the Ghazouls, a refugee family from Syria, were far less certain about what the next day might hold.
Nayef and Nisreen arrived in the US from Jordan on 19 January 2017, one day before the inauguration of Donald Trump, with two of their younger children, Hayah, 16, and Abdul Razzaq, 12.
One of their elder daughters, Manyah, was due to arrive a week later with her husband, Ali Daleh, when Trump, in one of his first acts as president, issued a travel ban on immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries and an indefinite ban on refugees from Syria.
Hayah Ghazoul, and her brother Abdulrzzaq Ghazoul in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“It was a hellish nightmare,” says Nayef, while reflecting on the prospect of his family being torn apart.
The Ghazoul family spoke to the Guardian with the help of an interpreter.
Like many refugees, his daughter and son-in-law had sold all of their possessions in anticipation of being resettled in the US.
Had a federal judge not blocked Trump’s travel ban from being fully implemented, they might not have made it, but were ultimately allowed in.
“In the end, we were banned for about 10 days,” says Nayef’s son-in-law, Ali. “But each day felt like one year.”
Today, the Ghazouls live in a garden-style apartment complex on a quiet street in the picturesque town that’s dominated by the University of Virginia campus.
The main road that intersects with theirs bears the hallmarks of a typical American suburb, fast-food chains, a Walgreens pharmacy and home improvement stores.
The Ghazouls’ story began nearly 6,000 miles away in Homs, once regarded as the “capital of the revolution” before it was left in ruins by the Syrian regime.
When the uprising in 2011 led to military strikes on their neighbourhood by Bashar Al Assad’s forces, the Ghazouls relocated to Hama, in west-central Syria.
But as the civil war raged on, they were eventually forced to flee into Jordan in 2014.
After a three-day journey that included miles-long walks through the desert and being smuggled into vehicles used to transport livestock, the Ghazouls arrived in Amman and began the vexing process of seeking refugee status.
“We were desperate and we didn’t have any options,” says Nayef.
The Ghazouls navigated the procedures of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and after close to a year of vetting were placed in the US.
But one of their daughters, who had just married in Jordan, did not immediately apply for refugee status.
What she did not anticipate then was the arrival of a new US president, elected in the wake of a campaign marked by sharp anti-immigrant sentiments.
Nisreen clasps her hands over her face and shakes her head at the mention of Trump.
Nayef rises up from his chair to reach for a photo of his daughter, Marwa, which sits atop a vivid painting of mountains next to wooden arrows pointing in various directions.
“Our family is now scattered,” Nayef says. “I have seen a gradual breakup of the fabric of our family.”
Like many refugees, the Ghazouls have felt victimised by the tumultuous period ushered in by Trump’s travel ban.
One year since the ban was announced, the starts and stops associated with its many iterations have sowed chaos and colored the perception of America on the global stage.
For Nayef and Nisreen, it has meant resettling in the US with three of their children, but left a gaping hole, with one of their daughters left in limbo.
To immigration advocates and Trump’s opponents, the travel ban has served as the most overt implementation of his nationalist, “America First” platform.
As a candidate, Trump vowed a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the US and repeatedly pledged to bar entry to Syrian refugees.
At one stage, he even suggested he would deport the thousands of Syrian refugees already living in the US if elected.
“I’m putting the people on notice that are coming here from Syria, as part of this mass migration, that if I win, if I win, they’re going back,” Trump declared at a campaign rally in New Hampshire.
Even though Trump’s authority to remove Syrian refugees from the US is limited, his often incendiary tone has paved the way for a transformational period in US immigration policy.
The first travel ban, issued at the conclusion of Trump’s first week in office, prompted immediate chaos and confusion at airports across the country.
Live images captured hundreds of protesters gathered at major US airports, as lawyers and volunteers set up shop inside the terminals to lend free legal counsel to travelers swept up in its aftermath.
Federal courts swiftly blocked the travel ban, kicking off a topsy-turvy legal battle that has yet to cease.
Nayef sits hunched over the living room floor, tightly clutching his cellphone as his eyes remain fixated on the screen.
Staring back at him is his daughter Marwa, 22, who is preparing for another night’s sleep 6,000 miles away from her family.
It is midnight in Amman, Jordan, where Marwa and her husband spend their days desperately searching for a way to reunite with her family in the US.
“I have nobody here,” Marwa says over FaceTime.
Nisreen listens to her daughter from a sofa against the wall, but is too emotional to look at her face.
Clutching prayer beads in her right hand, Nisreen says she thinks about her daughter “day and night”.
Nayef lets out a sigh as he bids Marwa goodnight, telling his “baba” (baby) to look after herself.
A brief moment of quiet fills the room, until Nayef declares he would like to address Trump directly.
The president is famously fond of his daughter Ivanka, he notes. “Would he be able to tolerate leaving his daughter in such a terrible and tumultuous situation?”
The number of refugees admitted to the US fell by nearly half in the first three months of Trump’s presidency, compared with Barack Obama’s final three months in office.
The Trump administration subsequently set a refugee cap for the year from October 2017 through September 2018 at 45,000, marking the lowest level of refugee admissions in decades.
Advocacy groups, already dismayed with the sharp drop in admissions, have grown concerned that the Trump administration will fall well short of its own cap .
The numbers are even more stark for Syrians fleeing the civil war.
Whereas Syrians made up 15 per cent of arrivals in the US in the five months to February 2017, with 4,675 admissions, they comprise only 0.5 per cent, or only 34 families, in same period to February 2018. Overall, the numbers of Muslim refugees are plummeting, according to the International Rescue Committee (IRC) organisation.
“I think the message is clear: they just don’t want refugees from certain nationalities to come to the United States,” said Jennifer Sime, IRC senior vice-president of US programmes.
“I suspect that things are unfortunately getting a lot worse for Syrian refugees,” she added.
The fate of foreign nationals subject to Trump’s travel ban is expected to be determined by the supreme court by the end of June.
The Ghazouls follow the developments in the news, but try not to let the uncertainty consume them. They have lives to rebuild in a foreign country they now call home.
Nayef was initially unable to work due to health problems, Nisreen found work as a hotel housekeeper and Nayef was eventually able to work washing dishes at the Omni Hotel, where Ali got a job as a cook.
The children attend school, where they are progressively overcoming the language barrier to make friends.
The entire family is enrolled in classes to learn English.
Despite the challenges, Nayef maintains they are “profoundly happy” to have a new start in a country that has slowly begun to feel like home.
“We want to be a part of this country in every aspect,” he says.
The Ghazouls recall fondly the US welcoming committee that greeted them at the airport on arrival, and say many people have helped them since.
Last August, eight months after they settled in, white supremacists and neo-Nazis marched through Charlottesville and violently clashed with counter-protesters, leaving one dead and several injured. Trump controversially blamed “both sides” for the violence.
For the Ghazouls, the fear-mongering that helped to fuel the rightwing demonstrations underscored the need to counter misconceptions that refugees are seeking to enter the US to inflict harm on its citizens.
“We have seen enough violence and bloodshed. We came here to escape the war, not to start one,” says Nisreen.
Nisreen now imagines a future for her children with the kind of opportunity that has long characterised the American Dream.
And she hopes that her children and Shahed, who has fallen asleep in her grandmother’s arms, will make the kinds of contributions to US society that reinforce the value of embracing diversity.
Her husband is optimistic, too.
“The legacy of American history is one that welcomes refugees,” Nayef says.
“Trump will be a temporary phenomenon.”
Source: Gulf News