For Daniala Mohammadi, arriving in New York City in 2013 marked the end of a difficult two-year journey. She escaped the violence of war-torn Afghanistan and became separated from her mother and three siblings on the way to Turkey, where she had to wait with her father for two years while their refugee resettlement application was being processed.
Mohammadi remembers traveling down a busy highway and seeing a mosque nestled among other buildings in a New York neighborhood.
“I felt very connected right away,” she said. “We’re Muslim, so I was like, ‘Okay, that’s good. So there are other Muslims also living here.’ But I was younger then and I didn’t know as much.”
In a series of executive orders and policy shifts since Jan. 2017, the U.S. suspended refugee admittance and application processing from 11 countries, established more stringent application vetting procedures and decreased the 2018 refugee quota from 110,000 to 45,000.
The changes caused controversy, with some accusing the administration of discrimination against Muslim countries and others questioning the stability of the United States’ commitment to refugee resettlement. The U.S. Department of State cited protection against terrorist threats and the refugee application backlog of over 300,000 cases among several reasons behind the policy shifts, according to the 2018 proposed refugee admissions report.
Decreases in the number of admitted refugees resulted in shrinking staff sizes at resettlement agencies, according to Jaime Koehler Blanchard, community programs supervisor with Lutheran Family Services, the Denver affiliate of a national resettlement organization.
“The problem is that there are still people out here [in Denver],” Blanchard said. “We’re still serving them to the best of our abilities, but they still need help.”
The qualifications to become a refugee are strict. The U.S. already had one of the most rigorous screening processes in the world before the Trump administration’s new policies took effect, Blanchard said.
“The uncertainty, I think, is really hard,” she said. “You can’t run programs if you don’t know what is going to happen or how many people to expect to serve.”
Refugee resettlement is not the same as immigration, as refugees have to prove that they face a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country. This separates them from immigrants who choose to leave their country and have the option to go back.
When a person flees their home country, they often stay in refugee camps while they wait for the complicated international refugee system to address their case. According to Blanchard, refugees end up languishing in these camps for 17 years on average.
“When we were in Turkey, I worked for that [application process] every day,” Mohammadi said. “I called the U.S. embassy, I sent emails. I went to different places with my dad where we were requesting to accept our refugee status.”
On Sept. 29, 2013, the day after they arrived in New York City, Mohammadi and her father boarded a plane to their final destination: Denver.
“I don’t even want to remember when we first came here,” she said. “Every day I was crying because it was something very new. I just wanted to be with my mom. I wanted to be with my family, and it was very hard.”
Like Mohammadi’s family, other refugees can get separated from family members as they flee their home countries. According to Blanchard, the new resettlement vetting policies make it harder for these families to be reunited.
While Mohammadi was in high school, she and her father worked with lawyers and resettlement organizations to bring the rest of her family to the U.S. They were finally reunited in Nov. 2016, after almost five years of being separated.
“I could not believe in my eyes that I saw my mother after a long time … it was just unbelievable,” Mohammadi said. “She hugged me and she cried and she wouldn’t let me go for a long time.”
Mohammadi’s eyes look weary as she talks and she occasionally rests her head on her hand. She spent the morning translating for another family of refugees that is working with an immigration lawyer. After that, she went immediately to class, later in the evening she had a tutoring appointment.
For Mohammadi, being different is one of the biggest challenges on campus.
“Sometimes because of my nationality, sometimes because of … my hijab, like some of them, they just hated me,” she said. “They don’t like to be with me, or they just don’t care. They just, they don’t see me.”
When a man killed eight people in the name of ISIS by driving his car down a New York City bike path on Halloween 2017, Mohammadi remembers seeing people look at her and whisper while she was riding the Buff Bus.
“I was the only person who had a hijab on that bus,” she said. “I felt so ashamed. It’s not physically harsh, but it’s mostly emotional. I feel like when you get hurt emotionally, it’s harder … to heal.”
According to Mohammadi’s friend, Sam Metivier, people see Muslim and international students as an embodiment of where they’re from, not necessarily as individuals.
“[People] just want to stay in their own little bubble, and then once they stay with friends who are like them, it doesn’t challenge their worldview,” he said.
Metivier is grateful for the opportunity to be friends with Mohammadi and to have the chance to see his own culture through someone else’s eyes. He said that more students should reach out to international students. Even if they’re afraid of saying something wrong, they should still ask questions “because if anything, you’re going to be corrected, and you’ll learn how to ask it in a better way.”
Metivier notices how Mohammadi can feel exhausted trying to fit in, but according to him, one of the reasons that she stands out is because she’s so passionate. Mohammadi has a lot of ideas for how to use that passion. She wants to start a refugee club to build a community of refugee students.
Although the university has a variety of programs that offer social, emotional, and academic support, none are specifically designed for refugees. According to Deborah Méndez Wilson, deputy spokesperson for CU, the school doesn’t track refugee status during the admissions process. So far, she hasn’t heard of a request for refugee-specific programs.
For Mohammadi, a club like this would be an opportunity to help people who struggle as refugees, to teach them not to give up and that being successful just means trying.
Mohammadi received the Ambassador Scholarship, a full-ride scholarship from the Denver Foundation. She said that she is thankful for all of the opportunities and support that she received in the United States. She wants to use those opportunities to be a public speaker and to open a nonprofit for women and children who have experienced domestic abuse and sexual violence.
Mohammadi will get her citizenship by the end of this year, but she still wants to be called “refugee” because of the honor it brings her.
“I’m learning more about it, and I’m learning from my life, from my experiences,” she said. “I don’t want to change my name because that’s really who I am and who I will be.”
Contact CU Independent News Staff Writer Shannon Mullane at firstname.lastname@example.org.