POLITICS
02/10/2017 11:28 am ET Updated Feb 10, 2017

They Fled Iraq For America. Now, They Cope With Life Under Trump.

A country that once seemed filled with salvation, promise and opportunity has become much less hospitable.
Donald Trump signs his executive order temporarily banning refugees from all over and travelers from seven predominantly
Carlos Barria/Reuters
Donald Trump signs his executive order temporarily banning refugees from all over and travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

PHOENIX ― Shortly after the car bomb killed her family, hitting their vehicle as her mother and brother rushed their ailing father to a nearby hospital, Hanan Hassan decided to leave Iraq.

It was 2007, four years into the war, and tragedy still came with regularity. But you can’t understand how it feels to suddenly lose your loved ones until it actually happens. In one moment, the foundations of Hassan’s life had been shattered, leaving behind only one inescapable reality: Her future was not in Baghdad.

She went to a United Nations office and pleaded with them to help her leave, to send her to a place where opportunities were plentiful and tragedies remote. She went to Lebanon first. Five months later, she was on a plane to the United States, penniless, with no family to help her assimilate and barely any English in her vocabulary. She was 28 years old.

She landed first in Michigan, but her final destination was Austin, Texas. She’d heard about Texas ― from the movies, naturally ― and envisioned it filled with cowboy hats and desert. When she landed, a man from the International Organization for Migration met her and drove her to her new apartment. It had a mattress, bed frame, table and refrigerator, but not much else.

The man didn’t stay long. It wasn’t his job to be her friend or translator or confidant. That first night in a new country, Hassan was alone and unable to sleep.

“I spent all of the night on the balcony just looking,” she said. “Just looking.”

Nine years and various chapters of her life have passed since then. Hassan found work and made friends. She fell in and out of love. She traveled the country, developing a soft spot for city life, and recently settled in Phoenix.

She now works for the Arizona Allnation Refugee Resource Center, a nonprofit that helps assimilate newly arrived refugees. Some of them remind her of the petrified young woman she was when she first set foot in Austin. Others are more religious or from different parts of the world or have more resources at their disposal.

The more recent ones have arrived in a fundamentally different America than the country Hassan confronted on that balcony in January 2008. It is a place more scared and skeptical than back then, more willing to close its doors to those eager to come in.

It’s a place where the newly elected president, just days after taking office, signed an executive order to block resettlement of all refugees for 120 days, ban Syrian refugees indefinitely and bar more than 200 million people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. for at least 90 days.

“It has affected the refugees emotionally,” Hassan said of that ban, which is currently under a temporary restraining order. “A lot of people think they will be sent back home. I get phone calls almost every day from people saying: ‘Hey, are we going to be OK here? I don’t want to be sent back home because if they did, they will kill me there.’”  

Hanan Hassan fled Iraq after her family was killed by a car bomb.
Sam Stein/The Huffington Post
Hanan Hassan fled Iraq after her family was killed by a car bomb.

When politicians and lawyers and cable prognosticators debate Donald Trump’s plan to temporarily suspend immigration, they speak in broad terms about constitutional constraints, political ripple effects and the nuance of counter-terrorism policy. But the real-world impact of the ban is felt in remote corners of America’s towns and cities, by people you won’t see on TV or arguing in front of a judge or casting votes in Congress.  

Hassan’s office is in a downtrodden strip mall in downtown Phoenix, obscured from the road by JB’s Restaurant, a 1-800-Flowers retail store and an abandoned building. If you don’t know where to look, you’ll have a hard time finding it. There is no sign on the street. The only hint is the Arabic script dotting the windows of storefronts in the strip mall: a “Baghdidi Hookah Lounge and Coffee Shop” that is in the process of being built, a Mediterranean grocery store that is also coming soon, and the words “Refugee Center” written faintly on a nearby glass door.

But refugees in Phoenix know where to look. Word of mouth leads them here, as do social media posts about the various services the center provides: language classes, drivers education, legal help and community events. On any given day, Hassan says, dozens of new immigrants come seeking help to pay rent or fill out citizenship or green card forms. Others come to learn English, cramming around plastic tables in a windowless room with badly stained carpet lining the floor. The room is not the most conducive to learning, but it’s what they have.  

Many, however, come just to talk with people who can empathize. In recent weeks, those talks have grown darker and more panicked. People wonder whether the current ban is just a starting point, whether their lives will soon be uprooted, whether they made a horrible mistake in coming to America.

Florida Al Amery teaches citizenship classes in that makeshift classroom. She says she got a legal degree in Iraq and worked with a U.S. company as an adviser. In 2006, her son was kidnapped. She suspected it was because of her ties to the American company. She paid a $30,000 ransom and sent him to Jordan, joining him there later after an envelope appeared in her car warning her she had to leave Iraq within three days.

By 2008, Amery had made her way to Phoenix. Now 60, she jokes that she chose the city because its climate is about as close an approximation to Baghdad as one could find in the United States. In reality, her sister was already here. That made her assimilation easier, but it wasn’t without its psychological toll. She left behind her legal career, figuring it would be too hard to earn another degree at that point in her life. There is a sense of longing in how she discusses her old life too ― the friends left behind and those no longer alive.

She’s also now haunted by the notion that she’s helping usher the students in her citizenship classes into an unwelcoming world.

“I am a teacher of citizenship,” she said. “And I am thinking of stopping because I can’t teach students or clients to follow the Constitution when the president breaks the Constitution.”

The parking lot where the Arizona Allnation Refugee Resource Center is located.
Sam Stein/The Huffington Post
The parking lot where the Arizona Allnation Refugee Resource Center is located.

Over the past decade, Arizona has become, somewhat unexpectedly, a popular landing place for refugees. According to state data, 4,138 refugees settled in the state from the fall of 2014 through the fall of 2015. The subsequent year, more Syrian refugees came to Arizona than all but three other states. And, according to the State Department, in the past four months, another 1,539 refugees from around the globe have arrived there ― including 223 from Iraq, 208 from Syria, 24 from Iran, 12 from Sudan and 250 from Somalia (all states on Trump’s banned list). Only six states have welcomed more refugees in that time period.

There are various theories about why Arizona is such a magnet for refugees ― the hot climate being one, the cheap real estate being another. None of those theories involves the generosity of the state’s politicians.

Arizona is a haven for anti-immigrant political sentiment. Lawmakers there have called for a suspension of refugee resettlement programs, while some have gone so far as to propose fining charities $1,000 a day for each refugee they help resettle. Catholic Charities of Arizona, an organization that helps with resettlement in the state, declined to put me in touch with a refugee it had helped, citing the possibility that the person could become a target in the current political climate.

This, among other things, has caused the refugees already settled in Arizona to wonder just how public they should be in pushing back on Trump’s executive order, or whether it is worth fighting at all.

Mustafa, the proprietor of Moonlight, an Iraqi restaurant down the road from the refugee center, is one of those torn by the politics.

From the outside, his restaurant doesn’t look like much, tucked away as in a small storefront in another nondescript strip mall. But inside, he has nobly tried to conjure up scenes of old Baghdad. Arabic music videos play on the TV, and the walls are covered in paintings of Arab street murals. Middle Eastern artifacts and antique plates are scattered throughout. Unlit lamps hang from the ceiling, and trays of glass teacups and kettles sit on a table in the entryway.

Mustafa, who declined to give his last name, opened Moonlight when he came to Phoenix in 2014. Like Hassan, he left behind tragedy in Iraq. He and a brother both worked as interpreters for the U.S. Army. When his brother was murdered for that work, Mustafa fled, fearing he was next. A green card holder, he now spends his days cooking up shawarma, lamb shanks and kebabs, as well as giant platters of fresh cut vegetables, baba ghanoush and oily hummus.

The restaurant has become a hub for fellow Iraqis and, at least on a recent Wednesday, some non-Middle Easterners too. “It’s good,” he said of business. “When you start a new life, everything is new here. We have nice people here.”

Gregarious and playful, Mustafa took the tape recorder from my hand and placed it directly under his mouth to make sure his every word was properly recorded. But when I pointed out he could still be stuck in Iraq had Trump’s travel ban been in place three years ago, he grew recalcitrant and handed the recorder back. He said he supported the ban, but refused to elaborate. “I don’t have time now,” he said, darting back to his kitchen. 

A wall inside Mustafa's Moonlight restaurant, which he opened after coming to Phoenix in 2014.
Sam Stein/The Huffington Post
A wall inside Mustafa's Moonlight restaurant, which he opened after coming to Phoenix in 2014.

Hassan, who sat nearby, couldn’t quite explain why Mustafa felt this way, other than to note that every refugee has his or her own stories, fears, hopes and experiences. Some are content with their corner of a Phoenix strip mall. Others fret over the possibility that their new lives might be ripped away from them. Still others feel that the only way to find stability is by showing those around them that they’re human, too.

Hassan is firmly in the latter category. She is a whirlwind of activity and adopted American tastes. She wrote an ebook on healthy living, goes to rock concerts ― Nine Inch Nails is a favorite ― and dreams of one day working at a fashion magazine in New York City. She is also proudly Muslim ― though not particularly observant ― and operates under the belief ― naive, perhaps ― that the more the rest of America sees people like her, the harder it will be for them to ban people like her.

“I’m lucky,” she said, an odd description for someone who’s lost so much. “Some people, when they lose family they will end up with mental issues or homeless or doing bad things. With me, that made me stronger. It made me appreciate life.”

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