AURORA | With his wife and three of their children, Abdul Alkekhai four years ago fled his hometown of Homs, Syria — a war-ravaged place he calls “hell.”
First they fled to neighboring Jordan. Then, after seemingly endless interviews with the International Organization for Migration and officials from the United States, the family finally received refugee status. They came to Colorado in August after more than three years of vetting.
Alkekhai has a daughter still in the Middle East he hoped would one day join him in the U.S. But he worries what President Donald Trump’s executive orders freezing the refugee program and barring travel from several majority Muslim nations will mean for his family.
“We don’t know what will happen to us,” he said through an interpreter Monday during a visit to Project Worthmore, an Aurora nonprofit that serves refugees.
Abdul Alkekhai sits with his son, Zean Alkekhai, as he shares his experiences and fears as a Syrian refugee on Wednesday Jan. 29, 2014 at The Mango House. Photo by McKenzie Lange/Aurora Sentinel
Zean Alkekhai listens to his father, Abdul Alkekhai, speak on their experiences as Syrian refugees on Monday Jan. 30, 2017 at The Mango House. Photo by McKenzie Lange/Aurora Sentinel
Executive Director Frank Anello at his deskon Monday Jan. 30, 2017 at The Mango House. Photo by McKenzie Lange/Aurora Sentinel
Abdul Alkekhai sits with his son, Zean Alkekhai as he shares his experiences and fears as a Syrian refugee on Monday Jan. 30, 2017 at The Mango House. Photo by McKenzie Lange/Aurora Sentinel
And it’s not just the family that is still in the Middle East he is worried for: Alkekhai said he’s concerned about whether he and his family already here will ever receive the green cards they were hoping for.
Having to go back to that “hell” is a genuine concern now, he said.
In Aurora, where thousands of refugees from across the world have settled in recent years, the orders have refugees and their advocates fretting about potential deportation and whether loved ones stuck in war-torn countries will be able to join them.
Frank Anello, executive director of Project Worthmore, said fears about a potential ban on refugees percolated among his clients for several days before the orders came down over the weekend.
When students came to the organization’s English classes Monday morning, one woman from Afghanistan was excited because her country wasn’t one of the seven on Trump’s list.
“Then there’s our Somali students, who are on the list, and they are devastated that their family members are not going to be able to come,” he said.
Local lawmakers mostly condemned Trump’s orders.
State Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, said she is proud to represent a city with a thriving refugee population, which she said includes 1,100 people who came here in 2014.
“We as a community are proud of our diversity, because it gives us strength. So when I heard about the seven-country ban that would not allow immigrants into our country, or refugees from Syria, I was outraged and heartbroken … for the mothers who will be separated from their children, the husbands who will be separated from their wives, and for all those whose dreams of finding safety in the U.S. are now being deferred,” she said.
Jennifer Wilson, executive director of the International Rescue Committee Denver, which helps resettle refugees, said the orders have been devastating for those seeking asylum.
IRC resettled about 250 people last year and helped another 50 refugees with other services.
While those refugees once felt welcomed in the U.S., Wilson said they don’t feel as accepted here after the president’s orders.
“Which is certainly not something we have experienced in the past,” she said, adding that some are also scared to speak publicly about the orders.
She said her group is encouraging people to reach out to an immigration lawyer now because those lawyers can offer advice what refugees should do next.
Aurora has become a hub for refugees in recent years, Wilson said, and is now home to well-established refugee communities.
At Project Worthmore, Anello said that if more people knew of the thriving and peaceful refugee communities and all they contribute to the city’s culture, there wouldn’t be so much fear. Without that fear, he said orders like the ones the president handed down over the weekend wouldn’t happen.
“I think people don’t know about it,” he said.
Alkekhai said the orders were a shock to him and he doubts they will make America safer. Instead, he said he expects them to lead to more terror.
His son, Zean, said he hopes to go to medical school and become a doctor one day. Then, he said he’d like to return to Syria to care for people there.
The orders, Zean said, were “very, very negative,” and he hopes lawmakers can overturn them somehow.
Farduus Ahmed, a community navigator with the Colorado African Organization, a Denver-based nonprofit that helps refugees resettle in the U.S., said she has heard concerns from friends and family in refugee camps in Uganda, which is where she lived for about nine years before she was admitted to the U.S. as a refugee in 2015.
Ahmed said she recently spoke to one person who has been in a camp for several years and was on the cusp of garnering the necessary approvals to gain entry to the U.S. That process has now been halted by the IOM, which was helping prepare the necessary paperwork.
“They were so affected and so sad,” said Ahmed, a Somali national who fled to Uganda when she was 16. “They have been in the town years and years and years waiting for this and preparing with their family … and now, nothing.”
Jill Fricker, executive director at the CAO, said the organization has received increased questions in recent days and has been advised to tell clients not to travel, even if they have a green card or refugee status.
“It’s been really heartbreaking to look in the eyes of our community members when they say ‘My 18-year-old son was supposed to come in one week … is that really not happening?’” Fricker said. “And our response is, ‘The way we understand it, that is not happening.’”
In an open letter posted to the CAO Facebook page Jan. 28, Fricker underscored her organization’s commitment to welcoming refugees to the U.S. and Colorado.
“Our doors remain open to all and we will continue to move forward with intention and strategy as we respond to national policies impacting you and our work,” she wrote.
She went on to say the CAO will host meetings and forums in the coming weeks to address questions regarding the new executive orders.
Staff writers Quincy Snowdon and Susan Gonzalez contributed to this story.