Somali refugee Sahra Hassan Absuge and her eight children today enjoy what they could only dream of two years ago.
A two-story house. A couple of jobs. Schools. Donated appliances.
“I am so lucky,” Absuge said. “It’s by the grace of God that we are here.”
All that’s missing is her husband.
Also a refugee from Somalia, he seeks to one day join his Kansas City family after four years of being separated, trapped in another war zone. But chances for a reunion anytime soon appear slim, given ever-deepening cuts in the number of refugees allowed into the U.S.
Absuge and her children barely got in themselves.
Twenty months ago, dozens of cheering supporters at Kansas City International Airport greeted the family after they had squeezed through a tightening slipknot on refugee travel.
Their migration coincided with a January 2017 executive order temporarily suspending refugee resettlement. Local news media followed relocation plans that were on and off and on again.
The family’s rescue out of a single room in a Kenyan slum and into the house on North Brighton Avenue was made possible by federal judges applying the breaks to President Donald Trump’s travel crackdown.
“Those people already cleared to resettle were allowed to come,” said Jonathan Q. Hyde, a spokesman for Della Lamb Community Services, which sponsored Absuge and her children.
Among orders lifted by some courts, at least through much of 2017, was a 90-day ban on all citizens traveling to the U.S. from several Muslim-majority countries, including Somalia.
But while the legal maneuvering provided Absuge’s family a narrow window for making Kansas City their home, the Trump administration’s continued restrictions on immigration has slowed the stream of incoming Muslim refugees to a faint trickle, local resettlement agencies say.
At Della Lamb, Hyde and director of refugee resettlement Abdul Bakar could think of resettling only one Muslim on the Missouri side in the past year.
Absuge’s husband, the father of all eight of the children, is Muslim.
“There used to a good pipeline for family reunification,” said Judy Akers, Della Lamb’s executive director. “But there hasn’t been much spoken of that recently.”
‘Who’s telling them no?’
Since the year before this family of nine flew to town, the number of arriving refugees of all ethnic backgrounds has plunged.
Jewish Vocational Service sponsored 588 people in fiscal year 2016. The agency took in 417 in 2017. And for the 2018 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, “we came in at 161,” said executive director Hilary Cohen Singer.
Those coming just from mostly Islamic regions have almost disappeared.
“We’ve not seen anyone from a Muslim-majority country come into our program this fiscal year,” Cohen Singer said. That means Della Lamb’s single Muslim sponsorship is the only one in the previous 12 months.
“Who’s telling them no? That’s a great question,” she said.
Stricter vetting of prospective re-settlers, as urged by Trump, could factor in, as may a reluctance on the part of Muslims to seek sanctuary in America.
But the shrinking numbers are sure to continue following the administration’s mid-September announcement to cap incoming refugees for the coming fiscal year to 30,000 nationwide.
That’s a one-third reduction in the 45,000-person limit Trump set for 2018. And the lowest-ever ceiling placed on the national refuge program since its establishment in 1980.
In announcing the new limit, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the “refugee ceiling reflects the substantial increase in the number of individuals seeking asylum in our country, leading to a massive backlog of outstanding asylum cases and greater public expense.”
The move signaled a desire by the Trump administration to direct less focus on resettling refugees and more on dealing with asylum cases from Central America.
‘We need him’
The surprise of strangers welcoming Absuge’s family to Kansas City stirred “such joy,” she said. “Like my wedding day.”
The well-wishers brought balloons, held happy placards and gifted the youngsters their first-ever winter coats. News footage on YouTube carried the moment back to Nairobi friends.
The four-bedroom house awaiting the family became available afterpotential renters withdrew their interest so Absuge’s family could move in.
Still, it’s not been an easy adjustment for the four boys, four girls and mother.
Mother late in the afternoon kneels for prayers on the living room floor, then carpools with Somali neighbors to their cleaning jobs in a downtown office building. There, she works past midnight.
“It’s a job,” she says, wide-eyed and grinning. “I’m happy to do it. Here you have the freedom to work.”
She hasn’t yet been late on $750 rent payments due the fifth of each month.
The oldest son, Abdirahman Ali, 19, helps support the household as a valet driver. Younger brother Mohamed will graduate from Kansas City’s East High School in the spring. To get here and there, the family shares a 1999 Buick donated by a Della Lamb volunteer — a godsend given those early months of waiting for buses in the cold.
When the school day is done, Mohamed helps look after the younger children. They include sister Amal, 16, who has been deaf and disinclined to talk after a missile struck near her before her first birthday. She is taking special education classes at Paseo High School.
The youngest, son Anas, attends pre-school but already has learned to say “I miss...Dad” in fractured English.
All home-schooled in Nairobi, the siblings say they appreciate nothing more than attending a school building to recite ABCs with other children.
“This mother is sacrificing everything, even her own education, for all her children to learn,” said interpreter Bakar. “She calls it tightening the gut.”
Still, the family finances are month-to-month. Medicaid and food stamps fill the essential gaps, but another paycheck from refugee father Abdullahi Ali Diriye, now hoping for a ticket out of Africa, would bring vital relief.
“We need him,” son Abdirahman said.
His father left their Nairobi refugee village in 2014 to seek work in Sudan. He instead encountered homelessness, civil war and hunger before fleeing to Uganda. When his family resettled in America, his wife didn’t know if Abdullahi was alive or dead.
The father, through friends in Nairobi, learned of the family’s whereabouts with the help of the internet and those YouTube videos. “Search ‘refugees’...and our family of nine pops up,” Absuge said through the interpreter.
She holds out hope for another joyful arrival at the airport, someday, when the federal bureaucracy allows.
“By the grace of God...my husband will be with us,” she said. “Then I can rest.
“I won’t need to worry about what happens to the children if something happens to me.”