Government & Politics

A Kansas City refugee’s message to Donald Trump: ‘We are good people’

Kilindo Nalukuli thinks she and her family are the lucky ones.

“My dad,” she said, speaking in English rather than her native French and Swahili, “say God help him to come here before Trump became president.”

Five months ago, the 22-year-old refugee from the Congo arrived in Kansas City with her family after 17 years in a refugee camp in Tanzania.

Her family of eight slept on the floor in one room and ate one meal a day of beans and corn. She received no schooling but learned six languages and how to read and write from other refugees in the camp.

Nalukuli on Thursday sat inside a classroom at Della Lamb Community Services, the agency at 500 Woodland Ave. that helped resettle her family, with a message for President Donald Trump.

Help the refugees, she urged. “We are good people.”

Over and again this week, the heads of the Kansas City area’s resettlement programs used the word “devastating” in reaction to a draft executive order that began circulating Wednesday indicating that the president was set to cease all refugee resettlement in the U.S. for the next 120 days.

“America has always been a place where people can come to seek opportunity and safety,” said Hilary Cohen Singer, executive director of Jewish Vocational Services, the largest of Kansas City’s three refugee resettlement organizations. “We were built as a nation of immigrants. This is devastating to refugees both here and overseas who will be deprived the opportunity to have a safe life and future for their children.

The White House was expected to make an announcement soon regarding the executive order. Media outlets that received the eight-page draft said it also contains an indefinite stop on the immigration of all Syrian refugees fleeing that war-torn country.

“It’s going to be very hard to come in,” Trump said in an interview Wednesday on ABC. “Right now, it’s very easy to come in.”

Resettlement organizations are up in arms.

“This kind of exclusionary policy,” Singer said, “is counter to the American values that many, many of us hold dear.”

When the refugee program resumes, the draft indicated, the number of refugees entering the U.S. would be much smaller, decreasing this fiscal year from 110,000 to 50,000. Immigration also would be suspended for at least 30 days from predominantly Muslim countries including Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

The draft executive order comes on the heels of the president’s order Wednesday to secure the United States’ southern border by building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. The wall was one of Trump’s signature campaign promises, as was refugee vetting, which he has said must be upgraded for national security.

Nalukuli said she spoke Wednesday night to relatives still in the refugee camp in Tanzania. She has a sister who lives there with her three children, and a male cousin is there with 10 children. Her relatives also hope to come to the U.S.

“They try,” Nalukuli said, “but now they scared because of the president. They ask if they can come. Do they lose chance to come to America because of the president? I say, ‘I don’t know.’ 

Nalukuli works at Della Lamb helping with early childhood care and hopes to go to college to become a social worker. Her father works at a Kansas City-area auto parts manufacturer with other refugees.

The family was ecstatic to arrive in the U.S., having first fled the Congo because of the brutal war that pitted her father’s tribe, the Hutus, against that of her mother, the Tutsi. They spent three years in a camp in Rwanda before going on to Tanzania.

In America: “Life,” Nalukuli said, “a new life. Freedom. The kids come to learn and go to school. We were so happy, because in the refugee camp — no education. No new life. You can’t go out of the camp.”

Some 85,000 refugees entered the U.S. in the last fiscal year, many from Africa and Muslim nations including Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. A Pew Research Center report notes that about 39,000, or 46 percent, came from Muslim nations.

Refugees from Syria and Somalia made up more than half of fiscal year 2016’s Muslim refugees. The rest are from Iraq, Myanmar, Afghanistan and other countries. Pew noted that far more Christian refugees than Muslim refugees have entered the U.S. since fiscal year 2002.

A number of provisions in the draft executive order disturb refugee resettlement organizations. Among them is one to drop the number of refugees entering the U.S. in this fiscal year to 50,000. Because the fiscal year began Oct. 1, some 30,000 refugees have already been resettled, meaning fewer than 20,000 more refugees might be admitted.

Also of deep concern is a provision that appears to indicate that once refugees are again allowed to enter the U.S., those admitted would be prioritized, with greater priority given to those seeking asylum as religious minorities in their own countries. Resettlement groups see it as a “back door” way of keeping out Muslim refugees from majority-Muslim nations, such as Syria and Iraq.

“It really is a devastating blow to individuals who are seeking a better life, escaping persecution because of their race, religion, ethnicity or their political beliefs,” Singer said. “It deprives them of their opportunity to live their lives in safety and dignity.”

Jewish Vocational Services relocated 588 refugees into the Kansas City area in the last fiscal year. Della Lamb relocated 200, including several families from Syria. Others were resettled by Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas.

At Della Lamb, executive director Judy McGonigle Akers is worried about families and her organization. If refugee resettlement suddenly dries up, so too might her budget that allows her to pay employees and help families with the required English classes, cultural classes and help in job searches.

“The funding travels with the person,” said Akers, adding that she and her staff are in limbo. They are not sure, as of now, how any executive order will affect refugees already scheduled to come to Kansas City.

This month alone, Della Lamb was expecting 14 refugees to fly into Kansas City International Airport, including a family of nine from Somalia and a family of three from Myanmar.

The family of nine, along with another person from Somalia, are expected to arrive Feb. 2. Dalla Lamb has apartments waiting for them, and beds, linens and kitchenware are arriving. Classes are scheduled.

“We do have some who are supposed to be en route, with a scheduled arrival date. I don’t know if this means they are not (coming). Honestly,” Akers said, “we get emails every hour on how things are changing.”

Della Lamb so far this fiscal year has relocated 89 refugees to the Kansas City area and was slated for 250. Many refugees have long been waiting for family members to arrive after them.

“Lots of families who are already here are hoping and praying that for their families in their homelands, who are already trying to escape, that the process can be completed so they can get here,” Akers said. “Stopping a program midstream, it seems so short-sighted.”

Akers continued, losing her train of thought in exasperation.

“It is all driven from the opposite of what America represents,” she said. “America is about being open-arms, anti-discriminatory, caring for those in need. And now, it is driven by a discriminatory … I don’t know what.”

Eric Adler: 816-234-4431, @eadler