Government & Politics

U.S. policy leads to ‘astounding’ drop in number of refugees in KC, pulls family apart

When Abdi Hersi came to Kansas City with his wife and seven kids one year ago, it was supposed to be the beginning of their American dream.

Because of Somalia’s civil war, the family had been forced to live in a refugee camp in Djibouti for seven years. There was no water. If there was food, they’d have to walk for hours to get it.

Despite a warm welcome in Kansas City, he said, a mix-up in the camp and changes in U.S. policies on refugees in the last year have made the move bittersweet.

His eldest son and daughter, Fathi and Nasteho, are still in Djibouti, calling him every day, asking when they will be reunited with their family.

Hersi siblings.jpg
Abdi Hersi's eldest son and daughter, Fathi and Nasteho, are still in Djibouti. Submitted photo

It’s a question being asked by many, as changes by President Donald Trump’s administration have kept families like Hersi’s apart, while allowing some to reunite, sorting people by country, and effectively by religion.

Starting early last year, Trump banned arrivals from several countries — mostly Muslim — including Somalia, lowered the cap on refugee admissions and suspended a program to reunite families split in the resettlement pipeline.

The U.S. is on track to take in the smallest number of refugees since Congress passed a law in 1980 creating the modern resettlement system, according to a report from The Associated Press. At the current rate, the U.S. will take in about 21,000 refugees this fiscal year, well below the cap of 45,000 set by the administration and roughly a quarter those granted entry in the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Kansas City’s numbers echo the national trend. While the numbers have plummeted overall, the biggest shift has been among predominantly Muslim countries: Syria, Sudan, Iraq and Somalia.

Data from the U.S. Department of State compiled by The Associated Press show that 745 refugees were resettled in Kansas City in 2016 and 479 last year. So far this fiscal year — which is halfway over— there have been 53.

The biggest drop in Kansas City has been among refugees from Somalia. Last year, 159 Somali refugees came to Kansas City. So far this fiscal year there have been five.

"There's certainly a pretty dramatic shift" in the mix and number of refugees being allowed in, said Kathleen Newland, a fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

The administration is also cutting the resettlement system itself, telling executives of nine private agencies across the country they must close any office expected to place fewer than 100 refugees this year.

In citing security concerns to exclude refugees from certain countries, Newland said, the administration has changed the ethnic and religious makeup of the much smaller number allowed entry. About 15 percent of refugees admitted to the U.S. this fiscal year are Muslim, down from 47 percent a year ago, federal figures show.

U.S. officials say there is no preference for refugees of one religion over another.

"The United States is committed to assisting people of all religions, ethnicities and nationalities who are fleeing persecution, violence and other drivers of displacement," a state department spokeswoman told The Associated Press.

The administration resumed the program to reunify refugee families in December, she said, responding to a judge's injunction.

Globally, there are 22.5 million refugees, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In the past, the U.S. has been the world’s top resettlement country.

People like Hersi are among the less than 1 percent of refugees resettled.

Through an interpreter, Hersi, 68, said of his two children still in Africa, "If I had these two with me, we could have a normal American life. But without them here, I'm struggling... Their name is on the list. I just have to find a way to bring them here.

"I worry I might not even see them again."

Besides Somalis, the second largest group to come to Kansas City has been refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In fiscal year 2017, there were 138. So far this year, just 22.

James Musinguzi, 26, is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who spent several years in a camp in Rwanda to escape war. He came to Kansas City in September and is the only member of his family to come to the U.S. so far. He hopes his sister, brother and parents will join him soon.

"I think that the decision of the president is no good because other countries have problems and in America, you have the security, the power, to help other countries," he said.

Musinguzi has been studying English at Della Lamb since he arrived. Coming to the U.S. hasn’t been without its challenges. Last month, he was shot in the arm near his apartment when a man demanded money. With his arm in a sling, he's unable to work until it's healed. The man was never caught.

"Right now, I have these problems and no one to help. No family here, no one to help me," he said.

Broader impact

Kansas City refugee resettlement agencies have already seen the impact from fewer refugees. The changes affect not only those coming here, but those whose jobs it is to help them.

The drop in numbers is "astounding," said Judy McGonigle Akers, executive vice president at Della Lamb. The 120-year-old Kansas City organization provides services like child care, adult education, a food pantry and transportation for low-income families. It is also one of two federal subcontractors that help resettle refugees in Kansas City.

Della Lamb helps refugees complete a long list of tasks within the first 90 days in the U.S. — everything from medical exams to applying for a Social Security card to enrolling in English as a second language classes.

But with fewer refugees coming, two-thirds of the refugee resettlement staff was laid off, Akers said. That leaves the organization with fewer people and resources to help arriving refugees and the families who are already here.

Of the 300 refugees Della Lamb was slated to help in fiscal year 2017, just 167 came. This fiscal year, they are scheduled to help up to 160 refugees, but so far just 33 have come.

"What happens to the others? They're waiting, hoping and praying," Akers said.

The federal policy change has essentially dismantled much of the refugee infrastructure in the U.S., said Sofia Khan, founder of the nonprofit KC for Refugees.

"I'm afraid if this continues, and agencies can't keep up, what happens?" she said.

Khan, a physician, started the nonprofit in 2016 when the first Syrian refugees came to Kansas City. It planned airport welcoming events and helped set up housing. The mission, she said, was to educate people about refugees and to help them feel connected to the community.

Now, with the drastic reduction in the number of refugees coming and local agencies cuts, Khan hopes KC for Refugees can help.

In the last year, KC for Refugees has refocused its goals to helping refugees already here get connected to resources, primarily with things like housing, jobs, cars, tutoring, hygiene products, diapers and computers.

"We want to make sure that people we brought here aren't going to be homeless or hungry," Khan said. "When you look at who has suffered, they are on the top of the list. We don't want to bring them to the country just to go through that hardship again."

In just the last year, she's noticed the shift in the types of refugees coming, she said.

"The Muslim families, we don't see them coming as much anymore," Khan said. "Somalis or Syrians… not a single Rohingya Muslim has come to Kansas City, even among the few Burmese. We were supposed to get an Iraqi lady two days ago, but her flight was canceled again. Another couple from Iraq, their flights have been canceled two or three times."

Local support

Despite changes in national policies and politics, Khan says she still sees support for refugees in Kansas City.

"The community is really stepping up to the plate with resources, money and volunteers," she said. "I feel proud that our city is one that settles refugees and is part of humanitarian work…

"We uphold certain values, part of who we are and part of what America has been to the rest of the world. We have been the gold standard for the rest of the world. So if we start sending the signal that we're not going to treat refugees good, or we consider them terrorists or whatnot, that doesn't look good on us as Americans.”

In the meantime, Abdi Hersi continues to hope that his two eldest children will be able to come to America soon. He talks to them on the phone every day.

"God willing, I want my kids to be educated just like everybody else," Hersi said. "I want them to be good citizens in the United States and work… I love Kansas City. I'm not going to lie to you. They welcome me like a second home. I've never seen any hate or discrimination.

"We all have to have second chances, no matter what religion, what country."

refugees resettled in KS MO chart

The Associated Press contributed to this report.