GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — This Christmas was supposed to be the first one in eight years that Abdoul Havugimana would celebrate with his family.
Havugimana, 24, who was orphaned along with his brothers in the seemingly endless civil war that has afflicted the Democratic Republic of the Congo since the late 1990s, was expecting to welcome his aunt, uncle and cousins to this city in western Michigan, where a local charity had arranged to resettle them from a refugee camp in Rwanda — the same camp where Havugimana lived until he was brought to the United States as a 16-year-old in 2011. But caught up in a bureaucratic snafu and in the contentious politics of the Trump administration’s refugee policy, his close relatives are spending another Christmas more than 7,500 miles away as they await a ticket to the U.S. that might never materialize.
Their story is a microcosm of how global politics, and U.S. policies in particular, affect one family among the estimated 70.8 million people worldwide who’ve been forcibly displaced by war, conflict and persecution.
In 2004, after both their parents were killed, Havugimana and his two brothers set out on foot from their village in search of safety in neighboring Rwanda. Not long after, his grandmother followed, as did his aunt and uncle and their two children in 2005. They all lived together in a refugee camp in Rwanda until 2011, when Bethany Christian Services, a Michigan-based nonprofit, resettled Havugimana and his 12-year-old brother, Amani, with a foster family in Grand Rapids. Eventually, their grandmother was also able to join them in Michigan, while their oldest brother, who’d turned 18 and was no longer eligible for the U.S. Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program, was resettled in Canada a few years later. Havugimana’s aunt, uncle and cousins, however, remained behind in the refugee camp.
In late July 2019, after an intense vetting process involving several layers of background checks, biometrics screenings and a battery of tests and vaccinations for a variety of illnesses, they were finally approved for resettlement in the United States. Within a few months, they would join Havugimana and other members of the family in their adopted home of Grand Rapids. Bethany Christian Services put down a deposit on a rental home for the family of four, and Havugimana began to fill it with new furniture. Their flight was scheduled to depart Kigali, the Rwandan capital, on Sept. 26.
After 14 years of life in a refugee camp, the hardest part, it seemed, was over. But this family’s road to reunification would soon be hit with new hurdles. First, Havugimana’s relatives were among hundreds of refugees whose scheduled arrivals in the U.S. were derailed by unprecedented flight cancellations this fall caused by President Trump’s delay in signing an official determination on annual refugee admissions before the start of the 2020 fiscal year, on Oct. 1. As a result, October was the first full month without a single refugee arrival to the U.S. in nearly two decades. The proclamation was finally issued in November, setting a limit of 18,000, the lowest cap since the Refugee Admissions Program began in 1980. No official reason was given for the delay.
Some previously postponed refugees began arriving in the U.S. last month under the new ceiling. But for many others, including Havugimana’s family, their health certifications expired while they were waiting to travel, making them no longer eligible to enter the U.S. They’d finally reached the front of the line only to have to start at least part of the vetting process over again. It would take several months just to get back on the list for an updated health screening, and next time their chances of actually getting on a plane to the U.S. would be even smaller.
Not only is this year’s cap for admissions historically low, but the administration also restructured the system for allocating those slots among the world’s ballooning refugee population.
Havugimana, who is currently studying international relations at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, compared his family’s dilemma to spending an entire school year writing a 60-page paper only to be informed by your professor that you’d completed the wrong assignment and must start from scratch.
“You feel like everything we’ve done, it means nothing,” Havugimana told Yahoo News during an interview at his house in Grand Rapids earlier this month. “Nobody has valued all the work I’ve put through.”
“The conversation that we had to have with Abdoul about his aunt and uncle not coming is a conversation that I have had many, many, many times this fall,” said Kristine Van Noord, Bethany’s director of refugee resettlement for western Michigan, which in recent years has become a top destination for Congolese refugees. According to Bethany’s own data on arrivals from the DRC, the agency resettled its first Congolese refugee to western Michigan in 2008. Their numbers continued to climb slowly after that, with more significant spikes starting in 2016 as more Congolese were attracted to the area, in part by a network of churches established by Congolese pastors from the refugee camps, as well as family and employment opportunities. Grand Rapids, a city of just under 200,000 people, is now home to 11 different Congolese churches, which are primarily Reformed Christian and Seventh-day Adventist.
The flight delays and cancellations were felt throughout much of the Congolese community in Grand Rapids, as many of its members had also been expecting to reunite with their families.
Bethany resettled a total of 383 refugees in western Michigan during fiscal year 2019, three-quarters of them from Congo. Eighty-one others were caught in the same bureaucratic Catch-22 as Havugimana’s family, their flights postponed until after their health certifications expired.
“We have daughters here waiting for their mothers to come. Husbands waiting for their wives. Mothers waiting for their husbands and their children to come,” said Van Noord. “We have no idea how long it might take for them to be reunited.”
Since he first entered the White House, President Trump has been systematically chipping away at the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Just days after his inauguration in January 2017, he signed the first version of his Muslim travel ban. In addition to temporarily barring entry to the U.S. for nationals of seven majority-Muslim countries, the order also suspended the Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days (indefinitely for Syrian refugees) and slashed the fiscal year 2017 refugee admissions cap that had been set by outgoing President Barack Obama, from 110,000 to 50,000.
Each year since, Trump has lowered the annual ceiling on refugees, to 45,000 for fiscal year 2018 and to 30,000 — a record low at the time — in fiscal year 2019. His administration has also implemented new vetting measures beyond the already existing multilayered screening requirements for admission to the U.S., which can take up to two years to complete.
But the Congolese are among the few refugee groups who’ve actually seen their numbers grow substantially under the Trump administration, a result, in part, of the shrinking allotments to majority-Muslim countries such as Syria and Iraq. In fiscal year 2019, the United States resettled 12,958 refugees from the DRC, more than from any other country, and a 64 percent increase from the previous year.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the DRC has been plagued by internal conflicts pretty much since gaining independence in 1960. The civil war in which Havugimana’s parents were killed officially lasted from 1998 to 2003, but continuing violence has forced millions to flee. As of August 2018, the U.N. estimated that there were 4.5 million internally displaced persons within the DRC, and, as of October of this year, nearly 900,000 Congolese refugees or asylum seekers outside the country.
Van Noord said that some of the Congolese refugees who’ve resettled in Michigan in the past couple of years had been waiting in refugee camps for decades. Others had fled more recent waves of fighting.
Whatever window the Trump administration may have left open for the Congolese, it’s now quickly closing. Despite the large numbers who resettled in the U.S. last year, and many more who are currently waiting in refugee camps, refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo are among those on track to be most adversely affected by the Trump administration’s new restriction on refugee admissions.
Before the president can issue a final determination on the maximum number of refugees who can be admitted each fiscal year, the Departments of State, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services must provide Congress with a report outlining the current global refugee situation along with the administration’s proposed admissions ceiling for the coming year. Traditionally, that report breaks down how the total number of proposed refugee admissions should be allocated by region, based on current conditions in different countries and the number of referrals from the UNHCR. This year, however, the Trump administration’s report to Congress outlined a new allocation system based not on regional needs but on prioritizing certain categories of refugees over others.
Of the maximum 18,000 refugees the U.S. will admit during the current fiscal year, which runs through the end of September 2020, up to 5,000 spaces will be reserved for people who have suffered or fear religious persecution; up to 4,000 will be for Iraqis endangered because of their work for the U.S.; and up to 1,500 will be for “legitimate refugees” from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The remaining 7,500 must be divided among the rest of the world’s refugees, including the Congolese. Resettlement agencies have reported that there are about 8,000 refugees worldwide who’ve already completed the vetting process and are approved for travel.
“The Congolese have experienced such a horrific trauma and torture,” said Van Noord. “If the Congolese are not a special humanitarian group, I don’t understand who is.”
As a young child, Havugimana recalls, it was hard for him to understand why his older brother insisted that they needed to leave home. He was assured that their stay in Rwanda was only temporary, and as with many others who lived alongside them in the refugee camp, he said, the ultimate goal was not to immigrate to the United States or anywhere else, but to return home.
“I would rather be home than being a foreigner [in a] country that I don’t know; I’d rather be home rather than learn how to speak another language,” he said. “I’d rather have a parent rather than having to explain to somebody that ... my family was killed by the civil war.”
But 15 years after Havugimana and his brothers first left the only home they’d ever known, he’s committed to staying in the first country that he says made him feel welcome, and giving back to it. Two years ago he became a U.S. citizen. After graduation, he plans to go to law school and ultimately pursue a career where he can help others who’ve been displaced like he was.
“I thought maybe if I become a lawyer or a judge, I’ll be able to advocate for those people who are voiceless,” said Havugimana. For now, he volunteers through Bethany and his church as a translator for recently resettled refugees who speak Kinyarwanda, Swahili, Kirundi and French.
Soon, he hopes, he’ll be able to do the same for his own family, who continue to wait for news back at the refugee camp.
“I’m really disappointed and I’m really shocked that they might not be able to make it during these holidays,” said Havugimana. Still, he said, “I have to continue to be positive about it.”
“You have to be patient in life in order to accomplish something. You have to be optimistic in order to be able to see what tomorrow looks like.”
Cover thumbnail photo: Abdoul Havugimana. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Laura Ramirez/Yahoo News, Isaac Kasamani /AFP via Getty Images, AP )
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