Zaid Alibadi fell in love with American culture when he was 6, watching “The Terminator” in an Iraqi theater. Now, however, the University of South Carolina graduate student worries about what a Donald Trump presidency will mean for his sister’s safety.
Alibadi worked with the U.S. military in his native Iraq, something that marked him and his family – to some in that country – as the enemy.
After Alibadi moved to Columbia on a student visa, his mother and brother, worried for their safety, were admitted to the United States as refugees. But Alibadi’s younger sister, Shahad, and her daughter, Fatimah, are still in Iraq, waiting for approval to join the rest of their family.
Now, their safety may depend on incoming President Trump.
They are not alone, refugee advocates say.
More than 200 refugees were relocated in the Carolinas last year. A third of those refugees were from the war-torn Middle East.
During his campaign, Trump responded to a string of terrorist attacks and the Middle East’s refugee crisis by calling for “a total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the U.S. “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
More recently, the Republican president-elect has seemed to walk back his proposal to bar Muslim immigrants. Instead, he has called for “extreme vetting” of immigrants or suspending immigration from countries with “a history of exporting terrorism.”
However, any suspension based on “exporting terrorism” is likely to include Iraq, where large areas have been taken over by Islamic State.
“That is our major concern now,” Alibadi said.
‘These folks served our military’
Trump’s plans may not have much impact on local efforts to resettle refugees, said Ted Goins, president of Lutheran Services Carolinas, which operates a Columbia center that assists refugees, including the Alibadis.
Last year, Lutheran Services Carolinas helped relocate 235 refugees to the Carolinas. About a third of those refugees, 87, were from the Middle East and southwest Asia – Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Many of the refugees are in the same boat as Alibadi and his family, admitted on what is called a “special immigrant visa,” reserved for those who worked alongside U.S. soldiers overseas.
“A good many of these folks served our military,” Goins said.
Others “are coming with the clothes on their back, fleeing persecution and death.”
While refugee advocacy groups are in a “wait-and-see” mode after the election, Goins says he has seen an increased willingness by Americans to help refugees.
Lutheran Services Carolinas recently received approval from the State Department to open a Charleston office because churches outside the Columbia area have offered to help refugees.
And more are coming.
Congress has approved admitting 110,000 refugees in fiscal 2017.
It will be difficult for President Trump to cut that number, said Jason Lee, former director of the refugee assistance group World Relief Spartanburg.
“A number of questions won’t be answered until President Trump takes office,” Lee said. “(But) he’s already backed off not allowing Muslim immigrants into the country.”
Still, the uncertainty weighs heavily on those who put their faith in the U.S. government, like Alibadi.
‘How is your work with the Americans?’
Alibadi got a job working for the U.S. military in 2011, after he finished his studies at Baghdad’s Nahrain University.
“It was chance to know them not through the (movie) screen but through life,” he said.
A history buff, Alibadi hoped the United States would transform Iraq the way it had Germany and Japan after World War II, leaving his country with a developed economy and a stable, democratic government. Now, he thinks those hopes might have been “young and naive.”
Alibadi reported regularly to a U.S. officer on local conditions, relaying information that would come easier to a Iraqi than an American soldier. His work was especially important because U.S. forces were beginning their withdrawal to bases in Kuwait, completed in 2011.
“My main job was to be sure there were no surprises for them,” he said.
After the U.S. military withdrawal, Alibadi vetted Iraqis to work in the U.S. embassy, conducting interviews and traveling daily to Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone. But his work there earned him some unwelcome notoriety with other Iraqis.
“I took a taxi, and the driver asked, ‘How is your work with the Americans?’ ” Alibadi recalled, who learned he once had interviewed the driver. “When I went to the barber, it was the same thing. The market, same thing.”
By the time Alibadi left Iraq in 2013, he worried his work with the Americans had put his family in jeopardy.
“For a lot of Iraqis, being associated with Americans is not good,” he said. “Even though the part of Iraq where I lived was a city of 500,000 people, the culture was like a small town. Everybody knows everybody, and everybody talks.”
In the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal, sectarian Shiite militia groups, supported by Iran, became power brokers in the new Iraq, and Alibadi says he came to their attention. He started to receive death threats.
His family received friendly and, then, not-so-friendly advice to leave the neighborhood. Even Alibadi’s grandparents moved out of the part of Baghdad they had called home for 50 years.
Alibadi says he “got lucky” when he was admitted to USC and came to the United States on a student visa along with his wife, Marwah Khamas.
But he continues to fear for his extended family.
His brother Hasan and mother Nahidah Soramaeere had to wait two years to be interviewed by U.S. immigration officials after they requested refugee status. More months passed before the two were approved for entry to the United States, joining Alibadi and his wife in Columbia this summer.
They still have no word on when his sister Shahad, now married with a 6-month-old daughter, can join them.
“They all did the same interview at the same time,” he says. “I don’t fully understand why she’s being kept there.”
The last email they received about Shahad’s case, from the United Nation’s International Office on Migration, said only that she would be called back for another interview. There was no indication when.
‘You know my plans’
His sister’s predicament worries Alibadi because, like many Iraqis, he has lost others to the ongoing conflict engulfing his country, including his 17-year-old cousin Ali.
Armed militia members took Ali from his home.
“This was summer of 2014 maybe, and we (still) don’t know about him and, probably, we won’t,” Alibadi said. “This is one of the stories that keeps on haunting me during the night, that I will hear such a story about my sister or one of my family again.”
Even with the uncertainties that his family has faced, Alibadi says he has no regrets about his decision to help the United States. He cites a quote attributed to Winston Churchill: “You can count on the United States to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all the alternatives.”
“The American people and the American government have been very generous for me and my family,” Alibadi says. “I would do it again. My only regret is that I did it too late. I would have done it in 2003.”
Now, however, his niece’s future may depend on how President-elect Trump decides to handle refugee issues, including whether he blocks more Middle Eastern refugees.
“If on Jan. 21, they say we’re no longer taking people from Iraq or Syria, if you’re not on a plane, you’re not coming,” said Lee, the refugee advocate.
After a December attack on a Christmas market in Germany, Trump responded to questions about his proposed temporary ban on Muslim immigrants.
“You know my plans,” the president-elect said. “All along, I’ve been proven to be right, 100 percent correct.”
REFUGEES IN 2017
The U.S. government has set a cap of 110,000 people to be admitted as refugees in fiscal year 2017. That number is broken down between the regions of the world where the U.S. expects the most people to need refuge.
Near East/South Asia: 40,000, up from 34,000 in 2016
Africa: 35,000, from 25,000
East Asia: 12,000, down from 13,000
Latin America/Caribbean: 5,000, up from 3,000
Europe and Central Asia: 4,000, steady
Unallocated Reserve: 14,000, up from 6,000
SOURCE: U.S. State Department
REFUGEES IN THE CAROLINAS
In 2016, Lutheran Services Carolinas helped relocate 235 refugees from around the world in North and South Carolina. Where did they come from?
101 from Africa – the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan
87 from the Middle East and south Asia – Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria
41 from east Asia – Bhutan, Myanmar and Nepal.
6 from Latin America
Source: Lutheran Services Carolinas