Weeks ago, President Joe Biden promised to raise refugee admissions to 62,500, a far departure from the historically low 15,000-person limit set by former President Donald Trump. But then nothing happened, and the president’s inaction “left hundreds of refugees in limbo for weeks,” The New York Times reported. Flights were canceled for more than 700 refugees.
Then on April 16, Biden signed an emergency determination maintaining Trump’s historically low refugee admissions. The outcry was immediate.
Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, an international Jewish humanitarian organization that provides services to refugees and asylum seekers in 16 countries, said the global need for resettlement has never been greater.
“President Biden must make good on the promises he made to rebuild refugee resettlement and help restore America’s role as a global humanitarian leader,” Hetfield said in a statement.
Sarah Costa, the executive director of the Women’s Refugee Commission, said Biden’s decision was a betrayal.
“[I]t is disingenuous to try to justify the administration’s choice as necessary due to the number of families and children who are also legally seeking safety at our borders,” Costa said in a statement. “The Trump-era cap was a direct attack on refugees around the world. Trump’s policies were never based on capacity or national best interest. It was based on hateful ideology and pandering to his political base. President Biden’s decision to stand by Trump’s numbers betrays refugees around the world.”
Shereen Gomaa says Biden’s decision to maintain Trump’s low refugee admissions was a “big disappointment” to immigrants like her who supported his presidency. Gomaa is an immigrant from Egypt who came to the U.S. in 2002 and is now a U.S. citizen living in Winston Salem, North Carolina. There, she launched Delicious by Shereen, a nonprofit catering company founded in 2016 to help employ refugee women. The Triad region of the state—which encompasses Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point—is home to many refugee families aided by the organization World Relief Triad. At any given time, Gomaa is working with between five and 10 Syrian refugee families, providing employment opportunities to women who join the catering company to cook Middle Eastern food. After news broke about Biden’s decision, Gomaa spoke to Prism about the uncertainty facing refugees, and what the U.S. loses when it turns its back on these communities. Here she is, in her own words:
When we first heard the news that [former President Donald Trump] was receiving less and less refugees, we felt very said. I cannot even tell you how sad. Here in America, Native Americans are the only true owners of the land. Everyone else came as immigrants from all around the world and established their lives here over many generations. So, we could not understand the news [from the Trump administration]. Imagine if you are in a country where there is a war and leaving was the only way you could keep your children alive or your family safe and now that opportunity is blocked for you. Put yourself in their shoes. These people are not terrorists or whatever the president said. They want peace and they want to raise their kids in good, safe environments. So why would he do that? There were people who were approved to come here and then they could not because the numbers were cut down. It was not fair to them.
The decision disappointed all of the refugees and they disagreed with it because they know it [affected] people who need to come here for safety, and it affected the United States because refugees benefit the community. They are good people who are intelligent and creative and they can help us build something great here. They start from zero and they establish a life here with their whole heart, mind, and soul.
When I came to the United States as an immigrant from Egypt, I struggled in the beginning because when you leave your home and you go to another country, it’s a huge change. For me, I was always around my family and my friends that I grew up with. I was in Egypt all my life and received my education there. I have to leave all of that to come to a new country that I don’t know anyone in. This was difficult because it’s a different language, different culture, different everything. Everything is different. Even the food tastes different.
But step-by-step, day-by-day, you get used to the community you are around and you get to know more people and the more you meet good, nice people supporting you, helping you understand everything around you—like the culture or how the system works—everything gets easier.
Now I am a U.S. citizen and I work with refugee women from Syria. We speak the same language and we have the same religion. We are Muslim, so when they first come here, the first thing they do is reach out to the mosque. That’s how we connect with them. When I meet them, I ask them what they would like to do in the United States. So many of them tell me they love cooking because cooking is a huge part of our culture in the Middle East. We cook every day for our family and friends; we share our food with everyone around us. Cooking is something that comforts us and reminds us of home and our family and friends. I love cooking, so that’s how I started my organization. We all worked together to establish something great.
I also wanted to give back to the community. I wanted to help women like me. I know exactly what they go through when they leave their home. For some, it was a different situation because there was a war and they had to leave everything behind and come here as a refugee. They had to leave everyone behind. They could leave their home and be killed, so they just wanted to survive. Of course that was a harder situation for them. I wanted to help them as much I can. I wanted to give them comfort and to let them know we’re all here for them.
Here in the Triad, we get a lot of families as refugees from so many different countries. They came from Syria, Iraq, Iran, and [countries in] Africa and Asia. They came from all around the world. They don’t know anyone here; they don’t know the language or culture or how they can communicate with people. We have a lot of good people here in our community helping, supporting them from day one. When the refugees come here, they meet them at the airport. They get them to their new homes and help them establish their life and apply for health care, financial assistance, and apply for jobs.
It was wonderful news to hear [ Biden] was going to increase the number of people coming here as refugees. We were so happy to receive that news. We were hopeful because we knew it would save lives. I knew it would save the lives of people back in Syria and people in different countries all over the world. Really, no one wants to leave their family, friends, and home country. People would not leave if they could build a good life in their home country. But they cannot build a good life there because it is dangerous, so they have to leave. When Biden was going to increase the numbers, it was like a door opening for people. But then he backtracked and we thought: What is going on here?
So many of us were happy that Biden won the election. We voted for him and we supported him because we believed he would do good things for our new home country. I am hopeful that he will do the right thing and allow more refugees to come.
I just want people to understand that immigrants and refugees are people just like them. Maybe we have different skin colors or speak different languages or have different religions, but we’re all people who just want peace and safety; we want the opportunity to be successful and to raise our kids to contribute to the community. We just want to be happy, like everyone else.