Hope fades for refugees seeking new lives in Sacramento after Trump order

Mohammad Jaber Kabbesh immigrated to the United States nearly two decades ago, leaving his native Syria in search of the best medical training in the world. He studied at universities in New York, Wisconsin and Missouri before settling in Sacramento in 2010. He said he was embraced by a nation of immigrants.

Kabbesh was hoping his brother would follow his path. Maher Kabbesh, his wife and two school-aged children live in Damascus, the capital of a country where an estimated 400,000 or more have been killed during a devastating civil war. For two years, the Kabbesh family has been trying to seek refuge in the United States and settle in Sacramento, like hundreds before them.

“Honestly, I think that hope is not real anymore,” Mohammad Kabbesh said Saturday.

Profound impacts are being felt around the world due to President Donald Trump’s executive order suspending the entry of all international refugees into the U.S. for 120 days. The order also indefinitely blocked refugees from Syria and banned travelers from six other predominantly Muslim nations for 90 days. The order’s impact is being felt particularly hard in Sacramento, one of the country’s top destinations for refugees and among the most ethnically diverse cities in the United States.

About 370 Syrian refugees settled in Sacramento during 2015 and 2016, placing the city among the top 10 destinations for Syrians in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of State. Another 25 Syrian refugees arrived in Fair Oaks during that period.

Sacramento takes in hundreds of refugees each year from a wide range of countries. More than 450 refuges arrived during September 2016 alone, the latest month tracked by federal authorities. Nations on Trump’s list of banned countries – Iraq and Iran in particular – are among the sources of the most refugees to the city in recent years. The other countries affected by Trump’s immigration ban are Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.

In total, Sacramento County welcomed 3,261 refugees in 2016, making it the California county with the second-highest number of refugee resettlements, after San Diego, according to the California Department of Social Services. Many refugees are drawn to the Sacramento region because of its relatively modest cost of living and access to schools, jobs and services provided to newcomers.

The White House said the orders are needed to establish a more stringent system for vetting those seeking shelter in the United States from nations deemed as threats to national security. After a new system is in place, the number of refugees accepted into the United States each year will be cut in half, to 50,000. The U.S. already extensively vets refugee applicants, with the process frequently lasting years before an approval is given.

“It’s not a Muslim ban, but we were totally prepared,” Trump said Saturday. “It’s working out very nicely. You see it at the airports, you see it all over. We’re going to have a very, very strict ban and we’re going to have extreme vetting, which we should have had in this country.”

U.S. Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, speaking at a town hall forum Saturday, said he supported vetting refugees but opposed barring them from the country entirely.

“That’s not who we are as a nation,” he said.

The president’s orders sent panic through the country’s Muslim community, as residents tried to interpret who would be affected and how. Refugees traveling to the United States who were in the air when the order was signed were detained at international airports, according to media reports. The New York Times reported that legal permanent residents of the United States and those with green cards were also being blocked from returning to the country.

Late Saturday, two federal courts ruled against part of Trump’s executive order barring citizens of seven Muslim nations from entering the United States.

A federal court in Brooklyn granted a nationwide stay preventing the government from deporting people who arrived with valid U.S. visas. A second judge in Virginia issued a temporary restraining order preventing the deportation of permanent U.S. residents who arrived at Dulles International Airport outside Washington.

“People don’t know what’s happening,” said Basim Elkarra, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Sacramento office.

While the travel bans are temporary, activists and those seeking visas to the United States worry the executive order will set a precedent with long-term effects.

“I think it is temporary,” said Laith Hammoudi, an Iraqi who’s been trying to come to the U.S. for the past five years. “Well, I hope it is temporary. Otherwise it will be a very bad step backwards.”

Speaking by telephone from his home in Baghdad on Saturday, Hammoudi said he risked his life during the war in Iraq serving as an interpreter for international media outlets, including McClatchy, the parent company of The Sacramento Bee. He and his colleagues were targeted as traitors by militants, he said; many translators working for Western media outlets have been killed since the U.S. invasion.

Married with three children, ages 11, 9 and 5, Hammoudi said he wants to move his family to Sacramento, where he has friends. Between 2010 and 2016, more than 1,900 refugees from his country settled in Sacramento.

“It is the land of new chances,” Hammoudi said. “I want a better life for my family, it’s as simple as that. I want my kids to be raised and to live in a society that respects human beings.”

Some refugees, however, find disappointment in their new country. Sacramento County has received more Afghan refugees than any other county in California, with 3,600 coming here on Special Immigrant Visas awarded to those who served the U.S. military. Despite that service, many still live in substandard housing and have been the victims of crime, a Sacramento Bee investigation found last year.

“They risked their lives to support the U.S.,” Elkarra said. “And they feel that sacrifice is being undermined by these policies. They feel this is an attack.”

Mohammad Kabbesh, who became a U.S. citizen in 2014, has so far thrived. He now works as an internal medicine physician at Mercy hospital campuses around Northern California. He also volunteers at a free UC Davis health clinic in downtown Sacramento, caring for the homeless and others without medical insurance. On top of that, he’s a member of the local Syrian American Council and teaches English to Syrian refugees.

“I would hope America would accept me as part of America,” he said.

Ryan Lillis: 916-321-1085, @Ryan_Lillis. Bee staff writers Phillip Reese and Nashelly Chavez and McClatchy’s Washington, D.C., Bureau contributed to this report.

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