Politics & Government

They fled the world’s worst war zone to live in Sacramento. Then, the door slammed shut.

Video: Syrian refugee family gets start on new life in Modesto

Abdulhamid Jawabra and his wife, Nadin, were forced to flee war-torn Syria with their five children. Nearly two years later, the refugee family has arrived in Modesto, its resettlement facilitated by the nonprofit organization World Relief Modesto
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Abdulhamid Jawabra and his wife, Nadin, were forced to flee war-torn Syria with their five children. Nearly two years later, the refugee family has arrived in Modesto, its resettlement facilitated by the nonprofit organization World Relief Modesto

During the waning years of the Obama administration, Sacramento served as a beacon for refugees fleeing war-torn Syria, welcoming dozens of new arrivals each week.

No longer.

The capital accepted 275 Syrian refugees during the 2015-16 fiscal year, according to U.S. State Department data obtained by The Associated Press. So far this fiscal year, it has accepted zero.

Statewide, just 11 Syrian refugees resettled in California between October and March. By comparison, 541 Syrian refugees resettled in California during the same period a year prior.



The decline is part of a broad, national trend heralded by the Trump administration.

Starting early last year, President Donald Trump banned arrivals from several, mostly Muslim countries, cut 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 21,000 refugees this year, the fewest since a 1980 law established the modern resettlement system, and a quarter of those admitted in the final year of Barack Obama's presidency. About 15 percent are Muslim, down from 47 percent a year ago.

Perhaps no group of refugees has been affected as much as those from Syria. Just 42 Syrian refugees resettled in the United States between October and March, down from 5,654 during the same period the previous year.

The United Nations Special Envoy for Syria estimates that 400,000 people have died in the Syria conflict, which is entering its seventh year. More than 10 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes.

Toward the end of his presidency, Obama pledged that the United States would take in more Syrian refugees. In 2016, about 15,500 Syrian refugees resettled in the United States.

During his campaign, Trump said that the quick influx of Syrian refugees into the United States represented a threat to national security.

"They could be ISIS. I don't know," Trump said. "Did you ever see a migration like that? ... I'm putting the people on notice that are coming here from Syria as part of this mass migration: If I win, they are going back."

Kirt Lewis, former head of the Sacramento Refugee Forum and a seven-year veteran of refugee resettlement, said the precipitous drop in Syrian refugees results from the Trump administration's decision to accept far fewer refugees in general.

"This administration is making massive historic cuts to the United States refugee program, with Sacramento continuing to be somewhat of an exception because of the SIVs (Special Immigrant Visa holders) from Afghanistan and Iraq who served with U.S. forces," Lewis said.

The decision to close the door on Syrian refugees is having serious consequences at home and abroad, Lewis said.

"The administration has abandoned some of the world's most vulnerable, desperate people to a very uncertain fate, and at the same time it's done significant damage to a whole infrastructure of public and private support for refugees," said Lewis, co-facilitator for the North America Refugee Highway Partnership, a global faith-based network of church congregations and other nonprofits.

As fewer refugees are accepted, "there have been drastic cuts in public funding to the organizations that resettle refugees that has led to the layoffs of hundreds of people who were extremely passionate and skilled at resettling people," Lewis added.

Both Lewis and Deborah Ortiz, executive director of Opening Doors, a Sacramento refugee resettlement agency, said that the biggest factor behind the decline in Syrian refugees was Trump's travel ban restricting travel to the United States on security grounds. Syria has appeared in each iteration of the travel ban.

In 2016-2017, Opening Doors resettled about 50 Syrian refugees, but the travel ban severely restricted many refugees except SIVs, who are not subject to the travel ban, Ortiz said.

"We were only assigned Syrian refugees if they opted to come here, but that ceased when the travel ban was imposed," Ortiz said.



The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Phillip Reese is the Bee's data specialist and teaches at Sacramento State: 916-321-1137
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