The children had been pulled out of school. Belongings were stuffed into four suitcases and the long flights were booked. After fleeing conflict in Syria and finding brief refuge in Erbil, Iraq, the family — mother, father and six children ranging from seven months to 12 years old — was ready for its new start. On Feb. 6, following years of screening and a long-awaited green light to enter as refugees, they would land in Washington, D.C.
The president of the United States had different plans.
The now-infamous “travel ban” executive order, signed Jan. 27, blocked all refugees from entering the United States, placing this family — and thousands of others — in limbo. Over 6,000 miles away, its sponsoring community, the Holy Trinity parish in Georgetown, scrambled to respond, drawing up contingency plans and lobbying to permit the family’s entry.
Four weeks later, the fallout settled into a happy ending. A federal judge overturned the ban, and the family — whose name is withheld at Holy Trinity’s request to protect its safety and privacy — safely arrived in Virginia on Feb. 16, beginning the task of adjusting to its new home.
However, as the White House plans to release an updated executive order to replicate the ban this week, these family members may be the rare lucky ones. Their story provides a look into the grueling refugee admission process and the desperate uncertainty provoked by the ban, but it also demonstrates the ability of a robust civil society to inspire change in a democracy.
A POPE’S CALL
Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, more than 450,000 people have died. The war has displaced more than 12 million people from their homes, and about 5 million have left the country as refugees.
While neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan house the vast majority of refugees, the extent of the crisis has spilled into Europe and the United States. Concern peaked in summer 2015, particularly when the picture of a drowned Syrian child washed ashore on a Turkish beach featured across the front pages of most major newspapers.
In this fervor, Pope Francis delivered a call to Catholics, asking “every” religious community and parish to take in one refugee family, according to The Washington Post in September 2015.
“Give them a concrete hope,” the pope said in a speech to a crowd gathered in Vatican City last September.
A PARISH’S RESPONSE
At the corner of 36th and N streets NW, the parish of Holy Trinity Catholic Church heard its fellow Jesuit’s appeal.
“I’ve been really moved since the beginning of Pope Francis’ papacy,” Chris Crawford, a parishioner and one of two coordinators of the family’s resettlement effort, said. “We’re called to accompany people in need; not just provide for them, but to be with them.”
A few families in the community contacted Kate Tromble, the parish’s pastoral associate for social justice, who began contacting organizations to orchestrate a response. By summer 2016, the parish found Lutheran Social Services, one of nine resettlement agencies in the United States, and its Good Neighbor program, which allows communities to provide support to refugee families throughout the first year of their arrival in the United States.
“We had a huge response [from our community] and just started organizing from there,” said Lauren Roy, the other coordinator of the resettlement effort. “We picked the highest level [of assistance], which is housing the family and providing 12 months of support, housing, furnishings – everything they need to get started.”
The parish did not know when exactly a family would be assigned to them, but they would have a month’s notice. In preparation, more than 100 volunteers pitched in, organizing themselves into seven teams to provide for needs from transportation to housing to employment.
In early January, they received a call from Lutheran Social Services. The family was ready. But, while Holy Trinity had been preparing for a family of four, this one was larger.
“Six children and mom and dad, and dad has a disability,” Roy said. “They knew it was a big ask, but our team leadership overwhelmingly came back with support. This is our family, and we said, ‘Yes.’”
A GOVERNMENT’S APPROVAL
On the other side of the planet, the family had successfully passed a strenuous application process.
After a refugee family is registered by the United Nations Refugee Agency and referred to the U.S. Department of State, it then undergoes a series of security checks by major law enforcement and intelligence agencies, in-person interviews, biometric checks, a cultural orientation and a final medical check. The process from registration with UNHCR to final approval usually takes 18 to 24 months.
While there are currently 21.3 million refugees in the world, according to UNHCR, the United States caps its annual refugee intake at 110,000 refugees. In the past four months, about 10,000 have been approved from Iraq and Syria.
One of those was the eight-member family sponsored by Holy Trinity. Then came the travel ban.
A PRESIDENT’S BAN
“We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country and deeply love our people,” Trump said during the signing ceremony for an executive order that, among other restrictions, indefinitely suspended the Syrian refugee program.
The family had passed every screening and interview, but, in a sudden late-Friday move, it was stranded. It soon became clear that Holy Trinity’s welcoming ceremony Feb. 6 would have no one to welcome.
“We had to quickly prepare for a plan B,” said Fr. Kevin Gillespie, S.J., the pastor at Holy Trinity.
More accurately, plans B, C and D. On the night of Feb. 6, what would have been a celebratory Mass instead turned into a vigil for the family. Earlier in the day, children from the Holy Trinity school — from four to 14 years old — marched through the Georgetown neighborhood, including on university grounds, singing songs and holding signs to support refugees and immigrants.
The next day, 10 adult parishioners — some of whom work for government agencies — attended meetings on Capitol Hill to lobby members of Congress, including Senators Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Ben Cardin (R-Md.) and Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.).
“We just laid out the story about how this impacts not only these families but also religious organizations who accompany these families when they come here,” Roy said. “People took the day off work to come together and tell those stories.”
In case the ban was upheld, the parish contacted Lutheran Social Services to find a possible backup country for the family, exploring options in Canada and Afghanistan.
“It was a really sad few days,” Crawford said. “We really felt like we were not going to have this family get here.”
Then, news from across the country: The ban had been temporarily struck down nationally by Judge James Robart (LAW ’73) in the state of Washington on Feb. 4, a decision that was upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Feb. 9. Travel was possible once more.
“We were counting the hours and days to get them on that plane,” Gillespie said.
In Erbil, the family took off, stopping over in Amman, Jordan, before arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, where the family went through customs.
“We actually have parishioners who had a law firm in New York City that sent two young lawyers to spy on the arrivals terminal to know that they were able to walk through,” Roy said.
At 11:25 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 16, after 30 hours of travel, weeks of stress and unthinkable months of struggle, the family members landed at Dulles International Airport. Holy Trinity parishioners were there to greet them, and their new life was ready to begin.
A FAMILY’S NEW START
Over the next 12 months, Holy Trinity plans to support the family throughout its adjustment: excursions to the grocery store, meals, explanation of the electronic benefits card provided by the government, transportation to any appointment, English as a second language classes and networks to find employment.
For now, though, the family, which communicates with parishioners through WhatsApp and Google Translate, is resting with a “great sense of peace and joy,” Gillespie said.
“They really can’t believe it,” Crawford said. “They’ve compared [the experience] to being in hell and now being in paradise.”
Currently, they are residing for free in an Airbnb for two weeks through Airbnb’s refugee program as they wait to move into their new house in Virginia. Their lease begins March 1 — Ash Wednesday.
“This is a real interfaith effort for us. It is a Muslim family being processed by Lutheran Social Services with a Catholic parish, and we’re getting potential support from a Jewish temple,” Gillespie said. “There’s a lot of fear in the culture now. And one of the ways to combat fear is with faith and justice, working together.”
After hearing the story, other parishes have gotten in contact about organizing similar efforts; Georgetown University students, through the advocacy group Heed the Call, launched a petition last week for the university to sponsor a family. A well-organized and flexible group is indispensable for resettlement agencies, according to Foy.
“They are processing hundreds of refugees from all over the world,” Roy said of the resettlement agencies. “They can process more if they have more help and volunteer work.”
How many refugees will be allowed into the United States remains an open question. According to POLITICO, the Trump administration is expected to sign a new executive order this week leaving open the Syrian refugee program but increasing the stringency of an already rigorous vetting process.
The overwhelming response to the original travel ban demonstrated the capacity of civil society to organize in response to perceived injustice from its government. At a smaller level, the efforts of Holy Trinity showed something similar.
“It’s the beginning of a new chapter in the family’s lives,” Fr. Gillespie said. “Through them we’re learning so much of how we’re part of a response — a small response but a significant one, nevertheless.”
Correction: This article previously misspelled the name of one of the resettlement coordinators. Her last name is Roy, not Foy.