Mohammad is from Saudi Arabia. He sits across from Ibrahim, who is from Sudan. Nearby, three other classmates arrived in the region from Libya, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.
At the St. John’s ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) School in Dayton, people from throughout the world are bonding over a shared goal: to learn English and become part of the community.
Dayton is not known as an international gateway, but it is a destination for a growing number of refugees from war-torn countries. Since 2013, Catholic Social Services of the Miami Valley has helped 868 refugees settle in the region and the numbers have gone up each year.
In 2016, 282 refugees came here from 13 countries, including 43 from the predominantly Muslim countries that were on the Trump administration’s initial travel ban. Those 43 refugees include 28 from Iraq, 14 from Syria and one from Iran.
The bulk of the refugees who arrive here, however, come from Africa, with the Democratic Republic of the Congo leading the way. That one country accounts for more than 40 percent of all refugees who arrived in the Dayton area in the past four years.
Refugees flee their home countries because of armed conflict, sexual violence and hunger, said Michael Murphy, program manager of the Refugee Resettlement Program for Catholic Social Services of the Miami Valley, the official portal through which refugees arrive in the Dayton area.
Opening doors to refugees — or closing them, as some wish to do — has spurred controversy locally and in other parts of the world, and the temperature seems to rise with each new terrorist attack. But advocates say that those who come here do so only after a lengthy vetting process.
Murphy said refugees spend an average of nine years waiting in camps before being cleared to come to the United States.
“It’s multiple checks,” he said. “There’s often kind of a misconception about what the process of resettlement looks like and the timeline.”
Rebecca Williams, coordinator at the St. John’s ESOL School, said more than 400 students pass through the school every year. It’s almost a mini-United Nations, where students come from 50 countries and speak more than 50 languages. Williams says about half of the students are refugees.
“The refugees desperately want to be able to have a job and feed their family and to become contributing members of our community, and they know that learning the English language is a key to be able to do that,” Williams said.
As she entered a low-level English class recently, Williams said, “Good morning. Who is from DR Congo? Raise your hand if you are from Congo.”
About a dozen hands went up.
Among refugees who make Dayton their home, about 80 percent are from countries in Central and East Africa, said Murphy, and about 70 percent of those are from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
‘Just like a cage’
Abdi Ahmed fled civil war in his native Somalia and spent eight years in a refugee camp in Kenya before coming to Dayton. He describes his experience in the camp as “just like a cage which is opened up.”
His family is still in that cage — the Hagadera camp in Dadaab, Kenya; at nearly 106,000 refugees, the Hagadera camp is the second most crowded in the world, according to Refugee Council USA.
Ahmed’s wife, Kordyo; 7-year old daughter, Hamdi; and 3-year old son, Ibrahim, were due to arrive in Dayton Feb. 2. Their resettlement process was delayed, however, because of the initial Trump administration travel ban, which put a 120-day hold on all refugee arrivals.
Ahmed works as a truck driver. He votes and pays taxes and says, “I love this country.” When asked why he wants his family to come here, he doesn’t hesitate. “I want them to get a better life.”
Their current life is one of extremely limited opportunity, Ahmed explained. His family members are Somalian, but turmoil in that country means they can’t go back there. They have little freedom to travel within Kenya either, and are basically confined to the camp, where they live in a tent, get their running water from one of the two faucets that serve their block and subsist largely on the maize, beans, flour and oil that is provided by USAID, the World Food Programme and similar charitable organizations.
Children can attend school through 12th grade, Ahmed said, but they can’t go on to college or get a job. The camp has a health clinic, but most medicine is available only to the refugees whose families can afford it. Ahmed helps out when he can, sending money and visiting every two or three years. He wishes he could do more, but a single visit costs him $2,500 to $3,000.
“There’s no life” for the refugees,” Ahmed said. “The only hope they have” is to come to America or a European country. If they don’t get out, “they die like that.”
His family’s status is still in flux. After a federal appeals court blocked Trump’s initial executive order, the president signed a revised order on March 6, removing Iraq from the list of nations affected by the 120-day hold. But that order, too, was blocked, this time by a judge in Hawaii. The administration is appealing the ruling.
Ahmed understands the travel ban on refugees is intended to keep out terrorists but argues that refugees are victims of terrorism.
“Everywhere there’s bad people, but I don’t think a small baby can be a terrorist,” he said.
The vetting process for refugees starts with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which then shares that information with the U.S. State Department and with about 30 other countries that provide refugee resettlement services, Murphy said.
“People are checking backgrounds, they’re identifying who people are, they’re making sure that all of the information that is provided is accurate,” he said. “If the information can’t be verified, the person doesn’t move forward.”
When refugees are allowed to enter the United States, they’re connected to one of nine agencies, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, of which Murphy’s organization is an affiliate. He said the refugees are then filtered through those affiliates.
“Before they come to Dayton, we get allocated a certain number of people that will be coming based on the information that we provide back to that national office,” he said.
On average, Murphy said, Catholic Social Services of the Miami Valley resettles between 250 and 400 refugees a year.
Once an individual or family comes to Dayton, a Catholic Social Services representative picks them up at the airport, helps them find housing and connects them to the various programs aimed at helping them become economically self-sufficient. Murphy said the U.S. refugee resettlement program is based specifically on economic self-sufficiency.
“So when individuals and families come to the U.S., all social service programming is built on breaking down barriers in order to build the foundation for them so that they are able to find employment,” Murphy said. “What previous experience did they have and how can we build on that so that they can be self-sufficient and independent?”
In explaining why refugee arrivals have been delayed even after the travel bans were blocked in the courts, Murphy said, “It isn’t something that you can turn on and off like a faucet. When we are given a stop date, the system stops.”
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear the Trump administration’s appeal of the injunction against the latest travel ban during a May 15 hearing in Seattle.
Ahmed hopes a door will be cracked open allowing the rest of his family to join him in the place where he has made his home for nearly two decades.
But there are no guarantees, and Murphy said he can give him little information other than to hope for the best.
“So,” said Murphy, “his wife will wait, his children will wait, and he will wait.”