Istarlin Abdi Halane was thrilled when she found out she’d been chosen to resettle in the United States.
“Maybe after all, my dream is really valid and it’s going to come true,” she thought.
The dream had been a long time coming. Abdi Halane, 28, fled war in her native Somalia as a child. She’d spent most of her life in Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya: marrying at 15, a mother of two by 20, divorced by 25. All that time, waiting to find out where she’d be able to build her life.
Finally, last year, she got an answer.
“I was so happy when I got the letter,” she said in an interview in mid-May. “I had many friends from America. I saw they’re really nice people. If I’m going to America, then it’s the best thing.”
Still, the US presidential election that was going on at the time made her nervous. She was troubled by what Republican candidate Donald Trump had to say about immigrants — refugees and Muslims in particular. He kicked off his campaign declaring Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “criminals”; he later called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
Abdi Halane thought, “If he can think like this now in an election, what will happen if he becomes a president?”
She soon found out: During his first weeks in office, President Trump issued his “travel ban” executive order. It affected her doubly: As a Somali, the order barred her from entering the US for 90 days; as a refugee, it blocked her for 120 days.
“Maybe I’m the unluckiest person in this world,” she thought on the day she saw the news.
She didn’t sleep at all that night.
Trump’s ban has been challenged in court successfully; the order is not currently in effect. Since Trump became president, thousands of refugees have been resettled in the US. However, Abdi Halane’s case remains in limbo as she waits to renew her medical certification. All she can do is check her status online.
The anti-refugee rhetoric has taken its toll, on Abdi Halane and others like her.
“People don’t know how personally people are taking this,” said Melanie Nezer, head of public affairs at the immigrant-aid group HIAS. “All they want is to seek safety. Being painted as a danger or a threat — they take it very personally.”
And Abdi Halane is taking this personally.
“The only dream that I had, Trump shuttered it,” she said.
America might be a different place than she thought.
Here, in her own words, she describes the pain of realizing she is a refugee; the joy she felt at learning she was chosen to come to the United States; and the uncertainty faces now that Trump is president.
The images are a typical morning in Abdi Halane’s household, waking up at sunrise, making breakfast, and walking her daughters to school.
When she first realized she was a refugee
I was 13 when I realized I was a refugee. I was going to a boarding school that was a 25-minute walk from the refugee camp. Other kids would say, “You’re just a refugee; just go back where you came from. This is not your land. This is our land.”
That’s when it hit me: “Oh, so I’m a refugee.”
I would sit down and cry and cry. My English teacher was my favorite teacher. She would come and talk to me.
“You know what? Being a refugee is okay. It’s just a status — it can change any time,” she told me. “Maybe you will go back to your country; maybe you will go to another country. Your status will change.”
After that, I became bright, and whenever the other kids would tease me, I’d say, “It’s just a status, so don’t worry — I will get my education and it will change.”
A decade and a half later, it looked like her status was finally about to change
It had been years since my interviews with the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. I’d stopped checking my status — I didn’t want to keep on coming back every evening heartbroken. But one day a friend said to me, “There are a lot of submission letters from the US, and I’ve seen your name. Everyone else picked up theirs a long time ago. What happened? It’s like you don’t want to leave the camp.”
I went home in the evening and I showed my daughters the letter.
My older daughter, Naima, said, “We’ll be Americans when we go there. We’re going to have our documents there. I’ll be Naima. I’ll be a Somali American. You know what, Mum? I will no longer be a refugee.”
Abdi Halane watched the 2016 election closely — and assumed Hillary Clinton would win
I was following the election on the internet.
I was 100 percent sure Clinton will win. I was really happy because I really love women leaders. It motivates and gives you courage — like if she made it, you can make it too.
I never liked the way Mr. Trump was talking.
He said he will always put America first, and one of the first things that he will do is he will deport any illegal immigrants that are in his country and no immigrants will be coming to America. That’s what hit me so hard — that and the wall that he said he’s going to build in Mexico.
I said, “If he can think like this now in an election, what will happen if he becomes a president?”
When she found out Trump had won, she worried that she wouldn’t be able to resettle in America after all
The day they announced the results of the election, I was at a conference on girls and education in a nearby town called Lokichogio, on the border between Kenya and Sudan.
I was in the conference hall of the hotel where we were staying, but my mind was on the counting of the votes that was going on halfway around the world. I kept leaving the conference hall to check the hotel television. Each time I saw Trump ahead of Hillary, I got sick to my stomach.
But I didn’t believe he would win until he came out and said, “I won,” and Clinton accepted that. That’s when it hit me. I went to my room and cried so hard.
I was crying because this guy, he never liked refugees. Because I knew once he is the president, I would never go to the United States. I thought, “The only dream that I had, Trump shattered it.” The moment he was chosen, that was the end of me. I was like, “I don’t think I’ll ever go there.”
Then I was crying because my children didn’t know about this election and these political things. They were excited that anytime soon, we would be resettled in America. So what am I going to tell them?
The next day I went home, and I kept quiet at first. I was like, “Let me first be okay; then I can talk to them.”
I said, “Naima and Malyum, do you know what? The new president that the American people have chosen, he is a guy who doesn’t like refugees. I don’t know how our case will be processed. I don’t know if we’re going or not.”
How Trump’s win changed her view of America
I wondered, “What happened to the American people?” Because most of them that I meet, they’re nice people, they’re so friendly. And it’s America that makes the largest donations to the UNHCR. They’re the main people who provide food, everything for the refugees. I wondered how they could choose such a person.
So I asked an American friend of mine: “What is going on with your people?”
She said, “It’s a question many of us have been asking,” and she tried to explain to me: “People got tired of the Democrats. They wanted a change — it’s not Trump they voted for; they voted because of the parties.”
That made sense to me.
When Trump announced his refugee ban in late January, her fears were realized
I found out about the ban from reading the online news on my phone. At the same time, my friends from America were texting and calling. They knew I was almost there; they were waiting for me. They kept on calling: “Istarlin, Istarlin, I’m sorry.”
I thought, “Maybe I’m the unluckiest person in this world. Every time my things work out, something will happen.”
I just felt bad the whole night. I couldn’t sleep.
The next day, I had more messages from my friends in America. They said, “Istarlin, don’t worry! We’re going to fight this ban. We as American people, we own the country. It’s not his country; it’s our country. We will fight this ban, and nobody is on his side.”
I was like, “It’s okay. If I’m meant one day to come to America, then I will come. If it’s not, it’s not.”
Her daughters ask when things are going to change — and she doesn’t have an answer
If it were just me, I would try to forget. But the kids keep on reminding me, “Mum, when are things going to change?”
Sometimes you don’t have an answer. You pretend you never heard that question; you try to dodge the subject and talk about something else. But the girls are too smart for that. They keep on asking.
“I just asked you a question, what’s up with our case, is there anything new, are we really going?”
The elder one says sometimes, “You know what, Mum, I think I should stop thinking about this.”
Then I tell her, “Yes, that’s for the better.”
But the smaller one doesn’t understand that. She keeps on asking me, “Mum, when are we going, are we ever going? Or maybe we’re going to stay in Kakuma forever. I don’t like Kakuma. Kakuma is not a nice place to be.”
I tell her, “In life, you have to be patient.”
She says, “Okay, Mum, I’m a big girl. I’ll be patient.”
I say, “Okay, that’s good for me.”