Hours before Donald Trump signed an executive order halting all refugees’ admission to the United States, and banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations, including Syria, Sohir, a forty-four-year-old woman living in Istanbul, was imagining a reunion in America with her son. (Sohir, like other refugees interviewed for this article, requested that her full name not be used, out of fear of jeopardizing her resettlement case.) “I think I’m going to Los Angeles, because my sponsor is there. But I can then go to him in Philadelphia,” she said on Friday. “I won’t bother him in his daily life, but I’ll be close to him if he needs me or if I miss him.”
Sohir had been apart from seventeen-year-old Mohamed, her only child, since September, when he left Istanbul to finish high school in the United States. In 2013, Sohir and Mohamed fled the war-torn city of Homs. They slept on friends’ couches in Istanbul for months, finally saving enough money to rent a closet-sized apartment, where Sohir now lives by herself. “I really feel so lonely without him,” she said.
Mother and son registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, in January, 2014—the first step in the long and complicated process of resettlement. To their relief, their case was referred to the U.S. Both fluent in English, they had hoped to be placed in an English-speaking country, which would allow them to more easily integrate. They then began the intensive vetting process, which culminated in January, 2015, with a three-day course on American culture. “I thought it’s very soon I’m leaving Turkey,” Sohir recalled. “My family travelled to Istanbul to say goodbye.”
The local agency managing their case said to expect information about flights in a matter of weeks, but it never came. Cases can be delayed for a number of reasons. Agencies might decide to run subsequent security checks, and are sometimes simply understaffed. In addition, the Turkish government has intentionally delayed the exit of more than a thousand of the most educated refugees, the Guardian reported last fall, claiming that “the most vulnerable” need to be helped first.
Sohir, who studied journalism at Damascus University, became worried enough to look for alternatives. She encouraged Mohamed to apply for a scholarship that enabled him to file for a student visa to the U.S. He received the visa in August, in the final weeks of the Presidential campaign.
When we spoke on Friday, at a Syrian community center in central Istanbul, where she works, Sohir told me she had heard the rumors about Trump’s immigration orders. But she was trying to stay positive. Even if she were barred from the U.S., she wanted Mohamed to stay there as long as he legally could. “The important thing is for him to make a life,” she said. “He has good grades, and I think his life there will be better than any other place. I hope he can finish high school and college there.”
Sohir admits that the prospect of staying alone in Turkey unnerves her. “At my age, after this war destroyed our lives and took everything away from us, I’m so tired to learn the Turkish language and start again,” she said. “I know I’d have to start again in the United States, but even though my English isn’t very good, I know the basics. If people talk to me, I understand.”
Across the city, just beyond the waters of Istanbul’s iconic Golden Horn, two Syrian sisters living in the conservative neighborhood of Fatih had just learned that their plans to resettle in the U.S. would be halted by Trump’s order. “Isn’t Donald Trump’s wife an immigrant? How can he do what he’s doing?” Rana (a pseudonym), who is twenty-five, asked. She had been a year away from an engineering degree when she and her family fled the war, in 2014. “There was no water, no electricity, no life,” she said, describing the situation in Damascus. “We couldn’t stay.”
Rana sat at a crowded hookah bar with her eighteen-year-old sister, Leen. “We are all so depressed,” Rana said. “My parents worked their whole lives to teach us and give us a good future. And now they’re seeing us sitting around doing nothing.”
Rana and her family completed their cultural-orientation course last March, and, like Sohir and Mohamed, they spent the months that followed waiting for news about their flights. When Rana still hadn’t heard anything by May, she called the refugee agency managing her family’s case, and was reassured that her family would eventually be issued plane tickets to Chicago.
Rana programmed Chicago’s weather on her phone (thirty-one degrees and overcast on Friday). Leen doubled down on her refusal to learn Turkish or pursue friendships in Istanbul. She prefers to chat with Facebook friends in Brooklyn, whom she gets along with better than her conservative neighbors. “I don’t feel like I belong here. I skateboard, I play electric guitar,” she said, with a flawless American accent. “Everyone stares at me, like, ‘What are you doing?’ I can’t wait to go to America.”
Rana is more sober about the possibility that they’ll never get to the United States. Alarmed by the reports last summer that Turkey was withholding exit permits from some more educated Syrians, she began frantically making phone calls to try to expedite her family’s departure. She called refugee-support organizations and pleaded with operators at the U.N.’s call centers. She even searched for Angelina Jolie’s contact information. (“Maybe she can help us—she’s a great humanitarian,” Rana explained.) She protested at the U.N. office in Ankara, and sent e-mails to the office of Senator Dick Durban, of Illinois, along with the refugee-resettlement agency expecting her family in Chicago. No one was able to help her, and that was before Trump signed his order.
On Friday, Chris Boian, a spokesman for the U.N.H.C.R., said that, after Trump’s order, his organization was looking at alternative resettlement options—“of which there are not a lot.”
“Every resettlement place is a very precious opportunity for people, and there are just simply not a lot of them,” he said, pointing out that less than one per cent of the world’s refugees are resettled at all. In a statement released on Monday, the U.N.H.C.R. said that some eight hundred refugees had been immediately affected by Trump’s order—people who, like Rana and her family, were approved to resettle in the U.S. but hadn’t yet made the trip.
Having believed for months that his family would be among the lucky ones, Mohammed Abdul Kader was full of anxiety on Friday.
The fifty-three-year-old father of ten had fled Aleppo with his wife and four youngest children. They were living in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, and they were running out of money. “I’m living in bad conditions. I can’t afford the rent, and there is a hole in my roof. It’s been raining a lot, and a lot of water is coming inside,” he said, speaking by phone.
Kader’s mother, his brother, and his brother’s family had all made it to Michigan. His family was notified, in May, that they would be admitted to the United States, and he was eager to get the four children living with him, aged thirteen to seventeen, back in school. They haven’t attended in six years. “Our last year in Syria, we were moving a lot because of the war, and then in Turkey there were problems enrolling them,” he said. “They want to continue their education.”
Faten Diab, a thirty-four-year-old Syrian living in Kayseri, in central Turkey, who had been awaiting resettlement in Chicago, said she refused to give up hope in the American ideals that had drawn her to the country. “America is the country of freedom,” she said. Her husband, though, said he was “terrified.” With Sohir , who knows him through a social-media group of Syrian refugees, translating his Arabic to English, he explained, over the phone, that he works at least seventy-two hours a week at a steel factory, where he earns less than three hundred dollars a month.
“Here in Turkey, everyone treats me poorly. If I finish my work, no one gives me rest. They tell me to clean the toilets. They are rude to me,” he said. “And I’ve just been trying to be patient until I leave for the United States.” Speaking of the U.S. and U.N.’s refugee-vetting process, he said, “I’ve done what they asked me to do. We’ve been waiting a long, long time to continue our lives.”
When the call was finished, Sohir’s eyes filled with tears. “We are still humans,” she said.