Ali Said fled war-torn Somalia two decades ago after his right leg was blown off by a grenade. Last year, the father of seven was shot in his other leg by robbers while living in a Kenyan refugee camp.
Said rolled his wheelchair up to a desk in an office hours after arriving in California from Kenya, saying he felt unbelievably lucky: He and his family are among the last refugees allowed into the United States before the Trump administration’s latest travel ban rules kick in.
“Until this moment, in this interview, I still don’t believe that I’m in the United States,” Said told The Associated Press through a translator Thursday at the International Rescue Committee’s office in San Diego, smiling while his two sons hung at the back of his wheelchair.
“So during the flight, we all were saying that we are in a dream and it’s not true yet until we finally landed at LAX, and we all said to each other: ‘Yeah, we’re finally here. We made it,’” he said.
The U.S. refugee program will be suspended Wednesday when a cap of 50,000 refugee admissions for the fiscal year — the lowest in a decade — was expected to be reached, according to the U.S. State Department.
Once the cap is hit, only refugees who have a relationship with an immediate family member or ties to a business in the United States will be eligible for admission during the 120-day suspension, State Department guidelines say.
Those guidelines come after the Supreme Court partially reinstated President Donald Trump’s executive order banning citizens of six mainly Muslim countries and refugees from coming into the U.S.
The high court’s ruling allowed for an exemption: Those with a “bona fide” relationship to the United States. Under State Department guidelines, that connection was defined as an immediate family member such as a parent, spouse, child, sibling or a business.
Said is aware of the difference a week could have made. He, his wife and children, ages 2 to 15, have no ties to the U.S. beyond the refugee resettlement agency, which the U.S. government says is not sufficient.
“I was afraid our case would be closed,” he said. “It would have been a rough life.”
He said refugees at the Kakuma refugee camp where he lived have talked every day about the travel ban since it was first issued in January.
It was blocked several times by U.S. courts before the Supreme Court partially reinstated it in June. The Trump administration says the travel ban is necessary to keep Americans safe and to allow the federal government to review the vetting process for refugees and others.
Advocates say the ban will close the doors on many of the most vulnerable.
A record 65 million people are displaced by war and persecution worldwide, according to the U.N. refugee agency. It selects the most at-risk refugees to be recommended to governments for resettlement, typically including victims of gender-based violence, LGBT refugees, members of political opposition groups and people with medical issues.
But the new requirements could mean many of those refugees could be passed over for those who have an immediate family member already in the United States.
“This is part of the disconnect now,” said David Murphy, executive director of the International Rescue Committee’s San Diego office. “We identify families based upon need and now they have to have a U.S. tie.”
Said, who spent eight years being vetted for refugee resettlement, had feared he would never leave Kakuma, a 25-year-old camp that is home to about 172,000 refugees.
About a year ago, robbers broke into his home at the camp and tried to rape his wife, he said.
Said, who was on crutches after losing his right leg to a grenade explosion in 1993, was shot in his good leg while fighting off the men. A neighbor who came to their aid shot one of the robbers to death. Said’s children were home at the time.
The shooting left him with a fractured hip, and it still has not healed. He plans to get medical help now that he is in the United States.
They will spend the next three months working closely with the International Rescue Committee, taking English classes, getting adjusted culturally and finding an apartment.
The family will get $10,125 in one-time federal assistance to cover the costs of rent, food and other expenses for nine people to get settled — though they must start paying back their airfare to the U.S. government within six months after their arrival.
Said says he looks forward to his future now.
On his first night in his new country, Said and his family said they slept peacefully in a San Diego motel. But the feelings of happiness and relief are tinged with sadness, too.
“I don’t like it that others like me won’t be able to make it here,” he said. “The life there is so hard. No matter how hard you work, you don’t have enough to meet your basic needs.”