Hundreds of Somali refugees in Kenya who were days from traveling to the US to start new lives under a longstanding resettlement programme have been told they cannot travel, after Donald Trump’s executive order banned migrants from seven Muslim-majority countries for three months.
The refugees, who have all been rigorously screened by US and UN officials, have waited for between seven and 10 years for their resettlement to be approved and organised.
Some had already checked in for the flight to their new homes in the US when they were told they would not be allowed to board the plane. Others had travelled to Nairobi with children ready to leave.
“These are people who have packed their bags, emptied their bank accounts, sold all their goods and said their goodbyes. Then they hear they are not going to the US after all,” said one aid worker in Nairobi.
In all, up to 26,000 people who hoped to travel to the US have been hit by the new measure. The total includes those cleared for imminent travel, as well as those whose applications are under review.
Aden Abdi Ganey, a 58-year-old refugee scheduled to fly this week with his seven children to live in Arizona, described the executive order as “a disaster”.
There were emotional scenes at a transit camp in Nairobi run by the US government as families who were expecting to travel were told the bad news. .
Representatives from UN agencies in the Kenyan capital are scheduled to meet local government officials on Tuesday in an attempt to resolve the problem, and aid agencies are organising counselling for distraught families.
Approximately 3,000 refugees are scheduled to be resettled in the US from camps in northern Kenya this year, the majority from Dadaab, a sprawling tent city where an estimated 300,000 Somalis live.
Many of those at the camp had arrived on Friday – the day Trump signed his executive order to restrict Somali refugees and immigrants entering the US.
Muhumad Yusuf Dhaqane, 37, had come with his wife and three children from Dadaab after nearly five years, and dozens of interviews with UN and US officials. He had received tickets from the International Organisation for Migrations (IOM) for a flight on Saturday to Texas via Amsterdam.
“I was always dreaming to be American because during our cultural orientation class, we heard that in America that all people are the same with equal rights whether you are Muslim, Christian or Jew or others. I heard that there is neither discrimination nor racism – if you are black or white you have equal rights in America,” Dhaqane said.
“How can I go back to that refugee camp? I gave out my mattress, my sheets and all my belongings to other people there. Even I sold my small shelter which was sticks and iron sheets so where will I live? Donald Trump killed me for good. He killed my dream and my future”
There are now fears that even those cleared for a new life in the US may face a return to Somalia, a war-torn country where Islamist militants have launched attacks on a multinational military force trying to bring stability and international agencies have warned of famine.
Kenyan authorities have pledged to shut the Dadaab camp and send its inhabitants back to Somalia as soon as May, only weeks after the temporary ban imposed by Trump’s executive order expires.
“We are refugees, we cannot return back to our country, this host country of Kenya is pushing us to move out and the US president does not want us in his country. What can we do? Nothing. If he does not want Muslims, then we hope God will help us,” Ganey said.
Ganey has lived in Dadaab since civil war broke out in Somalia in 1991, and applied for a place in the US refugee resettlement programme seven years ago. After a process of rigorous screening by UN and US officials, his clearance for immigration came through last October.
He had not heard from the resettlement officers who dealt with his case since Trump’s executive order.
Hajira Jilaow, 46, has been staying with her six daughters at the transit centre in Nairobi for the past 10 days after travelling on a chartered UN flight from her refugee camp .
“We have all documents. We are real refugees. I was waiting for five years. I have endured much but I was always optimistic that I will have a brighter future once I am resettled in the U.S. But unfortunately we were told … that the US President does not allow refugees into his country. I am shocked. I used to hear America always protects vulnerable people and cares about human rights. But I do not think that is true now as this happened to us,” Jilaow said.
As many as 10,000 Somalis residing all over Africa were to be resettled in the US this year, according to the US State Department. The total was a slight increase on the previous year. Almost all are Muslim.
“If I could speak to Donald Trump, I would tell him about my plight so he understands this situation and remove the ban on us, because we are innocent people. We are not bad people. We are just refugees looking for safety,” Jilaow said.
In Somalia, there was anger and confusion, with many unclear about the exact details of the new measure.
Mohamed Omar, a member of Somalia’s federal parliament and a UK citizen who frequently visits his mother and other close family members in Minnesota, said he was very worried.
“I have spoken to my mum as I heard that people travelling in were detained in US airports. She is very concerned and warned me not to travel. It is good to screen people and to do background checks, but I do not see a right to ban a whole race and to impose religious tests in this modern world.”
There are thought to be a dozen Somali parliamentarians with dual nationality – mostly Somali-European – and who have families in the US.
Nasra Shekh Buna, a Somali-Kenyan in the the Somali judiciary who has spent most of the year training in Wisconsin on a fellowship, said she could not return after a short break in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.
“I have been following the news reports but I have never thought of being banned. I have sought for clarifications and I got to know from Turkish Airlines in Mogadishu that I am unable to travel as long as this order is in place.
“I do not know how this will help the innocent people of both countries. America has interests in Somalia and Somalia needs the US support. I think Mr Trump has never thought [about] the relations of our two countries.”
Sudan was also named in Trump’s order. On Sunday the Sudanese foreign ministry summoned the US chargé d’affaires in Khartoum to protest against the measure.
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the head of the African Union commission, called for solidarity in an address to African leaders in Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. “We are entering very turbulent times. The very country to which many of our people were taken as slaves during the transatlantic slave trade has now decided to ban refugees from some of our countries.
“What do we do about this? Indeed, this is one of the greatest challenges to our unity and solidarity,” she said.