ST. LOUIS • Feras Shahrli came to St. Louis six months ago with his wife and their two young children, eager to carve out a new life thousands of miles from Syria.
But a halt to admitting refugees by President Donald Trump has Shahrli, 25, concerned that he may not be reunited with family members who were in the process of being vetted to join him in the U.S.
“We’re lost. We don’t know what’s going to happen here, or overseas,” Shahrli said Monday, with help from an interpreter. “There is no clear future for them. For us.”
His wife, Gahazl, 24, has immediate family, including her parents and siblings, stuck in the system as federal agencies try to comply with an order from Trump that bans entry into the U.S. for 90 days for people from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Syria, and suspends for four months the U.S. refugee resettlement program. For Syrians, specifically, there will be no entry “until further notice,” Trump said.
Like thousands of other Syrians fleeing civil war, Shahrli family members are in Jordan, waiting on the 18- to 24-month process that refugees must complete before being accepted into the U.S. It was unclear from a conversation with Feras and Gahazl how soon family members had been expected to arrive before the ban was announced.
“She is desperate and crying, talking with her family every day by phone,” Feras said of his wife. Gahazl pulled up on her cellphone the medical records of her father, written in Arabic. She said that debris from a rocket attack on his home injured his shoulder and has made it difficult for him to get around.
After finally escaping from Syria, ravaged by a civil war under the leadership of President Bashar Assad, Feras said he and his family are now stuck in a political battle in the U.S. He fears they could be deported as the Trump administration continues its review of the refugee program.
The Shahrli family was at the International Institute of St. Louis on Monday, where Gahazl is enrolled in English classes. As their son, Samir, 3, and daughter, Mais, 2, fidgeted in their seats, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay stood at a podium and stressed that refugees are welcome in the city. He called Trump’s actions on Friday “un-American and contrary to our values.”
“We are still ready and willing” to accept refugees, Slay said at a news conference at the institute. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Slay, whose paternal grandparents were from Syria, made similar remarks at the institute in September 2015, shortly after President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would take in at least 10,000 displaced Syrians. Slay said the U.S. was built by immigrants.
“As a country, we can use more of that. Our city can use more of that,” Slay said Monday. Then speaking directly to refugees in the room, he said: “You are our neighbors, our friends, our fellow St. Louisans, and we are proud to have you here.”
The International Institute is the largest refugee resettlement agency in the region. Last year, 26 percent, or 276, of the 1,037 refugees the agency resettled came from Syria. The institute was expecting 60 refugees to enter their programs this week but as of Monday afternoon, 53 of those arrivals had been canceled.
Anna Crosslin, CEO and president of the institute, said suspending the refugee program could erode relationships in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan where the U.S. military relies on local people to build roads, serve as interpreters and drivers, and provide medical care. By taking away the promise that they can seek refuge in the U.S., there is no longer a benefit to help our military, she said.
Iranians Mahvash and Faramarz Omidi have been in St. Louis for four months on a tourist visa to visit their daughter, an engineer who graduated from Washington University.
“I’m sad, upset about the decision by Trump,” Mahvash, 55, said. “I’m worried I can’t come here again and can’t see my daughter. This is not a security issue. This is just politics.”
In addition to Iran and Syria, the other Muslim-majority countries on the ban list are Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.
The decision by Trump has led to tremendous opposition, including protests over the weekend at airports across the country, including in St. Louis. And on Monday, Archbishop Robert Carlson weighed in.
“The recent executive order to turn away refugees and to narrow or close our nation’s doors to our migrant sisters and brothers who are fleeing hunger, hardships, violence and persecution does not represent the best of our Catholic and American values and ideals,” Carlson said in a statement released by the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
Carlson stressed that while he appreciates the sensitivity shown to Christians fleeing persecutions, “we are disheartened and alarmed by actions that target and profile others because of the color of their skin, the language they speak, the religion they profess and the land they call home.”