Syrian Refugees in R.I. Feel Strain of Family Separation


Mental stress is escalating for the 136 Syrian refugees resettled in Rhode Island as hope of bringing their loved ones to the U.S. fades under the Trump administration’s increasingly hard-line stance toward immigration.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Mohamed Alshawaf appeared much older than his 70 years as he spoke about the trials his family is enduring.

“Every day, my wife won’t go to sleep unless she talks to our children over there,” Alshawaf, a Syrian refugee who came to the U.S. via Egypt in 2015, said in Arabic. “When she does, she is crying all the time.”

Alshawaf’s family is among 136 Syrian refugees resettled in Rhode Island, according to the Refugee Processing Center, a division of the U.S. Department of State. That community feels under siege following the U.S. Supreme Court’s upholding of a near total travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries, including Syria, in June, as well as a January decision not to extend Temporary Protected Status to Syrians who arrived in the U.S. after August 2016.

Their stress intensified in September, when the Trump administration announced that it would only accept 30,000 refugees in the 2019 fiscal year — 15,000 fewer than the limit set for 2018.

The Alshawafs have 16 children and grandchildren living in both Syria and the refugee camps of southern Turkey who are unable to come to the U.S. Some live in Hama, which has escaped much of the conflict of Syria’s civil war. But family members near his native Idlib have not been able to avoid the violence.

“We were hoping to reunite with the rest of our family here,” Alshawaf said. “But then, gradually, we are finding that this reunion is becoming more difficult every day. At this moment, we are very sad. ... After this, there is not much hope.”

In 2013, his profitable clothing store and home in Idlib province were destroyed in a bombardment by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s forces. He spent time with family in Egypt, selling socks to help with the rent in an overcrowded two-bedroom apartment, before United Nations and U.S. authorities granted Alshawaf and six family members permission to move to the United States. He’d hoped that more family members would follow, but that hope was dashed by the September announcement.

Omar Bah, executive director of Providence’s Refugee Dream Center, said the actual number of refugees admitted in 2019 will likely be much lower than the reduced cap of 30,000, judging from the disparity between the 2018 cap of 45,000 and the 22,491 refugees admitted through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. Based on that gap, Bah estimates that about 12,000 will be admitted in 2019, which he calls “a very big problem and a betrayal of refugees.”

Kathleen Cloutier, executive director of Dorcas International Institute, said that Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban” and the reduction in refugee admissions are increasing mental strife among populations — especially Syrians — trying to reunite with their families.

Samir Soulaiman, sitting outside a Providence tea house in his flowing white robe, agreed with that assessment.

“I would say that all of them have mental issues now,” said Soulaiman, the treasurer of AHOPE, a refugee-aid organization founded at Masjid al-Kareem in Providence’s South End. “You can tell that they are not at rest. ... They say, ‘We do not know when [Trump] is going to wake up and tweet and we might be forced to leave.’”

Read the entire story featuring grantee Refugee Dream Center.