On a Sunday afternoon in June 2014, Lenny Ndayisaba finally got the call he'd been awaiting for so long. A longtime inhabitant of a refugee camp in Rwanda, the twenty-one-year-old Congolese native learned he'd be boarding a plane to North Carolina at one o'clock the next afternoon. He burst into tears.
"It took so long," he recalls.
Indeed, Ndayisaba and his family had been living in the Gihembe refugee camp for eighteen years, almost his entire life, crowded among untold thousands of his countrymen. They'd fled the eastern part of what was then called Zaire in 1996 to escape the chaos of the First Congo War and the destabilization wrought by the Rwandan genocide. That wave of refugees was followed by more, and more after them. By 2013 so many Congolese were packed into the five Rwandan camps built to accommodate them—at least twenty-five thousand came in 2012 alone, following unrest in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, on top of forty-three thousand already there—that the Rwandan government announced that the camps were full.
Conditions were dire. Food and water were scarce. The sick would wait months for medical care. Ndayisaba and his family lived in makeshift tents that flooded during the rainy season, keeping them up all night.
"It was a very challenging time," he says. "We lived a very bad life in the refugee camp."
Ndayisaba, a reed-thin man with a soft voice and softer eyes, has seen big changes in his life since Gihembe, when he would sit and wonder if he would ever make it out. He's now a Chapel Hill resident, a student at Durham Tech, a comfortable English speaker, and an employee at Christian World Services, one of several local agencies that helps resettle refugees like himself. Despite his own gains, though, he can't help but think of family and friends still living in that camp—especially given the news of President Trump's recent executive order, which, among other things, suspends all refugee admissions to the United States for the next 120 days.
For Ndayisaba, the implications are personal. His two older sisters still live in Ghimebe. Ndayisaba doesn't have the heart to tell them about the new policy.
"I can't call them and say, you know what, you're not coming here," he says. "They know how we live, they know that now our family is fine, comfortable, and proud of the life we have made in North Carolina. And they wish they could be like us right now. And that's why I can't call and explain to them. This is something that is going to make people again feel like they are forgotten by God."
The executive order does much more than temporarily block refugees. It indefinitely suspends the Syrian refugee program and prohibits all citizens or nationals of seven majority-Muslim countries—Syria, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, Iran, and Iraq—from entering the United States for ninety days. (This originally appeared to include green card holders, but the Trump administration walked that back over the weekend.) It also cuts in half the number of refugees who will be admitted to the United States in 2017, from 110,000 last year to just 50,000 this year.
The order, signed late Friday afternoon and quickly derided by critics as a "Muslim ban," kicked off a firestorm of protest over the weekend. Tens of thousands gathered at airports all over the country—including fifteen hundred at Raleigh-Durham International Airport on Sunday, who chanted, "Refugees are welcome here," and, "We the people, united, will never be defeated."
RDU protest organizer Mia Ives-Rublee told the INDY Sunday that the effects of Trump's order will be felt among the Triangle's immigrant populations. "They're not going to be able to study, to work, to provide for their families and reunite with their families under this policy," she said. "I know a couple of LGBTQ people who came here based on the fact they were being persecuted in their countries. They're scared they could be deported."
So far, the executive order has not fared well in court. At least five federal judges have ruled against parts of the order, and on Monday, then-acting attorney general Sally Yates, a holdover from the Obama administration, instructed lawyers at the U.S. Department of Justice not to defend the ban in court. Trump immediately fired her.
Amid the outcry, Trump defended the order on the grounds of national security, saying it was not a Muslim ban but instead that it was "about terror and keeping our country safe." He blamed the media for the furor and insisted that America under his watch would continue to show "compassion to those fleeing oppression."
These are uncertain times for the world's estimated twenty million refugees, comprising the largest refugee crisis since World War II, owing in part to massive displacement due to the Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIS. The Obama administration acknowledged the unprecedented nature of the crisis by increasing the U.S. resettlement target for 2017 by more than 30 percent, to more than one hundred thousand refugees. For decades, the United States has been a global leader in refugee resettlement. The program has often boasted bipartisan support and has long been a fixture of U.S. foreign policy.
Trump's executive order represents a staggering departure—and the global refugee population is reeling.
"We open our arms to refugees. This order flies in the face of that," says Scott Phillips, director of the North Carolina office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, which in its decade of existence has resettled about three thousand refugees in the Tar Heel State.
USCRI planned to resettle three refugees this week. Two were from banned countries, so the order precluded that. The third is more fortunate; he's from the Congo. Because he's already been approved as a refugee and had flight plans, Phillips says, he's allowed in. But for those the USCRI has already settled, including the 370 it brought here last year, the order raises a number of uncertainties: What's going to happen to my daughter? My mother? Will they be able to come over? That, Phillips says, is the real "punch in the gut."
"Real Americans are speaking out," Phillips says. "That's not who we are. And that's been really touching to the families that are here, to see one thousand people at RDU."