If President-elect Donald Trump’s harshest line on refugees would come to pass — if he could “send them back” — this block of neighbors in Independence would not stand for it.
“We would do all in our power to keep them here,” Jeff Rogers said.
Not everyone here felt that way about Syrian refugees before Ibraheem Alkhwaja and Enas Hajah popped up with their four young sons in a rented house in late September.
None of these neighbors are Muslim. None speaks any Arabic.
At least one voted for Trump.
“You could spend years learning what we’ve learned in the last few weeks,” Trump supporter Scott Lininger said.
“It’s changed my thoughts on the original feelings I had.”
It’s not easy finding a quick home for a family with four sons. Their sponsoring agency, Della Lamb, knew this hasty placement was not convenient, said Fariz Turkmani, a Syrian-American who has helped the agency support its Syrian refugees.
The family has no transportation. This house in western Independence was 10 miles from Della Lamb’s services in Kansas City’s Northeast area neighborhood.
“They had no cars, no one around them to speak Arabic,” Turkmani said. The agency offered to keep looking for something closer in, he said, but Alkhwaja, the family’s father, quickly said no.
That’s because they found something on this block that eases some of the deep grief of leaving family and friends behind, Alkhwaja said in Arabic, translated by Turkmani.
“God,” he said, “has put us among another family.”
All of them — the refugee Syrians and their neighbors — join those in the U.S. and abroad who are watching intently for hints of what actions the Trump administration will or won’t take after Jan. 20.
Obama has raised the allotment to 110,000 for fiscal 2017, which began Oct. 1. The U.S. had brought in nearly 16,000 refugees toward that goal by mid-November.
Trump could roll that number down his first day in office, even to zero, said Doris Meissner, a senior fellow and director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.
During the campaign, Trump at different times promised to block admission of any Muslim refugees, or to stop refugees from terror-prone nations.
In a New Hampshire rally last year, Trump declared, “I’m putting the people on notice that are coming here from Syria as part of a mass migration, that if I win, they are going back.”
But evicting refugees who are already here does go beyond the president’s executive control, Meissner said. The administration would likely have to pursue it in court, arguing each as a threat against the nation, case by case.
“As a practical matter, I don’t see that happening,” Meissner said.
The president-elect has not said anything since the election that would suggest he is changing his promised approach with refugees, she said.
The United States is under constant terrorist threat, Trump has said, and in his official statement on blocking Muslim immigration he said there is hatred against America “beyond comprehension.”
“Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses,” he said, “our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life.”
But refugees undergo the stiffest review of anyone admitted into the U.S. More than 3 million have been granted refuge in the United States since 1975, and several analyses, including a 2015 report by RAND Corp. to Congress, report very few refugees even arrested for suspicion in plots either domestic or overseas.
Most of the world’s refugees come from terror-prone nations, Meissner said.
“Syrians,” she said, “are the ultimate victims of terrorism.”
The way these things go, the Independence neighbors’ dogs and the Syrian children were the first to meet, poking noses and fingers between the chain-link fences in their tight yards.
Then the adults followed in behind. Who are these little boys? Where’d they come from?
The few years of English classes that Alkhwaja, 33, had taken years ago in high school in a Damascus suburb barely cracked the door to communication.
But they all had phones and Google’s translator app.
The story began to unfold about this one-time farmer turned taxi driver and his wife and boys.
Syria’s bloody civil war besieged the Damascus suburb of Ghouta where they lived — a neighborhood that would be chemically gassed by the regime after they fled. Their home has since been bombed. Family and neighbors once close to them have been killed.
The Independence neighbors only needed to hear the first pieces of the story to be moved to help, Rogers said.
They brought food. They began giving the family rides — getting the father, Alkhwaja, to his English classes; getting the mother, Hajah, to the store; and the boys to visit their new public school, Three Trails Elementary.
Lininger took Alkhwaja fishing. A neighbor brought bicycles for the boys. The family was treated to the circus, city parks and the zoo.
“And they are always so thankful,” Lininger said. “They always turn around and give something back to us.”
The neighbors watch out for the family. When Rogers heard strangers were coming to talk to the Syrian family, he stayed to make sure no one was taking advantage of them.
“We’re very protective of them,” he said.
He listened in as Alkhwaja and Hajah told deeper parts of their story, through the interpreter, to a reporter.
The terror in Ghouta had grown too much, Alkhwaja said, when a checkpoint guard pulled him out of his cab in early 2012 and hustled him with others into a tent.
“Do you know God?” the man asked. When Alkhwaja nodded, he said, “I will show you God in colors today,” repeating a Syrian threat of torture.
Alkhwaja escaped, seemingly only because there were more people held in the tent than the guards could handle. But it was time to get out of Ghouta, he said. The sight of a neighbor’s house bombed with news of two children dead spurred the family on as they fled to Al Mazra’a, which is some 70 miles south.
Then they secured a dangerous ride out of Syria to Jordan with only the clothes they were wearing in a van crammed with three families. All the way they feared assault by planes in a seven-hour ride on dirt roads. Their first two boys were only 3 and 2, and Hajah was pregnant with their third.
Even the relief of making it to Jordan was quickly followed by more agony. They huddled with thousands of refugees in the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan.
It was so “hot, horrible, filthy, with flies,” Alkhwaja said, that Hajah lamented “it would be better to go back to Syria and dodge bombs.”
They put some money together to get out and find refuge in the town of Tafileh and began the long process with the United Nations Refugee Agency for resettlement — they had no idea where.
Alkhwaja and Hajah and their sons would, more than three years into their exile, get the chance to come to the U.S. But that meant distancing themselves so much more from their mothers and their chances of seeing them again.
This is when they cry in the telling.
Alkhwaja’s mother is now hiding in Lebanon. Hajah’s still hides in Syria with her brothers, not daring escape because the young men are at an age where they would be captured and forced into the military if they were caught. The fathers of Alkhwaja and Hajah have died.
They have cousins in exile, waiting for the U.N. to call.
They pray their families may someday be able to travel to each other again.
Alkhwaja’s mother, 64, tells him when they connect through social media, “I wish to see you before my day comes.”
‘I’ll hide you in my basement’
Election night caught everyone’s breath here.
Trump’s victory played out on Alkhwaja’s phone Nov. 8 as he tuned in Facebook for Arabic news feeds.
Their children slept and Alkhwaja turned to solemn humor when the outcome was sealed, taking his wife’s hand in his with a firm grip.
“Congratulations,” he said in Arabic. “We are in very deep trouble.”
They laugh with their neighbors about it.
“What if Trump kicks us out?” Alkhwaja said he asked his Trump-supporting neighbor, Lininger, passing phone translations back and forth in the days after the election.
“I’ll hide you in my basement,” Lininger said.
The truth is, Alkhwaja and Hajah said, they are scared, and the comfort their neighbors have shared has been important.
“We had worked so hard to make them feel welcome,” Rogers said. “Then this (the election result) happens.…We wanted to give them assurance that America was more than one person.”
The Alkhwaja and Hajah family’s experience, more than any other, has strengthened Abdul Bakar’s post-election hope for refugees in the U.S.
Bakar, who directs refugee services for Della Lamb, has seen neighbors throughout Kansas City welcoming refugee families, but this family was unusually isolated from other refugee families.
And again he sees people “appealing to their godly, innermost part of their hearts.”
History notes that the U.S. has taken in more refugees than any other nation since World War II — all along the way wrestling with the call for compassion against real concerns for U.S. security, and each generation’s fears and prejudices.
President Harry Truman,who made his home here in Independence, Bakar noted, signed the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 that formalized a U.S. refugee program.
The prejudices at that time were predominantly religious. Truman signed the act to launch the U.S. response to World War II’s pervading tragedy, but with anger at provisions in the act that he thought were intended to limit access for Jewish and Catholic refugees.
Refugees came flooding from Vietnam and southeast Asia in the 1970s, from the former Soviet Union in the 1980s, from Somalia and Africa in the 1990s.
Admissions dropped by more than half after the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, especially from the Middle East and south Asia.
The Obama administration began restoring the numbers in response to global pressure as the number of displaced persons, reported by the U.N. Refugee Agency, has reached a record number of 65.3 million worldwide — 21.3 million of them refugees.
Half of the refugees have escaped either Syria, Afghanistan or Somalia and are overwhelming camps and towns in neighboring countries.
There is “a quagmire of questions hanging in the air,” Bakar said, as Trump goes to work.
Bakar is a refugee from Somalia’s civil war, rescued from a camp in Kenya in 1999. He came to work, raised a family and is nearing a doctoral degree in education and social science.
“Kansas City,” Bakar said, “has healed many hearts as a community.”
Saying goodbye to Alkhwaja and Hajah means leaving them in the care of their neighbors in their driveway.
Lininger has 4-year-old Hamzeh playfully by the ankles, dangling him upside down. The boy has a pair of new Snoopy slippers hanging on his feet — left behind by Turkmani from the load of gifts people have given him to pass on to refugee families.
Hajah and Cindi Rogers watch together from the top of the driveway. Jeff Rogers has his translating phone out and he and Alkhwaja are sorting through the day’s mail.
The two oldest boys should be returning home from school soon.
“I understand the fears people have,” Lininger said. “But these are goodhearted people. They were in a bad situation and you can’t blame them for that. We’d do anything for these kids.”