Refugee fled Iraq in fear; now thriving in St. Louis

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Nadya Kanim was a child when her family was forced to leave Kuwait. Her father had worked in Kuwait for 30 years and returned to his native Iraq because of the political differences between the countries that erupted in the 1990-91 Gulf War.

They resettled in his homeland, and all was well.

Then, on a warm summer night in 1996, soldiers rushed into their home and took her father away.

"We were screaming, crying, pleading with them to leave our father and not to hurt him," said Kanim, who was 15 at the time.

Her father was accused of spying for Kuwait. He was tortured in jail and his family wasn't allowed to see him, Kanim said. Eventually the family paid someone in the government to get her father out of jail and they fled to Jordan. Without legal documents, they couldn't find work there and relied on help from churches and mosques.

They became stateless and obtained refugee status from the United Nations. Their destination was the United States — which she only knew from cowboy movies — and were to resettle in St. Louis. A map showed they were going to what they were told was "the heart of the nation."

Resettled with the help of the International Institute of St. Louis in 1998, her father found a job and a home. Kanim, who had a 3-month-old, went to English classes and worked part-time at a factory. In 2001, she began working at her son's preschool.

Now a U.S. citizen and a St. Louis resident for 17 years, she's a taxpayer, is involved with the community — a neighbor and friend to many. Her son is in an aviation program in college and plans to join the U.S. Air Force. When he told her his plans, she said to him, "Whatever way you think you can serve this country. Do it. This is your place."

She told her story of being a refugee at a program on migrant and refugee issues Jan. 25 at St. Margaret of Scotland Church in south St. Louis. Earlier that day, news outlets reported that President Donald Trump was set to issue executive orders barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries — including Iraq — from entering the U.S. for at least the next 90 days, and ceasing the admission of all refugees to the United States for four months.

Archbishop Robert J. Carlson issued a statement Jan. 30 that the 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. As Catholics, we appreciate the sensitivity shown to Christians who are fleeing persecution, but 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."

Love for St. Louis

At the top of her class in Iraq, Kanim earned an associate's degree in education from St. Louis Community College in 2007, a bachelor's degree in elementary education and teaching from Central Methodist University's College of Graduate and Extended Studies in 2012 and a master of business administration (MBA) from Webster University in 2015. She worked for more than five years as a parent educator with the St. Louis Public School Foundation and since 2015 has been at the International Institute as a loan officer and business development specialist.

On a recent weekday she visited a Turkish restaurant begun by an Iraqi refugee. With her help, the restaurant has expanded and improved its financial accounting and marketing.

She will begin studies in 2018 in a doctoral program at St. Louis University in international business and marketing.

"By myself I cannot do this," Kanim said. "I have a big support from St. Louis. I never think to move out from St. Louis. I love this place. It's so friendly. People support me emotionally."

Though they had dark moments after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, when people shouted at her mother for her faith — she wears a hijab in public — the good has shined through. Neighbors offered rides to the family when they had no transportation, helped them understand items they received in the mail, told them of job opportunities and helped them adjust in other ways.

Her roots, she said, are in Iraq but the flower bloomed in St. Louis. "Thanks to all St. Louisans, all Missourians, all Americans."

Small acts of kindness and love that she and her family were shown in St. Louis — on a micro level — add up to build peace and love worldwide, Kanim said. Refugees run away from war and only want to live in peace, she said.

Finding hope

Pat Dougherty, a member of the parish organization that sponsored the program, said said that it is a challenging time "to walk with our migrant brothers and sisters and listen to their stories," helping them find hope "under the love and embrace of God. We then must be the hands and feet and voice of God on this journey together."

Jessica Mayo of the Migrant and Community Action Project said refugees and immigrants contribute to the prosperity of the United States. While she respects the laws of the nation, she finds they provide too many barriers for people to gain legal status. Many times she hears people say that undocumented individuals should "get in line" to gain that status, but most cannot achieve it in their lifetime because the wait is so long. She said the president's executive orders are "a sign from our country that we're not welcoming and not respecting our nation's strong tradition of immigration." 

>>Support for migrants

Representatives of three faith groups spoke about the need for unity, peace and support of migrants at a press conference Jan. 26 in St. Louis County.

Some speakers referred to President Donald Trump's executive orders targeting immigrants from certain countries and refugees, calling the move divisive and unAmerican.

Father John O'Brien, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Ferguson, said he sought to "stand in solidarity as neighbors and brothers and sisters with our immigrant community." Also, he reaffirmed that every immigrant, regardless of legal status, has value as a child of God.

He asked leaders in the community to be "agents of unity. We don't come together in the spirit of anger, but rather encouraging unity and respect for one another."

He witnessed anxiety and fear caused by anti-immigrant sentiment and has listened to numerous Hispanic families tell of how their children are being harassed and bullied by other children. "We can turn the tide on this," Father O'Brien said, asking parents and teachers to talk to their children about being respectful. "Cultivate unity ... this is the greatest antidote to hatred and division," he said.

Tom Alblin of Veterans for Peace and a member of St. Justin Martyr Parish in Sunset Hills said that peace comes from justice and from speaking out for the voiceless, including the unborn and for immigrants and refugees from countries such as Iraq and Syria.

Rabbi Jim Bennett of Congregation Shaare Emeth and president of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association said he expresses "solidarity with all my friends who work together to build a world and nation that is not based on fear and not based on prejudice and bias, but instead a world and nation based on our greatest aspirations and dreams not to build walls but to tear them down and create bridges."

He said the Jewish tradition is one of welcoming the stranger. "We are all vulnerable, and we must unite," he said.

Dr. Ghazala Hayatt of the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis called for compassion for immigrants, noting that diversity "is the fabric of our nation."

She said she agrees with the need for securing the country, with the highest possible vetting of people entering the country. She does not want to see Muslims who are prone to violence enter the U.S. because they misrepresent the faith. But, she said, the most recent policies only increase anti-American sentiment across the world.

Faizan Syed, executive director of the Missouri chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he worries about hostile attitudes toward immigrants and refugees. Also, he said, "as Muslims, we believe we are targets."

On Jan. 30, Archbishop Robert J. Carlson announced he joined "Catholic bishops, religious and civic leaders, the larger Catholic community and people of good will in opposing the executive order which seeks to narrow and close the doors to our most vulnerable migrants and refugees. The Archdiocese of St. Louis will continue to be a place of welcome, service, and mutual hospitality, especially to the suffering and most vulnerable among us."

On Jan. 31, attorney Richard Middleton, professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and an adjunct professor of law at the St. Louis University School of Law, was among the speakers at a panel on "Resisting Executive Orders on Immigration and Refugees" at the SLU law school. He acknowledged a fear by some people of immigrants and refugees because they are different. People have legitimate security concerns as well, he said, but the executive orders could have been crafted to strengthen security while allowing people to enter the country.

"This could have been done to not cause so much chaos at ports of entry," he said.

A provision in the presidential executive order regarding restricted immigration to the U.S. from certain Middle Eastern countries may have unanticipated and unforeseeable consequences, according to Deacon Eugene Logusch, administrator of Assumption (Ukrainian Catholic) Parish in St. Louis.

The provision allows expedited entry into the U.S. for a "religious minority in his country of nationality facing religious persecution."

Preferential immigration treatment of Christians "amid broader restrictive provisions that are widely viewed as being anti-Muslim may result in further hostility against indigenous Christian communities on the part of their fellow citizens," Deacon Logusch wrote. "Our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters in Christ desperately need our prayers and moral and material assistance. I submit that they do not need U.S. government actions that may rebound politically to their own detriment." 

>> Ways to support immigrants and refugees:

• Get involved at St. Francis Community Services Southside Center, a Catholic Charities agency, by donating, volunteering or serving as an advocate. Serving mainly Spanish- and Vietnamese-speaking people across the region, its services include mental health counseling, youth programs, a Vietnamese health clinic and case management. Visit www.sfcsstl.org.

• Support Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry (CLAM), which provides free legal representation in civil matters, including immigration law, to impoverished people who cannot afford to hire an attorney. Visit www.sfcsstl.org.

• Support the Immigrant and Refugee Ministry at St. Pius V Parish in south St. Louis. Call (314) 772-1525, ext. 204.

• Invite a speaker to your church, school or other group to talk about life as an immigrant or refugee or host a cultural-exchange event.

• Call your U.S. senators and representatives and ask them to co-sponsor the BRIDGE Act (S 128/ HR 496). The "Bar Removal of Individuals Who Dream of Growing Our Economy" Act would allow young people brought to the U.S. by their parents who are eligible for or who have received work authorization and temporary relief from deportation through DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) to continue living in the U.S. with permission from the federal government.

• Contact your U.S. senators and representatives and ask them to support comprehensive immigration reform and policies that are welcoming to immigrants and refugees. Visit www.stlouisreview.com/bVa.

• Contact your senators and U.S. representatives and tell them your concerns about human trafficking: www.alturl.com/3rqo9. Learn more at www.stlouisreview.com/bVC.

• Learn about Lobby Day 2017 sponsored by the Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates (MIRA) on March 7 at the Missouri State Capitol. Programs on preparing for the lobby day will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18, at St. Pius V Parish, 3310 S. Grand Blvd., and at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23, at St. Francis Community Services Southside Center, 4222 Delor St.

Source: St. Margaret of Scotland Parish Living Justice Ministry 

Refugees in history

On May 13, 1939, the German transatlantic liner "St. Louis" sailed from Hamburg, Germany, for Havana, Cuba. On the voyage were 937 passengers. Almost all were Jews fleeing from the Third Reich. Most were German citizens, some were from eastern Europe, and a few were officially "stateless."

The majority of the Jewish passengers had applied for U.S. visas, and had planned to stay in Cuba only until they could enter the United States.

Since the Kristallnacht (literally the "Night of Crystal," more commonly known as the "Night of Broken Glass") pogrom of Nov. 9–10, 1938, the German government had sought to accelerate the pace of forced Jewish emigration. The German Foreign Office and the Propaganda Ministry also hoped to exploit the unwillingness of other nations to admit large numbers of Jewish refugees to justify the Nazi regime's anti-Jewish goals and policies both domestically in Germany and in the world at large.

The voyage of the "St. Louis" attracted a great deal of media attention. Hostility toward immigrants fueled both anti-Semitism and xenophobia. When the "St. Louis" arrived in Havana harbor on May 27, the Cuban government admitted 28 passengers: 22 of them were Jewish and had valid U.S. visas; the remaining 64 Spanish citizens and two Cuban nationals — had valid entry documents. The Cuban government refused to admit the remaining passengers.

Sailing so close to Florida that they could see the lights of Miami, some passengers on the "St. Louis" cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for refuge. Roosevelt never responded. The State Department and the White House had decided not to take extraordinary measures to permit the refugees to enter the United States. A State Department telegram sent to a passenger stated that the passengers must "await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States." Roosevelt could have issued an executive order to admit the "St. Louis" refugees, but this general hostility to immigrants, the gains of isolationist Republicans in the Congressional elections of 1938, and Roosevelt's consideration of running for an unprecedented third term as president were among the political considerations that militated against taking this extraordinary step in an unpopular cause.

Roosevelt wasn't alone in his reluctance to challenge the mood of the nation on the immigration issue. Three months before the "St. Louis" sailed, Congressional leaders in both U.S. houses allowed to die in committee a bill that would have admitted 20,000 Jewish children from Germany above the existing quota.

Following the U.S. government's refusal to permit the passengers to disembark, the "St. Louis" sailed back to Europe on June 6, 1939. Of the 288 passengers admitted by Great Britain, all survived World War II save one, who was killed in an air raid in 1940. Of the 620 passengers who returned to continent, 87 managed to emigrate before the German invasion of Western Europe in May 1940. Another 532 "St. Louis" passengers were trapped when Germany conquered Western Europe. Just over half survived the Holocaust; 254 died.

Source: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum 

Overrun with calls

Catholic Charities agencies that serve the migrant population are seeing a surge in calls from people fearful of being arrested and deported.

The day after the presidential executive orders were issued regarding refugees and immigrants, Meredith L. Rataj, site director and bilingual therapist at St. Francis Community Services Southside Center, received a call from a client witnessing a burglary across the street from her home. "She wanted to call the police, but she didn't feel safe due to her documentation status, so she was calling to ask us if we would call 911 for her," Rataj said.

It was the first time in her 10-year career at the Catholic Charities agency that Rataj has received a similar call. "Relationships between the immigrant community and police have steadily improved over the past eight years with a level of trust beginning to develop," Rataj said. "This new harsh rhetoric and insistence that police departments enforce immigration law is creating a culture of fear that makes our undocumented neighbors scared to contact law enforcement."

She also reports an increase in phone calls inquiring about the effect of the executive orders. Several have asked for help in preparing documents and making plans for their children and assets in case they are deported. Others report that their children are being taunted in school.

"I routinely hear them all day fielding calls from frantic clients trying to calm their fears and also provide sound legal advice on how to respond or what to do or not to do," said, adding that clients, even those with green cards giving them a legal status in the country, are being advised not to travel outside the United States.

The ministry's caseload already is high and "we normally would not spend so much time on the phone or meeting with potential clients, but the fear is so great we feel we need to at least offer some advice to address the needs of the community," Diemer said.

A program is being planned to help clients prepare a power of attorney or other documents to care for their children in case the parents are detained unexpectedly. 

Read more coverage of President Trump's executive actions on immigration and refugees, including reaction from Catholic leaders, here.

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