The smell of fried oil filled the room inside the International Rescue Committee offices in Glendale. Rodain Abo Zeed, donning a white chef uniform top and a tan hijab, turned behind small kitchen counter as she prepared falafels, tabbouleh and baklava with cashews.
That afternoon, Abo Zeed, her husband, Khaled,and son, Hadi – all Syrian refugees – were serving food for a roomful of high school and college students, refugee community advocates and elected officials who gathered around tables to make calls and write postcards to Arizona’s congressional delegation. As President Donald Trump is reportedly considering ending all refugee admissions to the United States, the group of about 40 people came together to send a message of support for more, not less, refugees.
For Abo Zeed, resettling in Arizona has given her more than an opportunity to send her three boys to school, and to start a food business with her husband.
“I feel human,” she said in Arabic.
Abo Zeed and her family arrived in Arizona in 2016, after waiting in Jordan for four years, she said.
In 2016, the state welcomed the largest number of refugees from Syria, about 820, according to data from the Arizona Department of Economic Security. So far this fiscal year, 29 Syrians have arrived. Last fiscal year, only five Syrians arrived to call Arizona home.
“Thanks to America for opening the door to us, to have hope, find a business here and school for my kids,” Abo Zeed said. “I feel trust in myself.”
Nearby the kitchen, Nada Al Rubaye spoke as she wrote down her address on postcards to send to Congress.
“America has always had open doors to helping other people,” she said. “America helps humanity. You don’t lose these things, these are good things.”
Al Rubaye left Iraq with her son, after losing her other boy. She waited in Turkey for two years before arriving as a refugee to Arizona with her son six years ago.
“I became a refugee because my country lost safety. We didn’t have freedom to speak. My sister lost her husband, I lost my son,” she said.
Since resettling in Phoenix, Al Rubaye has learned English, started her own fashion and jewelry business, is pursuing an arts degree from Phoenix College and most recently became a U.S. citizen.
She smiled as she shared that she wants to be an art teacher in schools.
She also wants other refugees from around the world to have those opportunities she had to restart her life here. And she knows how painful it is for those fleeing their countries to wait for years, often with little resources or opportunities, to have a new home.
“I came here with hope, wasted two years in Turkey. It was very hard. I came here because I wanted to protect my son,” Al Rubaye said.
Refugee admissions to the U.S. are at historic lows, as the number of displaced people worldwide reached the highest levels since World War II.
The year Al Rubaye arrived in Arizona, the state became the new home to 3,600 refugees, a third of them Iraqis, according to DES data.
When Trump took office, he drastically reduced the number of refugees the country would admit from 85,000 to 50,000, but the U.S. ultimately only admitted 22,500 refugees. He again reduced the cap to 30,000 for this fiscal year (as of Aug. 31 the U.S. had admitted about 28,100 refugees) and is expected to either slash it again or end admissions altogether.
Every October, the president issues a presidential determination on refugee admissions.
Aaron Rippenkroeger, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Phoenix (a resettlement organization), said this is Trump’s third October in office, and the future of refugee resettlement in the country feels even “more ominous” than the past two years.
“The threat is so significant, and it feels even worse than the last two times around,” he said, letting out a long sigh. “So, for me, that conversation is, how real this is, how much lower can you go than 30,000 people? It’s really… It’s a bit difficult to process.
“These pronouncements we hear out of D.C. are so in contrast to obviously situation in the world, in terms of how many people are displaced,” Rippenkroeger said. “But it also flies in the face of what we feel day-to-day here with local community. People really do care, really believe in a compassionate welcome for displaced people.”
According to the U.S. State Department, between Oct. 1, 2018 and Aug. 31, 2019, Arizona has been the new home for 1,184 refugees.
Last fiscal year, the first full fiscal year of the Trump administration, 996 refugees arrived in Arizona. In fiscal year 2017, that number was 2,250, and in 2016 it was 4,110, according to federal figures.
Those numbers represent real lives and real people, said Stanford Prescott, a spokesman for the IRC.
“As there’s discussions to further reduce the refugee numbers, those are lives that we are denying the opportunity to restart here, and those are lives we are putting at risk because of the political decisions that are made,” he said.
At the IRC event to advocate for more refugees to come to the U.S., attendees were urging Arizona’s Congressional representatives to support the GRACE Act, also known as the “Guaranteed Refugee Admission Ceiling Enhancement Act,” which will set an annual refugee admissions floor of 95,000.
Muktar Sheikh has hope in both U.S. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Martha McSally. He especially thinks this is an issue where Sinema, a Democrat, could rise.
“Sinema has an important role to play, if she really believes she is someone in the middle, this is an issue where she could make those deals,” he said. “This is a bipartisan issue. Her and McSally replaced two people who were very friendly to refugees. If John McCain was alive, he would have done something to help refugees.”
Sheikh came to the U.S. more than 20 years ago, as a refugee from Somalia. He is program director for the Somali Association of Arizona.
He also pointed to America’s history of being a safe haven.
“This whole immigration issue is cutting a historical norm of America of welcoming people who are in need of help,” Sheikh said. “Refugees are a labor force. (Ending refugee admissions) is not something America has done before. America has always opened its doors to those that need help.”
Sheikh is also concerned for the families who have already fled their countries, and are waiting to reunite with other relatives who were already resettled.
That is the case for Abo Zeed, the Syrian chef.
Her brother and his seven kids are still in Jordan, she said. Her mother, who’s 70, is also there with two of her two grandkids. She said sometimes they don’t have food or money. One of her nephews, who is 12, has to work sometimes, she said. They’ve been in Jordan for seven years.
“Waiting… it is a hard time,” Abo Zeed said.
This wait is more like suffering, said Tek Pariyar, a refugee from Bhutan who has lived in Phoenix for three years.
He thinks America, which he called “the land of opportunity,” has a tradition of welcoming refugees.
“This generosity by the American people to the refugees, that should continue. They should be welcomed and trained, this way we can build America,” Pariyar said.
He laments that refugees exist around the world.
“Refugees should not be created anymore in the world. They should have the right to live in their own country. For the refugees, every politician is responsible,” he said. “Nobody wants to be a refugee.”
Standing next to him was his daughter, Shruti. A dental assistant, Shruti wore medical scrubs to the event. Every refugee, to her, represents human potential.
“I feel when you haven’t seen the conditions of refugees, it’s really hard to understand,” she said. “They want to be something in the future, everyone has their own talent to be something else in life.”