After six years of waiting, a refugee couple in Tucson was reunited with one of their sons following President Biden’s decision to allow more refugee arrivals this year.
When Iraqi refugees Layth and Thamera Al Tallal were forced to flee their home in Iraq in 2014, they knew the journey ahead would be difficult. But they did not foresee spending the next several years separated from their three sons, Mohammed, 29; Ali, 28; and Hussein, 25.
The family members have “really suffered through these past few years” living without each other, Layth said via a translator at their home in southeast Tucson.
But following a recent shift in U.S. refugee policies, Mohammed joined his parents in Tucson on June 10 after six years apart. The family now looks forward to Ali’s arrival in the coming weeks.
During his years in office, former President Trump brought refugee resettlement nearly to a standstill, lowering the number of refugees the U.S. would accept each year to historic levels. Biden reversed course in May with new policies that would allow more refugees to come.
Local resettlement agencies, some of which saw no arrivals in recent months, have already begun to see the impact of Biden’s new policies. They have welcomed dozens of new refugees since May and anticipate more to come.
“People in desperate need are waiting and vetted,” so the higher cap brings “a lot of hope” to local refugees that they may be reunited with their families, said Connie Phillips, president and CEO of Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest.
Refugees are internationally recognized as those who have fled violence or persecution in their home countries and are seeking safety in another country. They are different from asylum seekers, who have not yet been legally recognized as refugees.
A family separated
The Al Tallals had to flee their home in Iraq seven years ago when Daesh, or the Islamic State, targeted Iraqi military forces.
The Al Tallals faced threats because Ali served in the Iraqi military, Layth said via the translator, as he gestured to a photo of Ali on the end table next to the sofa.
Knowing the years ahead would be long and their future uncertain, the family sold their gold, their cars and other valuables and left Iraq in February 2014.
Layth and his mother went first, traveling by plane. They were later met by Thamera and their sons, whose journey required a two-day bus ride to Turkey, the country that hosts the largest number of refugees. In Turkey, they received assistance from international refugee agencies.
When Layth and Thamera were resettled in Tucson on Oct. 21, 2015, the couple was relieved to get Layth’s mother, who has cancer, the medical care she needed. She is doing much better now in the U.S., Layth said, as he held up his phone to show a photo of his mother in Arizona.
The resettlement process, which generally includes thorough screenings, interviews and medical exams, varies for each person and can take several years. For Layth and Thamera, it took about a year and a half. But for Mohammed, Ali and Hussein, it was another story.
There was a glimmer of hope in 2017 when the Al Tallal sons were given the go-ahead to come to the U.S. Then Trump enacted a travel ban, which restricted travel from primarily Muslim-majority countries, including Iraq, further complicating the Al Tallals’ situation.
The sons’ approval was subsequently delayed, Layth said.
Five years in, the parents finally felt some reprieve from the “agony” of separation when Hussein, their youngest son, joined them in Tucson last fall. Hussein had previously visited the U.S. as an exchange student in 2011, three years before they left Iraq.
But despite being approved as well, Hussein’s brothers faced further delays. They even had their flights scheduled, Layth confirmed with a photo of their itinerary on his cellphone.
‘A little trickle’
During Trump’s term, his administration decreased the cap to historic lows year after year, which agency officials said dismantled refugee program infrastructure on national and state levels and forced resettlement offices around the country to close.
In February, Biden promised to raise the cap for this year and next, but flip-flopped on his decision weeks later, a move that drew sharp criticism from refugee advocates and party allies. Within hours, his administration announced it would raise the cap in May and held to it.
Biden increased refugee admissions from 15,000 to 62,500 for the 2021 fiscal year, but acknowledged the U.S. would likely fall short of reaching that number.
Lutheran Social Services, which Phillips said had not seen new arrivals in several months, resettled 28 refugees since May in Tucson, including a family of four from Afghanistan, a spouse reunification from Namibia, and Mohammed Al Tallal.
“We’re very excited to be getting a little trickle,” Phillips said. She expects it to continue and hopes to see as many as 350 refugees next year.
After receiving only eight new refugees in Tucson since last fall, the International Rescue Committee resettled 21 new refugees in June and expected another 14 by the end of July, said Senada Kadich, Tucson director for the International Rescue Committee.
Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona does not plan to resettle refugees this fiscal year because of cutbacks in its refugee program during years of low arrivals, said Anna Burke, associate director at the organization’s Pio Decimo Center. It hopes to welcome up to 85 refugees next year if Biden signs off on the expected cap of 125,000 for 2022, she said.
In the meantime, there is a lot to be done, agency officials said.
Systems need to be put back in place on international, national and local levels, and local resettlement officials said they have started to scale up their processes and hire additional staff to support new arrivals.
‘Ready to work’
“This is good for our local communities,” said Stanford Prescott, US Network Communications Officer for the International Rescue Committee. “Refugees fill essential jobs here in Arizona, and as our economy is restarting after the pandemic, they can help fill some of those much-needed jobs.”
“Refugees are ready to work from the day they step off the airplane, and they always do,” Phillips said.
When he first came to Tucson, Layth worked as a carpenter, using the skills his father had taught him in Iraq. He then worked at a rental car agency in Tucson until the pandemic hit.
Thamera has worked at a local day care center since she arrived and continues to put in 11-hour days to help support her family. The couple became U.S. citizens last year.
After arriving in Tucson last fall, Hussein began working and received a scholarship to return to school. He is in the pre-engineering program at Pima Community College.
In Iraq, their sons learned English, Ali went to military school, and Mohammed earned a degree in accounting, Layth said. He said he believes his sons will be “active and contributing citizens” in the U.S. as well.
On the mantel and nearby table sat the family photos they had carried with them when they left Iraq — photos of their parents, grandparents and their sons as children in Baghdad. In the next room, two hand-hold American flags sat on the countertop.
Increased global need
While the Biden administration said it plans to raise the 2022 cap to 125,000 refugees, that number is a drop in the bucket.
In June, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees released its annual Global Trends report, which showed the number of displaced people worldwide has more than doubled to 82 million in the last 10 years, including more than 26 million refugees.
As global need continues to increase, agency officials said it is promising to see the U.S. step back into its leadership role.
“It also makes a very important statement to the world that the United States is going to stand for refugees and is going to be a leader in the field of accepting refugees and providing humanitarian aid and this safety valve for the world,” Phillips said.
“We are able to encourage other nations to increase their admissions by being a strong leader” on refugee admissions, Prescott said.
In May, just weeks before Mohammed’s scheduled arrival, Layth said he would remain skeptical that they would be reunited with their sons until he held them in his arms.
While he said he was definitely more optimistic about the new refugee policies, he understood changes would take time.
By mid-July, Mohammed was standing next to his parents in their living room as Layth excitedly scrolled through the itinerary for Ali’s flight to Tucson in August.
The family is very happy Ali will soon be here, Thamera said with a smile.
With everything they have been through these last 10 years, the Al Tallals look forward to the day they can put the trauma behind them and establish themselves in the U.S. together, as a complete family, Layth said.
“I need my sons. I need my kids,” he said in English.
Mandy Loader is a graduate student in journalism at the University of Arizona and an apprentice at the Arizona Daily Star. Contact her at email@example.com.