Jax Refugees Wait For Family Members They Fear Will Never Be Allowed To Join Them

Sep 9, 2019

The number of refugees who are resettled in Duval County has slowed to a trickle under recent federal policies. 

New arrivals to Jacksonville dropped from 1,457 in 2016 to 294 last year, according to the Florida Department of Children and Families. And many of the refugees who do make it to Northeast Florida are waiting for family members who now aren’t allowed to join them. 

Related: Refugees Resettled In Jacksonville Sharply Declines; Local Agencies Feel Financial 

On a Monday evening in August, Salwa Ghazi brought coffee and a plate of small, round patties called kibbeh to the living room in her Englewood apartment. 

Through an interpreter, she said she and her husband Adnan Mohammed Saleh came from Syria to Jacksonville with two of their five children in September of 2016. 

“They said, ‘You all live in a small room, but if you come here, at least you can bring them all,’” she recalled. 

Ghazi says U.N. officials told her the oldest three would eventually reunite with the family in the U.S. Yet, two were never given the chance to apply to be refugees, and the youngest — 23-year-old Widad — did apply, but was rejected because of the recent ban on Syrian refugees. 

That’s one of the changes leading to the sharp decline in new refugees. 

The Trump Administration has also increased vetting and set a cap of 30,000 refugees for 2019, the lowest ceiling for admissions since the federal resettlement program started in 1980.

Credit Migration Policy Institute

Florida has the largest resettlement program in the U.S., but its number of refugees fell from just shy of 65,000 in 2016 to about 8,000 this past year. 

That’s put Jacksonville families like the Salehs, who are awaiting reunions with family, in limbo. Saleh is concerned he may never see his children again. 

Saleh wonders aloud, even if he becomes a U.S. citizen, where is he going to meet them? They still cannot come here, and he can’t go to Syria.  

An inside view of the duPont YMCA/New American Center, which is an initiative that provides English classes, citizenship preparation, and workforce development.
Credit Abukar Adan / WJCT News

The 59-year-old’s children have been living in Turkey since they all fled Syria’s civil war in 2012. But he fears the Turkish government will send them back.

Related: Syria’s Civil War: The View From A Damascus Shrine

Human Rights Watch reports Turkish authorities have been detaining and coercing refugees into signing forms saying they want to return to Syria, something government officials deny.

Ghazi is visibly emotional as she recalls why he left Syria.      

“[We] reached a point where (there was) no school, no work, nothing, even bread,” she said.  

After living more than three years in Turkey, Ghazi, Saleh, and their two sons were settled in Jacksonville by World Relief. The humanitarian nonprofit was one of three local resettlement agencies before closing its doors this summer after 30 years. The other two are Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Charities. 

World Relief spokesman Matthew Soerens says Jacksonville’s was the seventh office to close nationwide since President Trump took office. 

“We have cut down staff a lot in the past few years,” he said. “It just reached a point where to sustain our program nationally, we can’t be in so many locations with so few refugees arrivals.”

The nonprofits help refugees set up their apartments, get their children into school and go to doctors’ appointments during a three-month transition period. But refugees get an invoice for those services from the federal government after the 90 days is up, which funds the resettlement program. 

World Relief resettled nearly 5,000 refugees to Jacksonville in 2016. Before closing this year, it had served just three. 

Related: World Relief’s Last Florida Office In Jax Will Close As Refugee Arrivals Decline

“More than ever a refugee has become a number, not even considered a family,” said Silvia Almond, who helped settle Ghazi’s family when she worked as a volunteer coordinator at World Relief Jacksonville.

Almond now works at Lutheran Social Services and she said her new agency has also had to cut its staff by more than two-thirds. 

Amber Dodge, who heads the New American Welcome Center at the duPont YMCA is pictured in the foreground.
Credit Abukar Adan / WJCT News

As resettlement agencies downsize, some local organizations like the duPont YMCA Youth Development Center are helping fill the need.  

The nonprofit this year opened Florida’s first New American Welcome Center, a national initiative that provides english classes, citizenship preparation, and workforce development, to newcomers. Amber Dodge heads the center.    

“There needs to be resources available for immigrants to come and where they feel comfortable to access things that they need to learn to navigate the systems in the U.S.,” she said. “So, I think they saw the need and they just stepped up.” 

Amber Dodge is pictured working outside at the duPont YMCA/New American Center.
Credit Abukar Adan / WJCT News

Still, for long-settled refugees like the Saleh family, the hope is hard to keep alive. Ghazi said her Syrian friend’s daughter was headed over on the same day President Trump announced the refugee cap, and her flight to the U.S. was canceled last minute. 

The duPont YMCA/New American Center includes a community garden.
Credit Abukar Adan / WJCT News