Gilbert Hategeka, Chantal Nyiramanza and their four children were among the first Congolese from a Ugandan refugee camp to arrive in Missoula in September 2016.
They’re safe and well, with jobs in town, the kids in school, and a fifth child on the way.
But the ties to their old world are not easily unbound.
A year ago Hategeka’s sister, 29-year-old Gato Kolodine, was ready to make a similar move from Kyangwali Refugee Settlement in west Uganda with her own family of four. Ten days into his administration, President Donald Trump signed an executive order placing extensive restrictions on refugees and others coming into the U.S.
He called it “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” and it fulfilled Trump’s campaign promise of extreme vetting and a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims” entering the country.
Hategeka and his family are Christians, and the Democratic Republic of Congo was not on the list of seven Muslim-majority countries included in the first travel ban. But it prohibited refugees from any nation to be admitted for 120 days.
The order, though quickly blocked in court, threw into chaos the refugee resettlement world on both sides of the ocean. As its one-year anniversary approaches on Jan. 27, the turmoil and confusion remain over who can and who can’t come.
What is certain is that the flow of refugees to the United States has slowed to a trickle.
Trump set a cap of 45,000 admissions in fiscal year 2018, which ends Sept. 30. It was a record-low in the modern resettlement era, and comes after Barack Obama raised the cap to 85,000, then to a record 110,000 in his last years in office.
Now it looks like even Trump’s number will be hard to approach. Through the first quarter of FY18 just 5,323 refugees were admitted and barely 700 more have come since the first of the year. At that rate, the numbers won’t reach 20,000 by the end of September.
“It’s keeping families in limbo,” Jen Barile of Missoula International Rescue Committee said Thursday. “There are some families in the United States right now who have spouses and children that were supposed to come, to follow them, and they can’t get here.”
Hategeka’s sister was one of them.
“She was just waiting to come, but then Trump comes in and bans everything, because he don’t want refugees or outside people to come here, so she has to wait,” Hategeka said, in English that’s broken but much improved since 2016.
He said Gato Kolodine and her husband waded into the vetting process in their Uganda camp at the same time he and their brother Joseph began. Joseph and his family made it to Missoula a couple of weeks before Gilbert, and were there waiting at the Missoula airport in a joyful reunion. Joseph has since moved his wife and two children to Michigan.
It’s not clear why, but their sister’s approval was delayed until 2017. By then the here-today, gone-tomorrow travel bans were in full morass.
Her go-ahead finally came in early summer, he said, and the family sold off its home and belongings at the refugee resettlement in Uganda. It included a garden plot, the family's source of food for the nearly 20 years it lived at Kyangwali.
But arrangements didn’t come from the resettlement agencies. By then a second travel ban was ordered, struck down and the ruling appealed by Trump’s administration to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In June, the high court agreed to take up the case in October, meanwhile overruling lower courts by allowing a limited travel ban to go into effect. That included a 120-day ban on all refugees except those who could prove a “bona fide relationship" to a person or entity in the U.S. The definition of “bona fide” relationship set off another round of legal wars, and changed as recently as December.
Hategeka said his sister and her family received clearance and even had airline reservations to fly to the United States in August. Those got canceled at the last minute, leaving the family waiting without food and their own home for another undetermined period.
“She was suffering and sleeping outside. I and my brother Joseph, we decided to give her money,” Hategeka said.
That apparently allowed Kolodine and her family to live in their small home again. The wait dragged on until December, when the go-ahead from the U.S. State Department finally came. In the past month, the family has been adjusting to life not in Missoula but Chicago.
Since Missoula’s IRC office opened in the summer of 2016, it has received and resettled 135 people from some 30 families. The first two Eritreans came on Jan. 25, 2017, and since then 62 more from that northeast African nation have arrived.
Missoula's population also includes or included about three dozen Congolese, roughly a dozen people from Syria and another dozen from Iraq.
Almost all the adults are employed. Hategeka works swing shifts at a Walmart. His wife, Chantal, worked at a Fresh Market until the latter stages of her pregnancy.
Barile said the travel ban has significantly affected other new Missoula families, some of whom have lost relatives overseas since they came here.
“Take the example of the conflict in Syria right now," she said. "There are a lot of people being injured or killed every day, and some of those are family members of refugees who are being resettled here in Missoula.
"They are extremely concerned about the safety of their loved ones. They know how dangerous it is for their families, and it makes it really difficult to focus on anything else.”
Missoula received 94 refugees in the last fiscal year that started under the Obama administration and ended under Trump’s.
“It’s wonderful that we were able to receive those refugees in Missoula and find them safe, secure homes,” she said. “But the State Department itself, along with the Missoula community, had agreed that 125 refugees coming to Missoula each year was a number we could manage. It’s unfortunate that we were not able to receive more families.”
The downward trend continues, both nationally and in Missoula. Since October, the start of fiscal year 2018, just 14 people from four Eritrean families have arrived. The most recent came on Nov. 16, more than two months ago.
The local IRC office has grown from 1½ positions to five full-time jobs, including executive director Patrick Poulin in Salt Lake City. Barile replaced Molly Short-Carr as resettlement director early last year. There’s also a caseworker who helps new arrivals through the likes of health exams and enrollment in public and adult education classes. A housing and logistics caseworker and an employment specialist round out the staff.
Barile said the anniversary of Trump’s initial travel ban is a good time to address the impact of the U.S. refugee resettlement program.
“I think it’s also a really good time to reflect on our values as a country, and to think about how the travel bans have really gone against those values, how they’re negatively affecting vulnerable populations and people in need,” she said.
Refugees are the most vulnerable of the world's populations. They've been displaced from unlivable conditions in their own countries. Three of every four are women or children.
“These are folks that cannot return to their home country because of legitimate fear of persecution or worse, or death,” Barile said.
To qualify for resettlement in the U.S., people like Hategeka, Kolodine and others are subject to an overseas vetting process that can take three years to complete. In thousands of cases, the travel bans have disrupted vetting in midstep or later, forcing a restart.
Barile finds it ironic that the United States is represented in the process by the likes of the FBI, CIA and Homeland Security from the same government that seems to be turning its back on refugees now. Many of the refugees have worked with the U.S. military or assisted government agencies overseas.
“So that’s kind of an extra slap in the face to those individuals,” she said. “Some of them are in fear for their lives because of that fact. So don’t we have responsibility to help those individuals?”
Barile said she'll join other IRC officers in late January in Washington, D.C., where they’ll spend a day talking to their members of Congress about the refugee resettlement program.
Meanwhile, those who’ve made new homes in Missoula make it clear they’re grateful for what they’ve got.
“My message to Missoula is to thank them because they welcome us,” said Hategeka. “At the time we got here, we had no friends. But this time we have friends.”