By Mike Kilen
DES MOINES — A family of eight Somalis stepped from the elevator at the Des Moines International Airport on Thursday night, planted their shoes to the Iowa ground and looked around in wonder.
After nine years in a refugee camp, after a nearly three-year process to get to America, and after President Trump delayed their arrival with an executive order, they were finally here.
“I hope for the future,” said Yakub Musa, the father of five children. “To get my children an education, to have strong mind and be strong physically and emotionally — and to act like American people.”
His was among four families expected to arrive last week, delayed by Trump’s executive order last month, temporarily blocking the admittance of refugees from seven majority-Muslim countries, one being Somalia.
According to the largest resettlement agencies in Iowa, this family is among the first from those countries to arrive since the courts blocked the ban. A federal appeals court ruled earlier Thursday that the ban will remain blocked and citizens from those countries can continue to travel to the U.S.
Musa stood by the baggage carousel and said, over and over, that America meant one thing to the people in the refugee camp: Freedom.
“I would say to Donald Trump, let the refugees come to this country. They are good. America is a free world and everybody can survive and have freedom.”
Musa said a sadness and depression came over the refugees in the camp in the last couple weeks when they heard the news in America, because they thought people were not discriminated against by race or religion here.
Three other families are expected to arrive in Des Moines in the next few days, including another Friday from Iraq, also a country targeted by the ban.
“Every application is a person. It’s one more life saved,” said Carly Ross, director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Des Moines, which helped resettle Musa’s family. “They are individuals pulled out of very difficult situations.”
Musa, his wife Muna Ismail and three of their children — Ayan, now 18, Hodan, 16, and Habon, 14 — fled Somalia nine years ago during a civil war, taking a long bus ride to a camp in Ethiopia.
The camp there was difficult, trying to fetch enough water to drink with not much to eat. Musa said he took three years of classes in engineering. And the couple’s family grew with two more children — Halima, now 7, and Abdirehmen, 17 months.
They dreamed of America, where friends from the camp had settled in Des Moines. They waited and filled out all the paperwork, until Trump’s order banned them because he said it would make the U.S. safer.
Refugee agencies in Iowa didn’t exactly spring into overdrive when the ban was blocked.
“They have to be travel ready and medically screened, so you can’t push people through. Each is part of the pipeline,” said Ross, who settles an average of 55 refugees a month and the most in Iowa last year, 653.
Three refugee families that were already booked to resettle in early February in Des Moines through Catholic Charities had left jobs and belongings to come to the U.S.
“They had to go back to nothing,” said Rachel Kinker, Catholic Charities refugee resettlement program manager.
She said the agency couldn’t fast track any of the 150 cases in the pipeline because travel arrangements are booked two weeks out and each is at various stages of an extensive vetting process.
One family from Republic of the Congo was able to get to Iowa on Feb. 2 through Catholic Charities in Cedar Rapids. But because of the uncertainty the agency isn’t planning on resettling any refugees after Feb. 17, although 59 families are in the pipeline, said Carol O’Brien, director of its refugee program.
“It’s day by day. It could change overnight,” Ross said.
But this was a good day for one family.
They stepped into the Iowa winter, seeing snow for the first time, shivering a bit in the 20-degree air. They had only their suitcases.
The children and their parents, and grandmother Hawa Jama, tentatively stepped into the apartment complex, up a flight of stairs and into an apartment that a local church helped to set up. A pastor from the Central Presbyterian Church group wore a T-shirt of Iowa’s outline with words that read in their native language, “I am Iowa. You are Iowa.”
The young girls quickly went down the hall to see their bedrooms, looking at their made beds, and turned to each other to smile.
A baby doll had been placed on the bed.
“You can’t imagine how happy we are,” Musa said. “You can’t imagine how difficult life has been.
“Now we get a better life. We get the children a better life.”