Sita Adhikari left a refugee camp in eastern Nepal at the end of January. She was set to join relatives already in Rochester, New York on Jan. 31, less than a week after US President Donald Trump ordered a four-month hold on refugee resettlement.
As a tense immigration battle played out in the US, Adhikari was attending orientation classes on the practicalities of her future life.
“First day we are taught about diaper class, how to use diaper for children, for other, for sick people, et cetera. And uses of diaper and its importance. Because we do not use diapers in the camp because we have economic problem. We have grown up children without diaper, so we are taught about diapers,” Adhikari reads from the notes she took during her crash course on life in the US.
She was at a transitional housing center in Kathmandu run by the International Organization for Migration until her flight. On one wall behind her was a vista of the Himalayan Mountains; on another, a poster with scenes from the US, including the Statue of Liberty.
Adhikhari, who is Bhutanese, says her orientation also covered refugee status and the pathway to citizenship, and taught her about the rights and duties of American legal residents. “Right to speech, right to work, all sorts of rights and our responsibilities,” she explains.
People waiting to travel to countries like the US, Canada and Australia stay in these dorms in Nepal while finishing their orientation classes and health checks. The visiting rules are strict: Visitors can only meet with the refugees for 10 minutes, and have to stay in the guard station.
Adhikari has already adopted more of an American look: She has traded her flowy floral outfits for a plaid shirt, and cut her long hair into a shiny bob. Our talk naturally turns to the immigration ban. I ask Adhikari if she knows why refugees have been told resettlement will be put on hold.
“Because new president came in US, I think he will do verification, he will verify the illegal places I think, so yeah, stopped for some time,” she says. “It is good, because genuine [refugees] must be taken, fraud must not be taken, I think they must be punished.”
But while Adhikari prepares to fly, her family in Rochester is in panic mode wondering if she’ll be let into the US.
“From Friday night when the order was signed by Trump, I ... couldn’t sleep," says Adhikari’s brother, Yogesh Adhikari. "I emailed everyone: I emailed IOM, I emailed UNHCR [the UN refugee agency], I emailed the White House, I was just doing my thing. I even called ACLU!”
Yogesh Adhikari moved to Rochester in 2008 and is now a US citizen. He says he never got any answers after Trump's ban was first implemented on whether his sister could still come, so he prepared a room in his house for her and her two kids, and hoped.
“Those are really heartbreaking questions to not have the answer to,” says Jen Smyers, the advocacy director for Church World Service (CWS). CWS works with the State Department to place refugees in US cities. Smyers says most people — even refugees themselves — don’t realize how much vetting and verifying is actually going on before refugees are given clearance to travel to the US.
“You get name and biographical checks and those are only valid for 15 months; you get medical tests and those are only valid depending on your country for three to six months. You get a security screening that’s valid for 15 months. You get a DHS interview that’s only valid for 24 months, you get assurances that are valid for 12 months, fingerprints are only valid for 15 months,” Smyers explains.
These clearances are only simultaneously valid for about two overlapping months. So, a 120-day ban would mean most refugees on the verge of resettling would have to start the whole process over again in the future. (The executive order bars Syrian refugees indefinitely.)
But the Adhikari family was very lucky.
The State Department allowed refugees who are not from seven Muslim-majority countries named in Trump’s order to fly into the country through Feb. 2. Smyers says 875 refugees made it through during that window.
Sita Adhikari was one of them.
Her brother Yogesh went to greet her at the Rochester airport. From there, by phone, he says he's still a little shocked that she had arrived.
“We didn’t know she was coming, like we had no contact with her, she had no phone and we just hoped she was here today when we came here,” he laughs.
The resettlement agency that welcomed Adhikari and her kids to Rochester, Catholic Family Center, thought her group would be the last for a while. But the very next day, a federal judge in Seattle ruled in favor of a temporary nationwide halt on the travel ban.
The US Court of Appeals has so far stuck to that decision, and Catholic Family Center is now scheduling arrivals again through Feb. 17. Refugee agencies overseas are scrambling to get flights rebooked before travel documents expire, or a new decision comes out.