Bewildered in Baghdad: Executive order worries Iraqi girlfriend of Brainerd grad
EDITOR'S NOTE: For their safety, the Dispatch agreed to not use Sundus' last name or the names of her family members. It took Sundus' mother and father more than five years to be accepted into the United States as refugees from Iraq. Friday, Sund...
EDITOR'S NOTE: For their safety, the Dispatch agreed to not use Sundus' last name or the names of her family members.
It took Sundus' mother and father more than five years to be accepted into the United States as refugees from Iraq.
Friday, Sundus and her boyfriend, Brainerd High School graduate Josh Mattson, waited for word on whether her mother would be permitted to reunite with her family in Minnesota after flying back from Baghdad. The family rescheduled her mother's flight home following President Donald Trump's executive order temporarily suspending travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iraq.
"She was going to take her flight about 10 hours from when the executive order was signed and it was declared on the news," Sundus said. "Seeing all that chaos, we realized they were stopping people at the airport, that they're not allowing people in. We just canceled the flight, even though she has a green card."
In the early evening, the call the couple waited for came: Sundus' mother was clear of U.S. Customs and Border Protection after more than two hours of questioning, and was waiting for her flight to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Although it is not uncommon for her to face extra scrutiny, Sundus' mother said she felt the questioning was more intense and lasted longer than usual.
The uncertainty surrounding last week's order leaves Sundus' parents feeling resigned, she said, and has Sundus concerned about her future in a country she's received her college education and in which she built a life for seven years. Although the Trump administration said it would ease restrictions on green card holders-legal permanent residents of the U.S.-affected by the order, many including Sundus' family are anxious about the long-term impact.
"It's very emotional," Sundus said. "I feel very depressed and angry. ... It's definitely been difficult, because that's like my life, and this is what happened. But when I go to school, that's not on everyone's radar, that's not what everyone's talking about. So it's really difficult to be having this background and then going to school and having people not even thinking about this, these major changes happening to the country. Because it's not affecting anyone they know. So that's the hard part, because it's affecting me in a very personal and emotional way."
From Brainerd and Baghdad
Almost two years ago, Josh and Sundus met in a cramped and disorganized bookstore in Dinkytown, the small commercial district neighboring the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis.
"I think I asked for her help with looking for something, or something cheesy," Josh said.
The paths leading each of them to the bookstore that day began more than 6,000 miles apart. Josh, 29, spent his childhood in the Brainerd lakes area, graduating from Brainerd High School in 2006 before heading to the Twin Cities for college. Sundus, 26, grew up in Baghdad, the capital city of Iraq home to more than 7 million people. She dreamed of studying in the U.S. long before it was within her reach.
"I grew up in a Iraq, and it was a bad time," Sundus said. "Also, just from a woman's perspective, I felt I always was very feminist. I felt I always wanted to study abroad."
Tragedy befell Sundus' family in 2005, when her uncle-a translator for a prominent U.S. aid worker-was killed by a suicide car bombing in Baghdad.
In 2008, prompted by concern for the family's safety because of its connection to the uncle who assisted an American, Sundus' parents applied for resettlement through the International Organization for Migration. The family application included Sundus but did not include Sundus' older brother, who was older than 21 and not eligible for the same application. For years, the family heard nothing concerning their request.
Sundus, meanwhile, pursued a means to study abroad in the United States. At 17, she was selected as a participant in the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program, a Department of State-funded program. Through the program, Sundus traveled to the U.S. for a four-week summer exchange, where she attended lectures on leadership development and civic rights at the University of Massachusetts.
After returning to Iraq, Sundus discovered the Iraqi Student Project, an organization seeking to help war-displaced Iraqis acquire an undergraduate education. She traveled to Damascus, Syria, in 2009, to spend a year in a preparatory program while applying for colleges.
In 2010, she was accepted to Wellesley College in Boston on a full scholarship. She was approved for a student visa and moved in with a host family.
"During my four years at Wellesley, I developed a very deep connection with an American family," Sundus said. "They have been like a second family to me."
A brother left behind
In 2013, Sundus' parents were contacted concerning their resettlement application and were told they would be interviewed.
"They kind of gave up on it, actually," Sundus said. "They didn't think it would happen."
The couple underwent a series of background checks, physical examinations and at least three rounds of interviews. The process lasted for several months.
Back in the U.S., Sundus graduated from her undergraduate program and was accepted to the School of Architecture at the University of Minnesota to receive her master's degree. In the summer of 2014, she moved to Minneapolis. Her parents followed soon after after receiving final approval to move to the U.S. as refugees. Two aunts of Sundus' had lived in Minnesota for more than a decade, and Sundus' older sister and nephew were also resettled in the area after her husband gained refugee status for his own assistance to an American organization.
Most of Sundus' family was together again-except for her brother, who remained in Baghdad after his application for resettlement was not accepted. As a single adult man not permitted to be considered as part of the family application, her brother's relation to the uncle was not considered close enough to constitute a danger, Sundus said.
"They keep asking for proof, but he wasn't working in an American organization," Sundus said. "He can't prove the fact that he has been affected through my uncle's affiliation with the American organization. ... It manifests through a verbal threat he hears from someone, like, tell (him) to be careful because people know that he has been affiliated with our uncle."
Sundus said her brother works across the city from where he lives, and it's normal for explosions to occur on a regular basis. She and her family are Shia Muslims, more likely to be targeted by the largely Sunni militant Islamic State group.
It's a difficult circumstance for her brother, being the only family member unable to resettle in the United States.
"My brother has been suffering from mental illness and depression," Sundus said. "It's just really hard."
Her parents' concern for her brother has prompted Sundus' mother to return to Baghdad on occasion, ensuring her son maintains his family connections and is coping with his situation. One such visit was what prompted her to travel to Iraq in November under one U.S. president, with plans to return last week under another U.S. president.
The reason for her visit was central to the discussion Sundus' mother said occurred with the customs employee Friday.
"He talked to her and said, 'You lied to the government of the U.S. about being in danger (because) you're going back to Iraq,'" Sundus said. "She said her son was suffering from health issues, and she wouldn't have to if he was able to come to the U.S."
Within an hour of Sundus' mother's return to U.S. soil, the Trump administration issued an official statement clarifying its executive order, noting the pause on travel did not apply to lawful permanent residents.
About 7 p.m. Friday, a federal judge temporarily halted the travel ban nationwide.
Beyond the uncertainty surrounding the return trip for Sundus' mother, concerns over the family's future travel possibilities and their future in the United States as a whole are consuming Josh and Sundus.
About a year ago, Sundus was granted asylum, shifting her legal status from a foreign student to an asylee. Because she was under 21 years old when her parents first sought resettlement, she was able to seek asylum under her family's application. In theory, this means she is able to stay in the United States indefinitely and can seek a green card after one year. Her eligibility for that application comes up in about a week.
Sundus is set to graduate from her master's program this spring, and Josh and Sundus are adjusting their future plans in light of the shifting political climate. The couple-whose future plans include marriage, someday, and an architecture career for Sundus-canceled plans to visit Europe after graduation day for fear Sundus might not be able to return.
"We're trying to have lives together," Josh said. "She's going to be an architect. She wants to have a professional life here and not have to worry about if she is going to be allowed here tomorrow."
Back in Brainerd, members of Josh's family are attempting to offer support. Sundus accompanied Josh to the area and spent time with his family over Christmas.
"I've been trying to keep track of the news to find some hope for him that everything will be OK," said Josh's grandmother Nancy Engholm, rural Brainerd resident. "I know that because of their family situation, it's hard for them to come back and forth."
Engholm said it's difficult for her when people are dismissive of the impacts the policy has had so far. She said she's worried about what might happen, should Sundus be unable to obtain her permanent residency or at worse, be forced to return to Iraq.
"It would be really hard on Josh," Engholm said. "He would be devastated. And I think she would, too. She's such a nice person. She doesn't cause any trouble. She just goes to college. If she couldn't finish because all of a sudden she can't be here either, it's just not fair."
Sundus' parents, meanwhile, are expressing sadness and defeat, she said.
"My dad was hearing this news, and hearing the fact that they might not be able to stay," Sundus said. "He said, 'I'm 67, I'm old. What am I going to do, staying in a country that doesn't want me? If this is the case, I'm fine with going to Iraq and just dying there. What am I fighting, you know?'
"They got really sad and depressed, because it's been many years they waited to come to the U.S. and now it's this thing like they're not wanted."
At this point, there are no orders or any indication the Trump administration intends to force out those hailing from the "countries of concern" who've acquired permanent residency in the United States.