An orphan refugee’s mad scramble into Trump’s America
This was Laura Fantone’s vision: Her teenage foster daughter flies halfway around the world from a refugee camp in Ethiopia to San Jose, where she finds her new mom waiting with her long-lost friend and a crowd of supporters. They don’t share a language and barely know anything about each other, but they hug and cry joyful tears.
Two weeks earlier, it might’ve gone down that way. But by the time the girl’s flight touched down in the Bay Area, Fantone was lucky her new daughter had made it into the country at all. On January 27, President Trump signed a sweeping executive order that suspended travel in the U.S. from seven predominantly Muslim countries and halted all refugee resettlement efforts for at least four months.
Fantone’s new 17-year-old daughter, an orphan from Eritrea, risked having her long-awaited journey to America slip away. But a federal judge opened a brief window when he issued a temporary restraining order, effectively halting Trump’s ban. The girl landed a day after the White House lost its appeal to reinstate the order. The coincidence made her arrival a news story in the Bay Area, with local media crowding the airport’s waiting area.
What was supposed to be an intimate moment became a public spectacle. TV cameramen jockeyed to get the best shot as the girl clutched a friend she knew from her refugee camp and began to sob. A bystander shouted “Go home!” Soon a rumor spread that a local TV station had a bounty out for images of the young refugee’s face.
“It was not this perfect, romantic encounter,” Fantone said later. “It took her a good half an hour to figure out who I was.”
I’d been in contact with Fantone, a 42-year-old gender studies professor at Santa Clara University, for more than a week leading up to her daughter’s arrival, and though she faced waves of hope and doubt in the wake of President Trump’s ban, she’d always seemed calm and collected when we spoke by phone. But after the scene at the airport, she was deeply spooked and paranoid that the media was out to reveal her foster daughter’s identity.
“The climate is kind of hard right now,” she said. “I’m worried some crazy Fox News viewer will come and torch our house.”
Trump claimed his order to freeze refugee resettlement was necessary to “keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States.” In the case of Fantone’s foster daughter, the president briefly succeeded in stopping Catholic Charities from bringing a soft-spoken Orthodox Christian teen into the country.
In addition to the 90,000 visa holders whose travel plans were affected by Trump’s ban, about two-dozen unaccompanied refugee minors who were on the verge of joining foster families in the U.S. nearly saw their dreams of starting a new life derailed. Most had escaped war zones and suffered unspeakable hardships, sometimes at the hands of the very terrorist groups Trump said he wants to keep out.
Fantone’s daughter’s journey began at the sprawling Mai Aini refugee camp in northern Ethiopia, where she was one of about a thousand Eritrean children who had either lost or been separated from their parents while fleeing extreme poverty, violence, or forced military conscription. Relatives of people who escape Eritrea are sometimes tortured or disappeared, so we’ll call the girl Fatima, per the request of her caregivers in the U.S.
The United Nations identified Fatima as an unaccompanied refugee minor and referred her as a candidate for resettlement with an American foster family. She was already en route to the U.S. when Trump moved to reinstate his ban. If the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling had gone the other way, there was a chance she could have been turned away at the airport.
“We thought if we got her into the U.S. she would be OK, but we didn’t know,” said Angela Albright, director of the refugee foster care division at Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County. “We were just taking it day to day.”
The morning after the airport incident, Fantone and two Catholic Charities workers sat around the kitchen table in her modest home near Oakland. Fatima faced them, wearing two crosses around her neck, one small and gold, the other made of wood. Her almond-shaped eyes were fixed on an iPhone set to speaker mode. A social worker sifted through stacks of paperwork that outlined the terms of her new life in America. An interpreter listened through the phone and translated to Tigrinya, the most common language in Eritrea.
Fatima will receive $80 every month for allowance. She will have a tutor for school, who may or may not speak her native tongue. She can stay with Fantone until she’s 23, at which point she can move to a subsidized independent living situation. She has to stay in school or find a job. After high school, she’ll get help applying for financial aid or vocational training.
While the resettlement worker dryly laid out a list of the program’s do’s and don’ts, Fantone offered her own house rules: No internet after 11 p.m., except on weekends. No cellphones at dinner. Fatima assumed the distinct posture of a bored teenager, softly replying “OK” each time the interpreter finished explaining.
Catholic Charities said they would keep Fatima’s immigration documents and passport in a file at their office. She could have them back if she wanted to travel, or when she leaves the program, which the social worker said could happen any time she wants after she turns 18, or when she gets married. Fatima giggled. “OK.”
“Are you planning on getting married soon?”
“No,” she replied, giggling again.
Trump has suggested that “extreme vetting” of refugees will prevent terrorist attacks, but the truth is that all refugees — including kids like Fatima — already undergo 18-24 months of intense background checks, medical assessments, and cultural orientation.
Kristyn Peck, associate director of children’s services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, one of two faith-based organizations that work with the government to resettle unaccompanied refugee minors, noted that Trump’s ban put Fatima’s case in a particularly tenuous position. Once orphaned refugees turn 18, they no longer qualify for foster care and specialized services. For a 17-year-old like Fatima, that meant the clock was ticking.
“Any interruption backs up the whole pipeline,” Peck said. “That means any other kids in the process get pushed back a while. The kids in these situations are at risk of trafficking and abuse and neglect.”
The U.S. developed its unique foster program for orphaned refugees in response to the Vietnam War. Since 1980, it has placed nearly 13,000 young refugees with families, including about 1,300 who are currently enrolled in the program in 16 states.
Back in Fantone’s kitchen, the social worker explained how Fatima could get kicked out of the program if she breaks the rules too many times or starts to pose a danger to herself or others. If that happens, they’ll give her 30 days’ notice, and help her find a new place to live.
“All of the stuff on this form sounds very serious and scary,” the social worker said, “but we’ll work hard to keep you in the program.”
Fantone started to get misty-eyed and had to busy herself by preparing a snack. Later, she told me the program had already tempered her expectations. She didn’t know everything about Fatima’s past yet, but she didn’t need all the gritty details to realize that some parts were bad. (The social worker asked me to leave the room while she probed Fatima for her full history of trauma).
An Italian immigrant who became a U.S. citizen in 2012, Fantone worked with refugees from the Balkans back in the ’90s, and remembers what those kids went through. She was motivated to offer foster care to a refugee in part because of the current anti-immigrant political climate in both the U.S. and her homeland, which has seen an influx of refugees — many of them Eritrean — trying to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean.
With the interpreter handy, Fantone tried to find out more about Fatima’s interests. The teenager completed nine years of school, and her favorite subjects are math, Tigrinya, and English. She likes volleyball. She has never ridden a bicycle, but she’d like to try.
“Some of the parents [in the program] have this rescue fantasy: ‘Oh, my kid is going to get a scholarship to Harvard, he’s going to be a doctor,’ or whatever,” Fantone said. “They do a good job in the training of making you realize some of these kids have deep scars that you can’t heal.”
On Saturday evening, Fatima’s first full day in America, it just so happened that the Eritrean Community Center of Santa Clara County was hosting its annual East African cultural festival. In a distinctly Californian twist, the event was held at San Jose’s Mexican Heritage Plaza.
The parking lot was nearly full, and inside there were dozens of people from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and a handful of other African nations, many of them wearing colorful traditional outfits. Guests filled their plates from a buffet of stewed meats and vegetables and injera, a type of squishy flatbread that doubles as cutlery.
Mihretab Guelay, a 19-year-old Eritrean who came to the U.S. two years ago through the unaccompanied refugee minor program, was decked out in a blue pinstripe suit with a pressed white shirt open at the collar. He was lugging around a digital camcorder and tripod, documenting the event. He wants to be a filmmaker.
“You have to focus on your dream,” he said. “America, to me, is to pursue your goal of a better life.”
Guelay said he “respects the decision” by Trump to halt refugee resettlement, but he wondered about the kids who are still stuck back in his refugee camp in Ethiopia.
“It makes people give up hope they can come to America. It makes them head to Europe,” he said. Asked if he thinks Trump and others simply don’t understand the dire situation in Eritrea and the refugee camps, he replied, “I think it’s not that they don’t understand, it’s that they don’t put their children in our shoes.”
There are around 10 million refugee children in the world. Another 28 million kids have been displaced by violence or conflict, and 50 million are uprooted by poverty, climate change, and other factors. Justin Forsyth, deputy executive director of UNICEF, warned that when Trump suggests that refugees are a threat to America’s national security, it makes other countries less likely to accept them.
“What politicians say and do has a big impact on this issue,” Forsyth said, noting that the U.K. recently shut down a refugee program that was set to welcome 3,000 unaccompanied kids. “These are children. This is a test of our humanity, and overall we’re collectively failing.”
For now, Trump’s ban remains on hold, but he has said he plans to issue a new executive order that again would restrict travel from seven Muslim-majority countries and suspend the refugee resettlement. Trump’s original order also called for more than halving the number of refugees admitted to the U.S., from 110,000 per year to 50,000.
Including Fatima, there are now 11 young Eritrean refugees in foster care homes across the Bay Area. Most came from Ethiopia’s Mai Aini camp, and nearly all of them were gathered at the party. For Fatima, who expected to find herself all alone in her new city, the sight of so many familiar faces was overwhelming, but she tried hard to play it cool. She sat with the friend who greeted her at the airport, casting side-eye glances at the boys from beneath a peach-colored headscarf.
Addy Redaney, a 19-year-old Eritrean who knew Fatima in the refugee camp, wandered over and struck up a conversation. He’d been in California for more than a year, and spoke good English. He translated while I asked Fatima about her journey.
Did she know why her trip was delayed? “They just told her something changed,” he said — she didn’t know the specifics about Trump’s travel ban.
What did she think of the cameras at the airport? “It was good,” he said. Fatima’s dramatic eyeroll suggested otherwise. She was just trying to share a normal moment between friends, but my presence was the glaring reminder that nothing about her last two days had been normal.
People started to crowd the dance floor, but Fatima didn’t budge from her seat. Addy wandered off, and after a few minutes Fatima put her head down and began to weep. Fantone and Fatima’s friend escorted her to the bathroom, and by the time she pulled herself together it was time to leave.
“She knew that boy [Addy] and his brother at the camp,” Fantone said on the ride home. “It brought something back.”
As Fatima dozed in the backseat, Fantone explained that she expected the transition to be difficult. She was already trying her best to mitigate the situation by bringing Fatima to weekly gatherings at the Eritrean Cultural Center. She would take her daughter shopping for clothes and visit the hair salon in the coming week.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” she said. “I’ll do my best.”
A few moments of silence passed as she recalled the scene at the airport.
“You have all this attention,” she said, “but that goes away and it comes down to: Can I make a difference in this person’s life or not?”