World Relief, in a nondescript office park in the Kent valley, is hardly a den of left- wing America doubters.
The charity is the service arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, a mostly conservative national group of churches. At meetings, staffers frequently join hands to pray. To work there at all you have to sign a Christian statement of faith.
To say the place is going through some soul-searching right now, though, would be an understatement.
“This is one of the few times I’ve ever been ashamed to be an American,” says Chitra Hanstad, director of World Relief Seattle’s 50-person office.
It’s the state’s largest refugee-resettlement program. Last year this one office brought in 1,135 people fleeing war and starvation from 28 countries. More than half were Muslims.
On Friday, President Trump’s decision to halt the country’s refugee and asylum programs was throwing World Relief into chaos. The staff faces layoffs. Some were near tears because they’d been working for months to reunite refugee families from across the globe — all of which is now on hold.
Trump’s order bars all refugees for at least the next four months, blocks all Syrian refugees indefinitely, and halts almost any entry into the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries for at least three months (the order suggests it could lead to a longer ban).
The first refugee I met on Friday happened to come from one of Trump’s seven Muslim countries, Yemen. He didn’t want to give his full name because his wife and kids are still outside the U.S. Abdullah fled from Yemen’s civil war, then holed up in a refugee camp in Somalia and arrived here only to be locked in the Tacoma detention center for seven and half months.
During that time, he had hearings and interviews before immigration officials and underwent multiple background checks, finger printings and other screenings. This is the process that Trump, on Fox News Thursday, described thusly: “We know nothing about them (the refugees) … They didn’t vet them, they have no papers. How can you vet somebody when you don’t know anything about them and they have no papers?”
Did I mention Abdullah is an emergency-room physician?
“You’d be surprised at the level of talent and education locked up in the Tacoma detention center at any given time,” Hanstad says. “They are thoroughly screened and vetted. They are not people with ‘no papers’ and no background. It’s ridiculous.”
Abdullah, 29, said he has landed a job as an English-Arabic medical interpreter. With Friday’s order, though, it’s clear he won’t be reunited with his family anytime soon.
“I feel I’m not living as a full human being now, without them,” he said.
Later I watched a class of about 30 newly arrived refugees learn everything from how to register for the draft to how they have to notify the Department of Homeland Security anytime they move.
The World Relief staff, though Christian, seemed most incensed about Trump’s intent to prioritize Christian refugees over others.
“This is the beginnings of America blocking a religion,” Hanstad says. “It’s unconscionable to turn our backs on any people who are running for their lives. Jesus didn’t say, ‘You get help, but you over there, you don’t.’ ”
Said program manager Scott Ellis: “We are focused on what the Bible says, the part about welcoming strangers. Not what cable news says about it.”
The Kent office intends to keep helping the refugees who are here. But as of Friday, the flow of new ones has been stopped.
Watching a roomful of refugees learn how to apply for green cards, the lesson translated into Russian, Arabic and several other languages, it struck me what’s really at stake in America right now. Are we going to be an open society, or closed? Open to the world, to trade, to science, to foreign ideas — even to helping those not like us. Or closed, hunkered down behind our new walls.
Closed has definitely got open on the run. But I don’t think it will win. It’s only a week in and already some groups of evangelical Christians are rising up against it.
Read more at Trump’s first week isn’t just angering the left.