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Aug. 1, 2021

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After escaping multiple wars overseas, refugee in Spokane hopes U.S. citizenship will help her reunite with children

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SPOKANE — Since Kalthouma Mohamed took the Oath of Allegiance and became a U.S. citizen last month, she has been torn between two emotions.

On one hand, the Spokane resident said, she’s grateful for the safety and opportunity she’s found in her new home after a lifetime marked by conflict and displacement since she was a child in her native Chad. She feels lucky to have the apartment she shares with her two youngest children, 10-year-old Mohanad and Maha, who was born in 2013, and the housekeeping job at a downtown hotel that lets her provide for them.

At the same time, she is wracked with guilt and worry about her two older children — Nassim, born in 2006, and Nasma, born in 2008 — who were separated from her when the family fled Libya’s civil war in 2011 and live with their grandmother in northern Chad, a country twice the size of Texas in north-central Africa.

“It’s very difficult for children at that age to live without their mom, without their dad, in a war,” Mohamed said in Arabic through an interpreter. “They’re so young and they don’t know how to get out.”

When Nassim and Nasma call their mother on WhatsApp — something they do whenever they can borrow a working phone from a neighbor — Mohamed has to remind her younger kids not to boast about the sweets she buys them or the fun they’re having in their new hometown. When Mohanad and Maha inevitably slip up and excitedly talk about their new lives in Spokane, it’s a painful reminder for their older siblings — and for their mother — that their family is split between two very different worlds.

Although she was born in Chad in 1974, Mohamed’s family fled to neighboring Libya to escape war when she was too young to remember much, first to the Kufra District of southeastern Libya and later to the coastal city of Benghazi. There, she got married and had Nassim and Nasma. When Libya descended into a civil war of its own in 2011, her family had to make an excruciating decision.

Pregnant with Mohanad and suffering from anemia, Mohamed and her husband decided to send their two older children to live with her mother in the Tibesti Region of northern Chad. Soon after their younger son was born, they made their way from Benghazi to the Salloum refugee camp just over the Egyptian border.

The couple spent three years of sleepless nights in the camp, kept awake by mosquitoes and echoing explosions from Libya’s ongoing war. The year after Maha was born, Mohamed, her husband and their two youngest children were granted refugee status and allowed to resettle in Spokane.

For Mohamed, it was another difficult decision in a life full of them: remain in the camp, some 800 miles from her older children and her mother but unable to help them, or seize the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move to the other side of the world in hopes of one day reuniting with them.

Mohamed, along with her husband and younger children, moved to Spokane.

Their story reflects a grim reality with which many refugees grapple. With fewer than 1% of the world’s more than 26 million refugees resettled each year, according to the United Nations, getting a chance to move to a country like the United States is akin to winning the lottery. But accepting that golden opportunity almost inevitably means leaving loved ones behind.

For decades after Congress created the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program in 1980, the United States was the global leader in refugee resettlement. That changed under former President Donald Trump, who slashed refugee admissions by more than 80% during his tenure, setting a historically low limit of 15,000 people in the fiscal year that began last October.

The refugee cap, set at more than 231,000 in 1980, hovered between 70,000 and 85,000 during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. After campaigning on a pledge to raise that ceiling to 125,000, President Joe Biden announced April 17 he would leave the Trump-era cap in place, only to reverse course that same day amid an outcry from refugee advocates.

While Biden raised the limit to 62,500 through the end of September, refugee agencies say it will take months if not years to restore the resettlement infrastructure that atrophied under the Trump administration. Barely 2,000 refugees were admitted to the country between last October and the end of March, the first half of the fiscal year, largely due to restrictions that limited the number of refugees from African and Muslim-majority countries, of which Chad is both.

Once they got to the U.S., Mohamed and her husband filed a petition for their older son and daughter to be admitted to the U.S. as refugees with the help of World Relief, a Christian organization that provides services to refugees. After an initial approval expired, Mohamed said, the process fell apart and caused a dispute that led her to separate from her husband.

Sam Smith, director of immigration legal services at the Spokane office of World Relief, said petitioning for children to get refugee status often takes years and can be especially confusing for people who are adjusting to a new country and a new language.

While Smith declined to discuss the specifics of Mohamed’s case, he said the Trump administration’s policies slowed refugee admissions in more ways than one. In addition to lowering the refugee ceiling, the former president imposed travel restrictions on Muslim-majority countries and reduced consular staff at U.S. embassies.

Now, Mohamed hopes her status as a U.S. citizen will finally help her reunite with her children and mother. She worries especially for her daughter Nasma, who was born with Down syndrome and a heart defect.

With the help of World Relief, she is planning to travel to Chad, but the circumstances of such a trip recently got much more complicated.

On April 19, Chadian President Idriss Déby was reelected to a sixth term in office, extending a three-decade rule that saw him crush any political opposition in the oil-rich desert country.

The next day, Déby was killed on a battlefield north of the capital, N’Djamena, while overseeing troops fighting rebels based in the Tibesti Region, where Mohamed’s mother and children live. While Chadian forces claimed victory over the rebels May 9, Mohamed fears violence could erupt again in the region.

She also worries her kids could be targets of violence because their father, and thus the children themselves, are part of the Zaghawa ethnic group to which Déby also belonged.

After Déby’s killing, Chad’s military swiftly seized control of the country — ignoring the constitution — and installed his 37-year-old son Mahamat at the helm of a “transitional military council.” The council named a transitional government in early May, but John Mukum Mbaku, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the new government is unlikely to lead to major changes in Chad.

The oil-rich country, which was under French colonial rule until 1960, retains close ties to France, the United States and other Western governments. Déby, Mukum Mbaku said, positioned himself as a key U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism, deploying Chad’s military against groups in the region like Boko Haram, the Islamic State and al-Qaida.

Meanwhile, Chad remains one of the world’s poorest countries. Mukum Mbaku, whose research involves interviews with young people in the region, said poverty is likely a bigger factor driving young people into extremist groups than religious fervor.

“Chad under former President Deby was an essential security partner for the U.S. in the Sahel and other parts of Africa,” Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. “Chad’s international partners must also balance their interests in stability with the aspirations of Chadians for greater democracy in their country.”

Mohamed still plans to reunite with her mother and children, but she said the fighting in Chad may force them to meet in a neighboring country like Cameroon or Sudan.

After stints living in Michigan and New York, Mohamed said she returned to Spokane because it’s the place she has felt the most safe and welcomed. Now, she just wants her mother and all her kids to feel the same.

“All I want is to get my kids here,” she said. “In any way possible.”

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