Umahmed Alteyeb was grateful when she arrived in New Haven in 2013. Now, she’s not sure what her future holds.
Alteyeb is a Muslim refugee who came here from Sudan with her husband and young son, aided in part by Integrated Immigrant and Refugee Services (IRIS). On Tuesday afternoon she testified before Congressional staff members in Washington at a briefing organized by the human rights organization Amnesty International.
Held at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, the briefing was intended to highlight the impact of President Donald Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order barring citizens and refugees from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen from entering the U.S. The order has since been widely contested and disparaged as backdoor ban on Muslims, as the seven nations invoked are majority Muslim.
Alteyeb’s story began in 2008, when she and her husband were working in Sudan’s capital city, Khartoum. One day, her husband disappeared; she couldn’t reach him, and found that police had no record when she visited stations and hospitals across the city. She looked for four weeks—until her phone rang, and a voice at the other end said that he’d been found at Omdurman’s main hospital, where he’d escaped from Sudanese Security Forces. They had become, by simply living their lives, enmeshed in the aftermath and continued gore of a civil war.
“We knew we weren’t safe,” she said in her testimony. “We had to run away.” So they did—leaving their home and jobs to flee to Cairo, which she recalled as a costly and difficult decision. Once there, her husband grew sicker. She felt, she said, alone and afraid; her husband’s life hung in the balance, and she was left to tend to their 4-year-old son with no acquaintances in the country. A fellow Sudanese family advised them to go to the United Nations office in the city to confirm their refugee status, and explain that they could not return to Sudan.
They were granted refugee status in Egypt, allowed to stay on the grounds that going home meant risking one’s life. But their journey to safety was far from over—Egyptian police clashed, often violently, with members of the Sudanese community in Cairo. At a peaceful rally in a city park, Alteyeb watched Egyptian officers attack fellow refugees with water cannons, attack dogs, and batons. She had also watched fellow refugees die before her.
Hearing her case, the U.N. recommended her family for resettlement in the U.S. It was an arduous process, she said Tuesday: long interviews, fingerprinting, legal questions, more interviews. The family waited in silence for almost two years. And then crushing news—their case was denied for reasons that were never specified, and they were told they they would have to apply all over again, starting at square one.
So they did. More interviews. More security checks. Countless legal questions. They had waited an additional three years when the news finally came: They had been approved to travel to the U.S.
“We were so happy, mostly for the future of our son,” she said. “We thought, now we reached our dream. Now we are free. Now, we have human rights.”
And for a while, it felt like that. Alteyeb and her husband struggled to adjust to a new life in the U.S., she said, but they were happy. Thy were able to enroll their son in school, pick up jobs, and start learning English through IRIS. They found a large refugee community in New Haven that greeted them with open arms.
Then Donald Trump was elected.
“We had no more fear, just hope,” she said. “Now we all fear after President Trump made the executive order to ban refugees from the U.S.A. The refugees I know became sad and afraid. We are most sad for our loved ones still in danger in Africa and the Middle East who will not have the chance to find peace and safety.”
“Even though I have a green card, I am afraid,” she said. “Refugees come to the United States ... for the future of our children, but now we are surrounded by fear.”
Her words began to catch in her throat as she continued with one such story—a friend who had a small child in a refugee camp in South Sudan. Or another—a friend who survived genocide in Darfur and came to the U.S., only to have his wife and baby daughter turned away.
As she concluded, invoking former Secretary of State Madeline Albright—herself a refugee from Czechoslovakia, by way of the United Kingdom—she spoke directly to the Congressional staff who had gathered to listen.
“She vowed for justice here in America and around the world. I now ask you, as members of Congress, to do the same,” she said. “Justice is standing up to Trump’s executive order, justice is using your power to help those without power. And justice is ensuring America continues to be a refuge for those in need.”
To listen to Umahmed Alteyeb’s full testimony, click on the video below. She begins speaking around the 30 minute mark.