After the first executive order on January 27th suspended the refugee resettlement program and barred travel from seven countries, legal challenges in US courts followed. The resettlement program was able to start again, but the annual ceiling of refugee admissions remained lowered from 110,000 to 50,000 people.
Still, KRM was set to welcome over 100 more refugees to Kentucky before the program year ends on September 30—until yesterday’s order again aimed to halt all refugee arrivals for 120 days. This suspension takes effect March 16.
“I was kind of expecting it,” Aimee Ninahaza says after she heard about the first executive order that temporarily suspended the resettlement program in January 2017. “I felt really bad. There are refugees who are here because they want safety, they want opportunities to better their lives,” she adds.
At 16 years old, Aimee is a tenth grader at Jeffersontown High School. Her father was a politician in their home country of Burundi. “He wanted to help people,” she says, “but because some people didn’t like that, they wanted to kill him in order to be in power.” Her father fled to Kenya and applied for refugee status. He was approved for resettlement in the United States and arrived in Kentucky in 2012. After two years of trying to get his family here, he welcomed his wife, Aimee, and four other children in 2014. They were resettled through KRM in Louisville.
“If we were to stay back there, since they couldn’t find him to do whatever they wanted to do, they wanted to kill his family,” she explains. “Even now, the rest of our family – they were looking for them. Now they are refugees in Uganda. Being a refugee and starting all over, it’s something that is really hard,” Aimee says.
Although she explains that they are happy to be safe, Aimee says they felt a loss of home and family. “We weren’t poor. We had a good education,” she says. “You’re leaving people behind. There are people who depend on you that you might want to help. They still need you, but there’s no way you can stay. We were really happy to come here but it’s really hurtful to hear that they want refugees to stay [out].”
The day after the executive order was announced in January, Aimee and two siblings visited Spalding University in Louisville with KRM’s Super Saturday program. “Visiting universities and colleges is something really important for us,” Aimee says, adding that she enjoys studying science and math. “I was hoping in the future I could become a pediatrician. I love children. I want something that involves medical, so I put those two things together and I think that they match,” she explains. She laughs and then adds, “I might change my mind later, you never know.”
In thinking about the negative attitudes people may have towards refugees, Aimee suggests that getting to know each other and making friends is key, especially for students. “When you get into American classes, the [refugee] students are a little shy because maybe their English or they’re afraid of their accent,” she says. “Once you get to know them, you might change your mind of who you think they are.”
When she first arrived, Aimee says people in Louisville made her feel welcome. “A lot of people are pretty kind, and that’s what I love about here,” she says. After meeting teachers at her first school, ESL Newcomer Academy, she felt more comfortable. “They tell us you’re going to be fine,” she explains. “I felt like, oh – actually, I can do this. Even though my English – I didn’t know much. I developed quickly because I love it.” Now, Aimee is active in school and pursues her passions. She is a part of a dancing troupe called Seruka, which means “to appear before a group” in Kirundi. They performed at KRM’s United We Sing concert, in weddings, and at the AfroCubanism performance at the Iroquois branch of the Louisville Free Public Library this year.
Looking ahead to how the resettlement program will change and how fewer refugees will be admitted, Aimee hopes for the best. “Not all people in power and politics are the same. They all have different ideas,” she says. “The United States is a country of diversity. It’s a community for all.”
When refugees are refused entry into the United States, Aimee says we lose out on what they have to offer. “Maybe there are people who also have great ideas,” she says. “Who might contribute to something, might create something that will help people.”