Somali Family in Springfield Separated by Immigration Ban

Feb 3, 2017

A Somali refugee family is trying to adjust to a new reality in the Ozarks after an executive order placing a temporary ban on immigrants from that country disrupts their plans.   

Khadija Ali, a Somali refugee and mother of three, arrived in the United States a few days before an executive order placed a temporary halt on refugees from her home country.
Credit Jennifer Moore

Volunteer Katie Webb is knocking on the door of a rental house in north Springfield. It’s just after dark—and about 3:00 AM in Somalia.

Webb’s volunteer organization, Springfield Welcome Home, helps refugees in their transition.

The refugees here are a young mother, Khadija, and her three small children.

“If the ban stays in place, then that means her husband can’t come over—in any situation, it looks like for at least 120 days,” Webb said.

While we talk on the front porch, a light comes on. As it turns out, the family is home.

Omar Ali, another Somali refugee, is Khadija’s brother-in-law. He works for Tyson Foods in Noel, Missouri. Neither he nor Khadija speaks more than a handful of words in English.

"America is good. Everything is good.  No problems," he said.

Khadija is the first refugee of his extended family to be processed, he said.

She’s sitting silently on the sofa, a fuschia hijab covering her hair and shoulders.

Omar Ali, left, hangs a calendar with volunteer Katie Webb in an apartment used by Ali's sister-in-law, Khadija.
Credit Jennifer Moore

Since we don’t speak a common language, I can’t determine whether she knows about the temporary ban on Somali immigrants and refugees.

Webb is taking notes on a clipboard.

“Okay, we have friends that can come and give you diapers for the baby, toys, a TV…you need a TV?” Webb asks.

When refugees arrive in the US, they are officially placed by an agency that contracts with the federal government.

In Springfield, that agency is International Institute of Southwest Missouri, which is connected to International Institute of St. Louis. Suzanne Lelaurin works there.

“It’s a federally funded program. So once we agree to take a family, the US government—there’s a contract that we have that spells out exactly what we will do,” Lelaurin said.

Her organization receives $1,125 per refugee—that’s money that goes toward a rent deposit, furnishings and other basic needs.  International Institute also helps the refugees take English language classes and enroll their kids in school. Staff members also sign refugees up for Medicaid and food stamps.

“Ultimately, you know, refugee families are not going to be able to survive on cash assistance from the state of Missouri. It’s very, very low.  A family of four gets 342 dollars a month,” Lelaurin said.

So, Lelaurin says, they focus intensely on job training--things like how to nail a job interview and use public transportation.

Meanwhile, Katie Webb’s volunteer organization tries to fill in any gaps, like providing a cell phone.

To get to this point, Khadija had to meet the United Nations definition of a refugee; although we can’t yet know the specifics of her story, most Somali refugees are fleeing drought, floods, food shortages, and inter-clan fighting. Many have spent years in refugee camps.

As Webb leaves, she’s not optimistic.

“You know, when we talked to her, she made it clear that she hadn’t had a job. And that’s typical of their society,” Webb said.

But Khadija only has one relative here—her brother-in-law, Omar, who already has his own wife and six children back home to support.

“She thought that her breadwinner was coming in a month,” she said.

According to the CIA Factbook, Somalia is the third largest refugee source country in the world, behind Syria and Afghanistan.

Jennifer Moore is Missouri State University’s Journalist-in-Residence and a KSMU contributor focusing on public affairs journalism.