When president Trump announced that he was slashing refugee admissions to the United States to 45,000 – the lowest in decades – the first person I thought about was 18-year-old Roqayah Mohammed.
I met Roqayah in 2007 when Syria wasn’t the war-torn place we know today. It was a haven for more than a million Iraqi refugees, largely the professional class, who had fled the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq.
That was the war that gave the world Isis (whose leadership met in the mid-2000s in a American-run prison in Iraq called Camp Bucca, the only place on the planet where Islamic radicals could spend limitless time conspiring with secular ex-Baathists), and destabilized the entire region in ways that are far from over.
Back then Roqayah was a precocious green-eyed nine-year-old living with her parents and older brother in Damascus. Her mother, Ahlam, a “fixer” for foreign correspondents, was my translator and friend.
Roqayah was five when the war came to their village near Baghdad. She remembers how, overnight, a happy childhood surrounded by a loving family was supplanted by tanks, helicopters, American soldiers, fear. Her mother worked as a translator for the Wall Street Journal and later for the US Civil-Military Affairs, which made her a target of militias. After being kidnapped and ransomed, Ahlam fled with the family to Syria. It would be another three years, and a whole other story, before they were resettled in the US.
When she arrived in Chicago in 2008, age 10, Roqayah knew only four words in English: yes, no, grandmother, and fish. But in the north Chicago neighborhood where the family landed, she swiftly made friends. None shared a mother tongue, so English was their lingua franca.
Within a year she was fluent, and I could no longer converse with her mother without Roqayah understanding every word. Within another year her grades went from Ds to As. She moved into Honors and AP classes, and went from seeing herself as a refugee to mentoring other refugees. She wrote her college application essay on the theme of “Adaptation.”