TWIN FALLS — As U.S. troops battled the Taliban for control of Fathe Noori’s hometown in western Afghanistan, the Afghan National Army veteran was offered a chance to become an interpreter for the U.S. military.
Noori seized the opportunity, working with American forces from 2009 to 2014. But his service to the U.S. came at a huge price. His father was later murdered in part because of Noori’s work. And the Taliban placed a large bounty on Noori’s head.
“The Taliban orders the interpreter is the first target,” Noori said during an interview Monday at a Twin Falls coffee shop. “For each head of an interpreter, they will pay $25,000.”
One night, while driving home, a Taliban assassin tried stopping Noori’s car and shooting him. He escaped unharmed.
Another time, Taliban fighters stopped Noori’s wife and young son, but local villagers intervened to save the mother and child.
Noori and his family lived in constant threat of the Taliban, yet he continued his important work translating for American soldiers. In 2012, he requested a visa to bring his family to the U.S. Two years later, after a long and arduous vetting process, he finally received that visa. But he continued to translate for U.S. soldiers until the day he left Afghanistan.
Finally, in April 2014, Noori and his family arrived in the United States as refugees.
Now, nearly three years after settling in Twin Falls, Noori is dismayed that President Donald Trump has halted the nation’s refugee resettlement program. The order, signed Friday, bars refugee resettlement in the United States for 120 days and indefinitely for Syrian refugees. It also prohibits citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — from entering the U.S. for 90 days.
Noori says the move will endanger U.S. troops in the Middle East and cost the lives of people like him who are wanted for helping the “infidels.”
“The reality is, Mr. Donald Trump doesn’t know exactly who is the enemy and who is the friend,” Noori said. “Especially because he stopped the Special Immigration Visas. Because they are people who put their lives at risk to support this government, to support this people. In Iraq or Afghanistan. They are not your enemy. If they were your enemy, they would kill or do something back there to your soldiers, to your troops. But you can see that they are supporting you.”
Noori said people waiting to come to the U.S. will be killed every day refugees are barred from the country — especially those like him who helped the American military.
The order has been widely criticized by others who have dubbed it a “Muslim ban” because of the way it offers priority to religious minorities from Muslim-majority nations. It has also prompted lawsuits by organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. On Saturday, in response to the ACLU lawsuit, a U.S. District Court judge in New York issued an emergency order blocking deportations of those who’d already arrived in U.S. airports.
Locally, the order casts doubts on the future of the College of Southern Idaho Refugee Center. The refugee resettlement agency has provided services to thousands of refugees entering Twin Falls since the 1980s.
Director Zeze Rwasama said Monday they’ll continue helping refugees who are already in Twin Falls and he’s hopeful resettlement will resume later this year. He’s getting phone calls from refugees, who’ve expressed sadness and surprise.
“The refugees are affected big time because they have family members on the other side,” he said, who they’re hoping will come join them in Twin Falls.
Rwasama — who’s in Puerto Rico this week at an international immigration conference — said he’s telling refugees to be patient. A family from the Democratic Republic of the Congo arrived in Twin Falls on Thursday night — the day before Trump signed the executive order halting refugee admissions.
“They didn’t have any issues,” Rwasama said. “At that time, the executive order was not signed.”
On Monday, a young couple from Afghanistan filled out paperwork at the CSI Refugee Center as their toddler-aged son played nearby. It was their first full day in the United States, after arriving in Twin Falls on Sunday night.
Seven refugees — a Nepalese family of three and Congolese family of four — are slated to arrive in Twin Falls this Wednesday. The families received approval and were scheduled to come before Trump’s executive order went into effect, but there’s still uncertainty about whether they’ll arrive. Rwasama hasn’t heard an update about their travel status and still needs clarification about whether they’ll be allowed entry.
That lack of clarity about what will happen is the most striking part of the order, which has sowed confusion among various federal agencies tasked with implementing the travel restrictions. Rep. Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, while offering support for Trump’s order to review the refugee vetting process, also criticized the way the White House implemented the executive order.
“They failed to provide clear guidance on the policy, which caused substantial confusion at the ports of entry,” Labrador said in a statement.
Twin Falls Mayor Shawn Barigar said it’s hard to interpret the executive order until the federal government finishes reviewing the vetting process. He said it’s especially difficult to interpret the portion of the order that says state and local jurisdictions “may have greater involvement in the process of determining the placement or resettlement of refugees in their jurisdictions.”
“The balance of order is take a pause and review the vetting process,” Barigar said. “It’s hard to push those decisions down to the local level while the federal government is still looking at it.”
He said when the federal review is done, the City Council will welcome community input.
“But that would be a community conversation to have once the federal government completes their review of the program and has some facts and findings, so there can be an educated conversation about what they may have found in the program,” Barigar said. “I think people stepping up right now to share their sentiments about refugee resettlement, absent that federal review, would be kind of counterproductive.”
Rick Martin, an outspoken opponent of refugee resettlement and head of the Committee to End the CSI Refugee Center, praised the executive order.
“I’m really excited about what President Trump has done,” Martin said. “We’ve been trying to get Congress to do something like this for a long time.”
Martin, who ran unsuccessfully for election to the CSI board of trustees, also circulated a petition last year for a ballot measure to ban refugee centers in Twin Falls County. The petition needed 3,842 signatures to get on the May 2016 ballot but got just 892 signatures.
Martin will continue working to stop the CSI program locally, he said, because the federal ban is temporary.
“Ultimately, I feel CSI needs to get out of the refugee resettlement business,” Martin said. “They’ve got education related issues … and it will help them to focus on their primary mission, which is education.”
Deborah Silver, a Democratic candidate last year who lost her race for the state senate, is part of the group Magic Valley Refugee Advocates. She criticized Trump’s order for the way it was implemented and said the vetting process for refugees is already good enough.
“Of course we want our country to be safe,” Silver said. “But the vetting process is very strong already.”
Silver said targeting specific religions is a problem, the way the order was implemented “was appalling,” and refugees are nervous.
That was certainly what Solomon Tekle felt Monday. Tekle, who arrived in Twin Falls about five years ago as a refugee, said he’s worried about the situation with halting refugee resettlement. He prays that Trump will change or improve the situation and says other refugees are worried.
Tekle asked a Times-News reporter: Will the government turn me back to my home country?
Despite his concerns, Tekle — an Eritrean refugee who moved from Ethiopia — said he likes Trump and stopping Syrian refugees is a good decision. He said he’s worried about the spread of Al Qaeda terrorists.
“In this issue, it is a good decision,” he said. “Otherwise, I’m worried about me and other refugees.”
Tekle is from a Christian family and came to the United States for a better life. He came to Twin Falls with his wife, and they have since separated. They have a daughter.
The Times-News reached out to about a dozen local refugees Monday. Several said they didn’t want to comment. Others either didn’t respond to inquiries or said they were too busy at work to talk.
Since Oct. 1, the CSI Refugee Center has resettled 133 refugees. It was slated to receive up to 300 total by the end of September.
Idaho typically receives about 1,000 refugees each year, with approximately 70 percent in Boise and 30 percent in Twin Falls.
On Monday at the CSI Refugee Center, employees were helping the new family from Afghanistan and a group of children wearing Clover Christian School T-shirts filed into the meeting room. Plastic bags and cardboard bins full of donations — such as clothing, shoes, toys and diapers — were stacked up inside near the front door. Rena Garibyan, a coordinator for English classes at the center, had just wrapped up a class that morning and was working with two women on paperwork.
She told one woman she’d teach her how to call and schedule a taxi ride. “We’re going to practice tomorrow,” Garibyan told her. “Got it? Thank you very much.”
Garibyan — who arrived in the United States with her husband 26 years ago as a refugee from Azerbaijan in the former Soviet Union — said her students have been asking her questions about the executive order and don’t really know what’s going on.
She talked with her Friday afternoon classes about it. She said she wants facts on Trump’s executive order and wants clarification from his administration. And she won’t share her opinion with students until that happens.
Nearly two years ago, controversy around refugee resettlement started brewing in Twin Falls. During a 2015 presentation to the CSI board, Rwasama said he expected to receive refugees in Twin Falls from possibly the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Syria.
Crowds began showing up at CSI meetings expressing opposition and voicing worries about an influx of radical Muslims. There haven’t been any Syrian refugees resettled through the CSI Refugee Center.
Rwasama said Monday he hasn’t heard any opposition to local refugee resettlement lately. And he said he hopes if Trump’s administration is going to redesign the refugee program, that it will address concerns so everyone feels confident they’re safe and the vetting process for refugees is adequate.
For fiscal year, the total number of refugees from all countries allowed into the United States will drop from more than 100,000 to 50,000.
Trump’s order has sparked widespread protests and denunciations from Democrats and a handful of Republicans. Many have accused the administration of rushing to implement the changes, resulting in panic and confusion at the nation’s airports.
Citizens of the seven countries with a 90-day travel ban who hold permanent U.S. residency “green cards” will not be barred from re-entering the U.S., as officials had previously said. It remains unclear what kind of additional screening they will now face.
Trump is vigorously defending his immigration restrictions, as protests spread throughout the country, saying “this is about terror and keeping our country safe.” Trump released a statement asserting, “To be clear, this is not a Muslim ban, as the media is falsely reporting.”
Rwasama said he’s concerned about preventing Syrian refugees from accessing resettlement. The U.S. should have a system that can vet refugees from any country, he added. By singling out Syrian refugees and denying them entry into the U.S., he said, the executive order shows “a sense of weakness presented to the world.”