Refugee resettlement

Kambiz Emami Fard, left, talks with daughter Dorin, center, and his mother Pari outside the Tasty Truck on North Main Street in Columbia.

It’s just after noon on a sweltering August day, and business is brisk at the Tasty Truck parked beside the CK Mart on North Main Street, across the road from Columbia College.

Despite the heat, customers are queued up at the food truck looking for something to eat. Folks pass along a little cash in return for a cheeseburger or hot dog or a Philly steak. A large misting fan hums as it cools those who plop down at the nearby picnic tables to dig into their lunch.

Food truck owner Kambiz Emami Fard surveys the scene, watching his small staff — including teenage daughter Dorin — as they interact with customers, many of whom walk to the truck from nearby neighborhoods. A native of Iran, Emami Fard has been in the United States for about two and a half years. He came to the U.S., along with his mother and oldest daughter, as a refugee, and the family was assisted locally by the refugee resettlement arm of the nonprofit Lutheran Services Carolinas.

Emami Fard has had the food truck on North Main Street for about seven months, and on that recent hot afternoon he tells Free Times he’s determined to grow the business.

“I didn’t come here to fail,” he says. “I didn’t come all this way to fail. I brought my family, and I want to show them I can build again.”

But that scene on North Main — a resettled refugee from overseas working alongside his family in a business enterprise — is one that could become less common in the U.S.

As reported in July by Politico, President Donald Trump’s administration is considering drastically reducing refugee admissions next year.

“A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services representative who is closely aligned with White House immigration adviser Stephen Miller suggested setting a cap at zero, [people familiar with the plan] said,” Politico’s Ted Hesson reported. “Homeland Security Department officials at the meeting later floated making the level anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000, according to one of the people.”

The cap on refugees being resettled in the U.S. has steadily dropped during Trump’s presidency. According to the Indianapolis Star, the cap was at 110,000 under President Barack Obama. That number fell to 75,000 during the 2018 budget year, and then to 30,000 in the current budget year. And now come the talks that it could fall to near zero next year.

Dylan Gunnels is a Columbia-based refugee services coordinator with Lutheran Services Carolinas. He says his agency has seen the number of refugees it works to resettle decline.

“Our agency in Columbia was averaging about 200 people a year being resettled,” Gunnels tells Free Times. “Trump’s first year in office we saw that decline pretty rapidly. Last fiscal year, we only resettled about 100 people. This fiscal year we are slated to resettle 71 people. So, you can see that it’s consistently gone down each year he’s been in office.”

Gunnels says a large portion of refugees that Lutheran Services helps in Columbia are from Burma and the Congo, though through the years he’s helped resettle folks from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Nepal and elsewhere.

The refugee services coordinator admits he’s concerned about the possibility of the Trump administration deeply cutting the number of refugees that could be resettled here.

“It’s disheartening, just from a broad perspective. It’s affecting the most vulnerable populations in the world,” Gunnels notes. “We have the largest forced migration issue we’ve seen in our history. Yeah, there are a lot of factors at play we need to address. But, America, which has always been the shining beacon, which has always been at the forefront of humanitarian crisis, is now [possibly] shutting the door.”

Emami Fard’s familial refugee journey is not yet at an end. His wife and youngest daughter are in Indonesia currently, and are seeking resettlement here. But the process is achingly slow. He recently received a message from U.S. Customs and Immigration Services saying that it might be six months before it can even give him an update on the status of his wife’s case.

In the meantime, he is focused on his business in Columbia, and the family that is here with him. He says he left Iran chiefly for religious reasons.

“In Iran, you cannot be Muslim and just change your religion to Christian,” Emami Fard says. “It’s a stupid thing, but it’s a real thing. Now, I’m a Christian. But here [in the U.S.] it’s very easy for you. Today, I am Christian. Tomorrow, you can be something else. Here, it’s whatever you like to do. But it’s not that way in Iran, in Saudi Arabia. In a Muslim country, it’s different.

“For the people who live here [in the U.S.], who have this freedom, it is very hard to understand these things. It is so hard in other countries. You have a good place here.”

For Emami Fard’s daughter Dorin, a student at Irmo Middle School, the prospect of other families possibly soon not having the resettlement chance that she had is disappointing.

“I wish they could have this opportunity,” Dorin tells Free Times. “I wish everyone a good life. I don’t want people to be in a country where they aren’t happy. I wish everyone happiness and joy in life. Seeing this happen, possibly, does truly sadden me. That’s why I don’t look at the news that often, because when I do, I see something that makes me really sad.”

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