AURORA, Colorado—The refugees at Mango House came to learn English, but they got a lesson in civics instead.
Project Worthmore head Frank Anello stood in front of a group of 10 refugees sitting at their desks in a classroom decorated with world maps and an American flag Monday night to explain President Trump’s new immigration ban.
“Does anyone know what is happening in America since Friday?” he asked, then turned to a whiteboard and wrote “120 days.”
Translators speaking Arabic and Farsi slowly broke the news:
“Iraq, Iran, Yemen...” Anello listed the seven countries blacklisted for travel, “To Syria, they say ‘no.’”
Three Syrian families sat quietly as the meaning sunk in.
“How many people have family in Syria?” Anello asked.
Hands went up from people missing mothers, brothers, grandchildren.
“They want to know if the government can come and take their children,” the translators relayed. “This man is afraid somebody will come and slash the children—be dead.”
Abdul Alkekhai and his wife, Fatima Monla Ali, came to the U.S. in November from a suburb of Aleppo, Syria, where he was a radiologist and she was a teacher. Here they clean hotel rooms for less than $10 an hour. They fled Syria to Jordan where the vetting process to get to America took three years. They brought three of their children to the U.S. with them, but a fourth was left behind, because she has kids of her own. They do not expect to see her again unless the immigration ban is lifted.
From a pocket in her robe, Fatima took out her phone and showed a picture of a determined-looking woman in a hajib, hand on her hip. Fatima writes the name “Reem.”
“I am tears,” Fatima said in English, showing a trail down her cheeks.
They don’t know whether they will ever see her again.
Mango House is not funded by the government. It’s owned by P.J. Parmar, a single dad who is the doctor in the clinic. He is also scoutmaster of America’s only all-refugee Boy Scout troop.
The son of Indian immigrants, Parmar bought the foreclosed office building and kept the word “refugee” out of the name because he “wanted for it to sound like a cool place to hang out.”
The three-story orange building just off of Colfax Avenue has welcomed many people in refugee-rich Aurora, Colorado. One out of five Aurorans are from another country and 120 languages are spoken in its public schools. Ethiopian restaurants line the streets.
For three years, thousands of refugees have turned to Mango House for assistance. In these hallways are classrooms where volunteers teach English and civics, there are food-share and after-school programs, and there is a health clinic. Nearly all of the 15,000 visits last year were paid for through Medicaid. In the dental clinic, a waiting room of Africans and Burmese, some of whom have never had dental care until they got to the U.S., wait to be seen by two dentists and seven hygienists.
Among services at Mango House is Project Worthmore. Last Thursday as Trump was drafting his executive order banning refugees, dozens of Ethiopians, Burmans, Sudanese, and Congolese from the refugee center had a rally at the State Capitol, chanting “Immigration Built This Nation” to beeping commuters.
As they protested someone had left two notes promising to “blow up all you refugees” in the center’s stairwell and parking lot. The next day, a pickup truck full of Halloween-mask wearing men jumped out, yelled and held signs to a group of teenage Somali girls walking inside. Now they’re scared, “especially for our sisters and mothers, who are targets because they wear the hijab,” a Somali boy who was with them told Anello. The FBI is involved in investigating the crime the APD is calling “a high priority.”
Monday night, Anello hustled back and forth between the English class and a board meeting where members discussed what to do about adding security. A new level of fear has set into Mango House since the bomb threat.
“This is absolutely a result of Trump’s policies,” says Parmar. “We have to be aware of what people might do next. Seeing these kids actively being targeted makes me very sad not only because I saw similar things when I was young but also because I’m supposed to be providing a safe place for them.”
Back in English class, Anello tells his pupils about how Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was one of the first state leaders to step up and welcome Syrian refugees in November of 2015 when more than half of the nation’s other governors moved to keep them out.
“They can try and scare us but we will not give in to fear,” he said.
The room of refugee men and women quietly got back to learning English, even teasing each other as they stumbled over their ABC’s. Life goes on. They already know what it's like to be at the mercy of a government.