At Syracuse Hancock International Airport, the last thing separating arriving travelers from their loved ones outside the terminal is a set of futuristic steel and glass doors.
Designed for safety, they only open one way. Passengers wait for the glass to curl open before stepping inside a spaceship-like tube. The door closes behind them, a few seconds pass, and another glass door curls open in front of them.
Step, close, open, step
A woman rushes to embrace her waiting family.
“How was your trip, honey?”
“I missed you, how was your weekend away from me?”
Step, close, open, step
A man, woman and infant child emerge from the doors. A look of confusion turns into a look of happiness and calm. It’s a moment more than a year in the making. It’s a moment that almost wasn’t.
President Donald Trump’s first travel ban barred refugees from entering the country for 120 days. In early February, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked enforcement of the travel ban, upholding an earlier decision made by a federal judge in Seattle. An attempt at implementing a similar ban was stopped in mid-March by two separate appeals courts.
Several workers from Syracuse Interfaith Works of Central New York, a nonprofit that resettles refugees, have been laid off since the first travel ban. But Felicien Seruhungu, who has worked for Interfaith for a few years, survived the cuts.
On this night in late February, Seruhungu is picking up a family of three from the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s a special pickup — one where he gets to reunite with his cousins.
In 2009, Seruhungu and his wife walked through those futuristic doors at the airport as refugees from the Congo. But the America he found beyond those doors wasn’t the America he was promised.
“The way people feel about this country; They think paradise,” said Seruhungu. “But when they get here; A different reality.”
The cultural and educational barriers are often glazed over during the talks of coming to America — mostly out of necessity. It creates a false reality, but real hope.
Seruhungu smiles as he drives north past Destiny USA, and says he enjoys taking his kids to the mall on the weekends to hang out or see a movie. His three kids were born in America, are doing well at school and, most importantly, are living in peace.
Peace and safety seemed like an abstract concept before he moved to the states. His family fled the Congo to escape a war almost as bloody as World War II. But even a United Nations protected camp in a neighboring country didn’t offer the peaceful refuge he sought. In 2007, a warring tribe killed his mother while she was staying there.
For most of the night, Seruhungu talks slowly, sorting through the language barrier with precision and consciousness. But his carefully chosen words smash together and his accent grows heavier when talking about Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” and recent layoffs at his work.
“He want to make this country great, but this has been great. This is as a great as it gets,” he said. “This is a great nation, so when he says, ‘I want to make this nation a great again.’ This is a great nation, what is he think?”
Seruhungu shakes his head, takes a deep breath and continues.
“This is a country of immigrants, I am sure he is from somewhere else. If not for him, a parent or grandparent they came from somewhere else. Refugees don’t get come here for just benefits, we work, we pay taxes to the government. Yes, yes, yes, this country is already great,” Seruhungu said.
Seruhungu pulls in front of the last terminal, and parks his car next to a “no parking” sign. He’s gotten a couple tickets before, but doesn’t want to pay to park in the lot. He walks through the cavernous and starkly-white airport hallway toward the arrivals and departures screen.
It’s the same airport hallway that was filled with pro-refugee signs and chants just a few weeks prior. Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner delivered a bullhorn speech that had hundreds screaming in unison, “No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here!”
But tonight, there’s quiet in the halls. Quiet, until Seruhungu reaches the digital sign and sees:
Newark, NJ (EWR) to Syracuse, NY (SYR) — Delayed
He shakes his head, and lets out a loud groan. He hates delays. He hates waiting.
Moments after, Ndunndiwe Cubahiro and his grandfather walk in to meet Seruhungu.
Cubahiro, who goes by Paul, came as a refugee a little more than a year ago — leaving his older brother behind. Tonight they will be reunited.
Seruhungu points to the delay. But Cubahiro smiles back and says he’s waited this long, he can wait a little longer.
“I am just happy to know that they’re in America,” Cubahiro said.
Sitting outside the futuristic doors, Cubahiro impatiently checks his phone. He remembers when he first landed in Syracuse, after six years as a refugee in Kenya, and was confronted with the doors. He watched several people before he completed the synchronized ritual — Step, close, open, step.
Cubahiro said he’s struggled in the last year to find and keep a steady job in Syracuse. The language barrier is the biggest hurdle, and he recently moved to Albany to find work. He speaks with a heavy accent — he draws out his vowels and places the most emphasis on the last consonant. After telling a story or joke, he reflexively apologizes, saying, “Sorry my English is no good.”
“If you can’t communicate in America, you are nothing,” Cubahiro said. “You have to work hard to get enough English to get work.”
Step, close, open, step
They’re here. A smile bursts across Cubahiro’s face as he embraces his brother and sister-in-law, and meets his niece for the first time.
Cubahiro embraces his brother, Mwungura Joel, and whispers in his ear, “Welcome to America.”
It’s a singular moment that cements the past, and is free of the future’s hardships. Under the harsh, fluorescent airport light, a family moves beyond the years of war, and still holds onto the promise of their new home.
Cubahiro takes his niece in his arms and smothers her with kisses as the family walks to baggage claim. Seruhungu sighs with relief when he returns to a parking ticket-free car. After every airport pickup, Interfaith caseworkers take the newly arrived to a refugee family’s home for a meal, before moving them into their own home. Tonight, Joel and his family will sleep in a motel, because there’s still no running water in their new home.
Most of the city’s refugees end up in the poorer Syracuse neighborhoods where housing is more affordable. Interfaith resettles most of the refugees on Syracuse’s North Side and South Side.
On the way from the airport, Seruhungu translates for Joel. Sitting in the backseat dressed in a black hoodie and floppy-rimmed top hat, Joel touched on the American promises he’s been told. He is happy to have finally arrived after the first travel ban delayed his departure. He was fearful for his wife and his newborn, and didn’t know if this day would ever come. But now he is in a “country of freedom, where there is peace,” and is happy to be reunited with his family.
“It is a great joy, I don’t have enough words to explain about it,” he said. “It has been a year without seeing them, so I am very happy to be here, to see them.”
At the house, the hosts have prepared a lavish spread of chicken, fish and a traditional African bread with sauces. The bread is prepared on the stove top, a nearly flavorless loaf until plunged into fragrant sauces.
The family eats together, shares stories and plays with the kids until it’s nearly 2 a.m. Near the end of the night, someone changes the channel from a “Full House” rerun to CNN. President Trump flashes on the screen, and the room gets quiet — all eyes turn to the set. He’s calling for more troops to be sent to Afghanistan — the whole room settles back into their meals.
It’s an intersection of the traditions they come from, tomorrow’s new beginning and the man that almost stripped them of it.
After the meal, there’s a silence. It’s late, and it’s time to drive to the motel, to drive toward tomorrow where the unknowns wait, but no one wants to make the move.
It’s a moment that lingers. It’s a moment that passes.
Published on April 19, 2017 at 11:33 pm
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