This article first appeared in The Washington Post. Used with permission.
On the day that President Donald Trump slashed refugee admissions to their lowest level in four decades, the arrival of a dazed traveler at Dallas’ international airport last month offered a quiet rebuke.
The newcomer was walking the final steps of an improbable, 15,000-mile odyssey. There to greet him were four others who had followed the same epic path to an American life, along with a native-born citizen clutching a hand-drawn, red-and-blue sign: “Welcome to Texas!”
None would have been there had Trump had his way.
In a nearly three-year campaign that has encompassed walls, travel bans, and the forced separation of children from their parents, the Trump administration has reshaped vast tracts of the U.S. government’s approach toward refugees and immigration.
But in one of his first attempts to bend policy to his will — an effort to block the arrival of refugees who had been detained by the Australian government on remote South Pacific islands — Trump lost.
“I guarantee you they are bad,” the president said during a testy exchange with the Australian prime minister a week after his inauguration. “That is why they are in prison.”
Now more than 600 of them are in the United States, living freely from California to Georgia and dozens of places in between.
After enduring years locked up by Australia for seeking asylum, they are making the most of their second chance — finding jobs, honing their English, and putting down roots in a country half a world away from the one they had intended to reach.
To refugee advocates, their largely successful integration in their new land proves that the president’s loss has been the country’s gain.
“The resettlements have been incredibly smooth,” said Krish Vignarajah, chief executive of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, whose organization has helped dozens to get started in the United States. “They’re becoming Americans.”
Here in the sprawling suburbs west of Dallas, Ali Reza Ataie and Ali Hesar — “the Alis,” as the pair of slim and soft-spoken 22-year-olds is known by friends — have been emblematic of the speedy transitions.
A year and a half after their arrivals, they both work full time and volunteer to help other refugees in their free time. Having left home as children and finding only closed doors as they ventured thousands of miles by land, air, and sea, they have finally found a home in Texas.
“We were never welcomed anywhere before,” Ataie said. “But we were welcomed here.”
They have even become part of the family for Holly Walsh, an Iowa-born, Mississippi-raised flight attendant who the young men affectionately call “mom.” She, in turn, treats them as sons.
Animosity toward refugees “has been in my face plenty of times, with people saying ‘Why are you bringing these terrorist-cell groups into our country?'” said Walsh, who is one of the Dallas area’s most active volunteers in helping refugees to resettle.
“I say, ‘Let me just tell you about my boys.’ I mean, how can you not love my boys?”
Refugees detained on the Manus and Nauru islands weren’t criminals, as Trump had assumed. But they were treated like they were, held for years amid wretched conditions as a warning to others not to follow their lead.
Their origins trace a wide swath of the globe, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Somalia, and Myanmar. But they shared a common destination: Australia, where they had intended to escape from war, oppression, or poverty.
The Australian government disrupted those plans in 2013, enacting a policy of forbidding asylum arrivals by sea. Instead, those arrivals were sent to Manus and Nauru — tiny islands far from the mainland — and told they would never be allowed to settle in Australia.
The government insisted the policy was meant to discourage dangerous boat journeys that enriched smugglers and cost asylum seekers their lives. Human rights groups countered that it was a cruel measure fueled by xenophobia.
The policy change came as the Alis were already en route.
The pair shared much: Both were teenage, firstborn sons whose families opted to send them abroad rather than keep them in a country where they faced ethnic persecution and a war without end. But they had never met in their native Afghanistan.
They each set off alone. First to India, then Malaysia, then Indonesia. A harrowing days-long sea journey in a rusty fishing boat packed to twice its capacity brought them to Australia’s Christmas Island and, they thought, their new lives.
But instead of entry to Australia, they were given a one-way ticket to Nauru — an eight-square-mile nation in the Pacific. The rocky land had been long since exhausted by strip mining, and with few other resources to offer, converted into a detention center for Australia’s unwanted migrants.
“We had gone through all of these countries, gone through the ocean. And then we were in prison,” said Ataie, who was 15 years old when his journey began. “It was the most terrible situation of my life.”
Despite sweltering temperatures, the detainees were housed in overcrowded tents. They were each given two minutes to shower, and addressed by staff with an alphanumeric code, rather than their names. As desperation grew, some detainees sewed their lips shut in protest. Others committed suicide.
“Everything I had heard indicated that the situation was very grim,” said Anne Richard, who was then the Obama administration’s point person for refugee policy.
As Barack Obama’s presidency came to an end in late 2016, and as the global population of displaced people swelled to record numbers, the administration was looking for ways to accept more refugees. It also wanted to encourage other nations to do the same.
Richard struck a deal with the Australians that fall that was intended to accomplish both: The United States would accept up to 1,250 refugees from Nauru and Manus if the Australians took in more people from other parts of the globe.
In Nauru, the deal offered a rare dose of hope.
“As soon as I heard about it, I signed up,” Hesar said.
Ataie was more skeptical. He wasn’t sure the United States would actually follow through.
Then Trump was elected, and the transcript of his combative call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was published in The Washington Post.
Obama’s agreement, Trump told his Australian counterpart, was “disgusting.” What if the next Boston marathon bomber was among the refugees, he asked?
“They are not going to be wonderful people,” the president fumed before abruptly ending the call.
Across the globe, in Nauru, a familiar despair returned.
“I stopped dreaming about what life would look like in the United States,” Ataie said.
But both Alis kept going with a process for screening refugees that Trump had dubbed “extreme vetting.” In interviews, every moment of their lives was reconstructed. The investigators homed in on possible inconsistencies. Medical and background checks followed.
After more than a year, they got approval. But they still didn’t know for sure that Trump would let them in.
“I thought, ‘We’re either going to be the luckiest people because we’ll get out, or the unluckiest because we’ll have everything done and then we’ll sit in Nauru,'” Ataie said.
“Even when they gave us a flight date, we were like, ‘Is it going to happen?'” Hesar added.
On Feb. 11 last year, they left Nauru for the first time in four years. Under intense pressure from the Australians to uphold the agreement — “a deal is a deal,” Turnbull had told Trump — the president had relented.
Ataie and Hesar had educated themselves about Texas by watching vintage cowboy movies. When they landed in Dallas, they were astonished: Not a 10-gallon hat to be seen, nor any boots with spurs. No horses, even.
When they ordered sodas at KFC, the cup was so large they could scarcely wrap their hands around it. A visit to Walmart left them speechless, awed by the scale. But a smile and a few words from the checkout clerk reassured them.
“Welcome to America,” she said upon learning they were newly arrived refugees.
They had heard in Nauru that some Americans dislike foreigners. But they said they have never experienced hostility firsthand.
“When people hear that we’ve been to several countries, they say, ‘Oh, what’s it like there?’ They find it interesting,” Ataie said.
Still, Ataie and Hesar do their best to fit in and not call attention to their outsider status. During their first few weeks in America, they walked everywhere. Passing motorists would slow down and stare, confused by the sight of pedestrians. Some even stopped to ask if they were OK.
Now, like the Texans they’re fast becoming, they drive everywhere, even if it’s just to the gym two blocks from their apartment, a comfortable and spotless three-bedroom that they share with three other Afghans.
At work, they don’t talk with colleagues about the fact that they’re refugees. They want to be known for their professionalism, not for their past.
Their job — doing quality control for an exhibits company — has them up before dawn. They often work late. When Ataie gets home, he spends hours online studying for a degree in cybersecurity.
New refugee arrivals have to find a job fast because the support from the local resettlement office doesn’t last long: just three months before they need to become self-sufficient.
“When they get here it’s, ‘Welcome to Dallas. Here’s your welcome meal.’ And the first thing they ask is, ‘When can I start looking for work?'” said Jacqueline Buzas, who coordinates refugee arrivals for the Dallas office of Refugee Services of Texas.
The newcomers from Nauru and Manus have had little apparent trouble finding jobs. Jenny Leahy, an Australian aid worker who lived on Nauru, visited dozens of them in the United States last month — from San Diego to New York. All were supporting themselves, a fact consistent with studies showing that refugees generate far more in government revenue, through employment and entrepreneurship, than they cost in state services.
“They’re hard workers, and they’re the most honest, generous, and considerate people you could ever hope to meet,” she said as she sipped tea with the Alis at their apartment. “It breaks my heart that they’re not in Australia. Who wouldn’t want them as neighbors?”
In the Dallas area, plenty of people do. Buzas said that even as U.S. policy moves toward a more restrictive stance toward refugees, the response in the Dallas community has trended the opposite way. “I’m flooded by people interested in helping,” she said.
Among those who have been inspired to assist is Walsh. As a flight attendant, she travels the world. But it’s in her adopted hometown where she has forged connections with people from Congo, Iraq, Myanmar, and well beyond.
“I put myself in their shoes: What if it were me having to go to another country because I couldn’t go home?” said Walsh, whose pilot husband and teenage daughter have also become avid volunteers. “They really blow me away. They can come here with nothing and rebuild their life. These are people with superpowers.”
She and the Alis regularly visit each other for meals. They share holiday and birthday celebrations, along with confidences and jokes.
Early on, she offered occasional guidance — how to buy a car, where to shop. But after awhile, they didn’t need much help.
So when her phone rang early one spring morning, she knew something was wrong. Their apartment was flooding, they told her in a panic. She was rushing to call the plumber when they revealed their discovery of a great American tradition: “April Fool’s!”
Even as they adapt to their new lives, their old ones retain a magnetic pull. They video-chat regularly with their families in Afghanistan, and worry about relatives left behind.
With the Trump administration admitting so few refugees — a move justified by the need to focus on asylum seekers arriving at the southern border — any prospect that their families might join them in the United States has grown more remote. And with the war still raging, a return to Afghanistan is out of the question.
In the meantime, they do what they can to keep alive their memories of home. That included a trip to an Afghan restaurant on one recent evening, their first since they left the country.
Set in a lonely strip mall where Texan suburbia meets undeveloped prairie-land, the restaurant featured tables decorated with baseball cards and comic strips — a dash of Americana in an establishment serving up specialties from central Asia.
“My mouth is watering already,” said Hesar as he pored over a menu stocked with savory beef dumplings known as mantu and delicate potato-filled flatbreads called bolani.
“Remember when we tried to make bolani at our place?” asked Ataie, laughing. “We had to take down the smoke alarms.”
The pair have been teaching themselves how to cook Afghan food via YouTube videos. But they’re not sure how well their training has worked.
Ataie imagined how the family he hasn’t seen since he was a teen might respond if he ever gets the chance to cook for them: “You’ve been eating this?”
The refugee population on Nauru is now dwindling, and new arrivals have slowed. But last week, one of the Alis’ last friends there became the latest to land in America.
Walsh brought her homemade welcome sign. Ataie wore a black T-shirt with “Straight Outta Nauru” emblazoned across the front. Three others who had traveled the unlikely path to Dallas, via a detour in the South Pacific, joined in.
No one mentioned the news, only hours old, that fewer refugees will be resettled in the United States next year than at any time since 1980.
For long minutes after the flight landed, there was no sign of the newcomer. But then he emerged, smiling, weary from his travels and apologizing for the delay. Jafar Alizada had gotten lost after landing, and came through the wrong door.
His friends hugged him and helped him with his bag — an average-sized backpack, not even full. They had much to discuss: Alizada’s journey, the latest news from Nauru, life in America. But first he needed sleep.
Moving quickly, they got into their car, and sped off into the Texas night.