Rini is a Syrian mother of four, wearing jeans and a turtleneck sweater, with her black hair pulled back. She no longer has panic attacks. She no longer refuses her kids’ requests to go outside and play. She no longer teaches them how to hide under tables. She no longer has trouble breathing when her kids go off to school. That’s because she is free now, living in suburban Indianapolis.
Mike Pence didn’t want her here. While he was governor of the state, his administration proved unable to move quickly enough on its so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act or a much-needed needle exchange program – but it moved with cat-like speed after terrorists attacked Paris in November of 2015. The following week, Pence filed an executive order preventing any further Syrians from being settled in the Hoosier State. He said it was for the protection of his citizens, but his evidence was flimsy: He cited testimony by FBI Director James Comey that there had been problems with the refugee vetting program, a claim directly contradicted by President Obama and the Department of Homeland Security. Pence cited evidence that the attacks had featured Syrian refugees. This proved untrue; the attackers had posed as refugees but were Belgian- and French-born.
This being the Pence administration, the governor’s attempt to look presidential quickly turned into an unmitigated mess. As he made his announcement, it turns out there was a Syrian family (not Rini’s) who had just left Jordan on their long journey to Indiana.
“The administration didn’t ask us any questions about families on the way – they just did it,” says Cole Varga sitting inside his office at Exodus Refugee Immigration Center, one of the state’s leading refugee settlement charities. Not wanting the family to become a political football, Varga had the family diverted to Connecticut. There, the state’s governor, Dannel Malloy, welcomed them. The following year, Malloy received a Profile in Courage Award for his generosity and statesmanship. Pence did not.
Instead, the ACLU challenged Pence’s executive order, and the judiciary mocked his claims. One of the tactics Pence tried to use was to deny state assistance to agencies aiding incoming Syrian refugees. The Archbishop of Indianapolis was not pleased: Joseph Tobin, now a cardinal, met with Pence and then announced that his diocese would happily accept more Syrian refugees.
Then came the legal smack down. A federal judge ruled that Pence’s policy “clearly constitutes national origin discrimination.” Pence appealed the case, and three judges listened impatiently for 21 minutes, with Federal Judge Richard Posner chastising the state’s lawyer. “You’re so out of it,” he said. In his ruling, Posner wrote, “The state’s brief provides no evidence that Syrian terrorists are posing as refugees or that Syrian refugees have ever committed acts of terrorism in the United States. Indeed, as far as can be determined from public sources, no Syrian refugees have been arrested or prosecuted for terrorist acts or attempts in the United States.”
This was all good news for Rini and her children. For five years, she had been trying to get her kids away from their home in Latakia province. “I couldn’t sleep,” says Rini, who speaks perfect English learned in school back in Damascus. “When I sent my kids to school, I would be so worried. If I sent them to the grocery store – it’s downstairs – if they were late for two minutes, I would go crazy. I wouldn’t sleep except on tranquilizers.”
Rini first took her kids to Egypt, but the family ran out of money and was forced to return to Syria. She began plotting to smuggle her kids on the treacherous sea voyage to Turkey – a trip that has claimed thousands of lives. But then she diverted to Kenya, where she had a sister working for the UN refugee program settling Somalis. They spent more than a year there. Counselors recommended America because of her English proficiency. Rini was unconvinced.
“I’m like, ‘The U.S., I hear a lot … they don’t like Muslims. I know the culture and everything. Yeah, I’m sure it’s better. But are you sure they’re not racist, and they’re not this or this or this?'”
She was assured most Americans were welcoming, and that since she had a nephew there, her family would be settled in Indiana. But Rini did her research and panicked.
“I just searched ‘Mike Pence,’ and it said that he had a court order, or something in the court, and that he didn’t want the refugees, and that a family was coming in and they didn’t allow them to come,” she says. “I’m like, ‘Oh my god, this is gonna happen to us!'”
Rini was told everything was going to be OK. They arrived in early October. Soon, her kids were thriving in school, and her anxiety has disappeared. I ask her if Pence’s concerns about lax vetting of Syrians had any validity. Her composed face breaks into a giant grin.
“How many interviews we went on! How many times they took our fingerprints!” she says. “They would keep us hours and hours, checking and checking and checking. This was so ridiculous. The U.S. is the country that really checks out people.”
Rini excuses herself. She has to head crosstown on a bus in the frozen sunlight to pick up her kids from school.
As for Pence, he’s only dug in deeper. In October, after the federal courts dismissed his appeal of a Syrian ban, then vice presidential candidate Pence said, “Donald Trump and I are committed to suspending the Syrian refugee program.”
Pence and Trump were true to their word: The new administration is expected to suspend the program this week.
He’s trampled on the rights of women, LGBTQ folks and the poor. Watch the radical crusade of Mike Pence.