Since assuming office last month, President Joe Biden has signed several executive orders aimed at overturning his predecessor Donald Trump’s crackdown on refugees and asylum seekers. But he has also signalled that mending the damage done in the last four years will take time.
Families like mine, who have been separated by the Trump administration’s draconian immigration policies, however, cannot bear to wait much longer.
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I live in Idaho, as do my parents. My brother Tariq, sister Tarina and their families, however, are stuck in Peshawar, Pakistan, as refugees. My 73-year-old mother, a retired teacher, recently received a cancer diagnosis, and she is worried. She wants to be able to see and embrace her children again, before it is too late. My 83-year-old father feels the same.
I was overjoyed when President Biden won the election because he had promised to raise the annual cap on incoming refugees from the previous administration’s historic low of 25,000 to 125,000. I thought with him in the White House, my family can finally unite again.
My siblings applied to resettle in the US as refugees in 2015. Their application was accepted in 2017. But as they prepared to start their new lives in the US, the Trump administration closed the country’s doors to refugees. They have been told to wait. Despite President Biden’s executive orders, and many promises to right the wrongs of his predecessor, they are still waiting.
And waiting is not easy.
My brother and sister have gone through medical and security checks every six months for the past three and a half years in preparation for their resettlement in the US. Stuck in limbo in Pakistan, they are living out of suitcases in very difficult conditions. We are constantly worried about them, and all this is putting a huge strain on our family.
My 11-year-old niece is stuck there with them. After the presidential election, she called me to say, “It’s good that Joe Biden got elected.” She asked me to prepare a room for her because she believed with President Biden in charge, she and her parents would be “getting on a plane soon”. But we are still waiting.
My family is from Kabul, Afghanistan. We all fled the war and moved to Pakistan in 1992. But we did not find safety there either. As a doctor, I worked for Mercy Corps in Pakistan, making trips back into Afghanistan to educate women about sexual health and abuse – essential work very few people were doing at the time.
And I risked my life doing it. In 1996, armed men highjacked the vehicle we were driving. They took me and another female colleague. Later, they dumped us back on the road to find our way home.
In 2000, I was able to come to the US as a refugee. I felt lucky because I knew that I was not safe in Pakistan.
But this does not mean becoming a refugee was easy. First and foremost, it stripped me of my identity. When I was granted refugee status in the US, I was due to come to Washington, DC for a fellowship programme in reproductive health. But qualifying for refugee status meant that I could no longer practise medicine in the US. I had to give up the profession I loved, and invested years in, for my safety. After moving to the US, I worked for 20 years to help resettle other refugees and immigrants. Now I’m working as a service coordinator for survivors of torture.
People have many preconceptions about refugees. They think we are lining up to come to the US to have an easy, luxurious life.
But refugees often do jobs that locals do not want to do. We contribute to the local economy and add value to our communities.
We also do not get to choose which country we end up living in.
Australia accepted my other sister, Regina, as a refugee in 2012, after the Taliban killed her husband. Of course, I am saddened that she is so far away from me. But she is safe, and that is what really matters. This is the reality of being a refugee, we do not get much choice when we are trying to find safety.
The US used to be a beacon of hope for refugees. President Biden has spoken about the fight for the soul of the US and I feel this issue strikes at the heart of that.
I am not speaking up out of selfishness or self-pity. I am not speaking up just for my siblings and my family either. There are many more families in our situation. The US refugee system is inflicting pain on thousands of people who have already suffered enough. I want the new US administration to hear their voices.
Children are dying and millions are living with the fear of violence across the world. President Biden may not be able to save them all, but he has the power to help many. If he could visit the refugee camps so many are stuck in today, and witness the conditions, I’m sure he would do everything in his power to help as many people as he can as quickly as possible.
If President Biden really wants to save the soul of the US, make it once again a land of hope and opportunity for all, he should welcome more refugees and reunite long-suffering families like mine without unnecessary delay.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.