It’s been two years since Arooj Nirmal laid eyes on her husband.
They were in Sri Lanka, which became a purgatory of sorts for two Christians who earlier had fled religious persecution in their native Pakistan.
Finally, after what she called “a journey from hell to heaven,” Nirmal found refuge in the United States.
Her husband is still waiting in Sri Lanka, where he has endured beatings and bombings and repeated displacement from a series of squalid camps.
Nirmal hasn’t given up hope. She also won’t reveal his name for fear of retribution overseas by Muslim extremists.
“I have a strong faith in God, and believe one day he will make a miracle for us to get back together,” Nirmal said from the offices of World Relief, which welcomed her to Spokane in 2017.
Her hopes of a reunion hang by a slender thread, one which is fraying with decisions made in Washington, D.C.
During Donald Trump’s presidency, the number of refugees allowed to be admitted to the United States has been reduced – from 110,000 in fiscal year 2017 to 30,000 refugees in 2019.
The numbers could keep falling.
Last month, during a meeting with officials from the Department of Homeland Security, State Department, Defense Department and other agencies, the Trump administration floated the possibility of admitting zero refugees next year.
Advocates immediately raised the alarm.
“The United States is a country built by refugees. To refuse to admit refugees, at a time when there are a record number of people fleeing their homes around the world, is a cowardly, racially motivated abdication of our nation’s values,” said Jennifer Quigley of Human Rights First.
“It’s very concerning,” said Mark Finney, director of World Relief in Spokane, which welcomed 597 refugees in 2016 but expects to receive only 166 this year.
The sharpest drops, by region of origin, have been from the Middle East. Until recently, Finney’s office received 50 to 60 refugees annually from Iran and Afghanistan. This year, that fell to single digits.
The drop has been less severe among refugees from Ukraine and other Slavic countries, Finney said.
Usually, the final number for the following year is determined by late July, giving World Relief and other organizations an opportunity to plan for the next year.
“With this administration, it has been challenging to get information,” Finney said.
According to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, about 71 million people worldwide have been forced from their homes. Among them are nearly 26 million refugees, people who have been forced to flee their homes because of war, violence or persecution.
Long before getting married, Nirmal witnessed persecution firsthand in Pakistan, where 96% of the population is Muslim and only 1.5% is Christian.
Told by her parents to avoid uncomfortable conversations with Muslim neighbors, Nirmal found it impossible. Once she was told that she would become a Muslim if she repeated a certain verse from the Koran.
Nirmal obliged, but her Christian faith only grew stronger.
Elsewhere in Pakistan, mob violence has claimed hundreds of lives in recent years. The worst came on Easter Sunday in 2016 in Lahore, where 70 people were killed and 340 wounded.
Long before that, Nirmal found a husband. The marriage was arranged by her parents, “who were thrilled that he was Christian, well-educated and taller than I am,” Nirmal said.
As she pursued degrees in nursing, information technology and teaching, her future husband grew frustrated over the treatment of Christians in Pakistan.
Working in the finance industry in Lahore, a city of 11 million, he started a Facebook page to tell the stories of persecuted Pakistani Christians.
“There’s is no way to help our persecuted brothers and sisters, but he tried to at least share this with other people in the world,” Nirmal said.
Extremists retaliated soon after they were married.
“We set out to flee,” said Nirmal. However her husband was captured, tortured and left for dead.
“We never wanted to be apart, but now we had little choice,” said Nirmal, who fled to Sri Lanka alone.
Soon after she arrived, the Sri Lankan government began deporting some Pakistani refugees.
“We were helpless and unable to work,” said Nirmal, who said she spent much of her time hiding in churches in Sri Lanka.
By the time she reached Sri Lanka in the summer of 2016, Nirmal’s application for refuge in the United States was being processed.
She reached Spokane in February 2017, grateful for refuge and a job at Huntwood, where she is a quality control inspector.
However, she’s always looking back.
Communication is by Skype and all the more difficult because of a 12-hour time difference between the two.
“We do the best we can,” said Nirmal, who was rocked by the news of Easter bombings this year in Sri Lanka that killed 259 people. The perpetrators were Islamic terrorists and the victims were primarily Christians.
Nirmal’s husband could hear the blasts from his refugee camp.
“It is a very scary time,” Nirmal said.
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