Albert Makila appears to be living a refugee’s American dream – except for the broken heart.
Fifteen years after fleeing tribal warfare in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for a modestly safer life in Kenya, and six months after arriving in America, the former school teacher and his family feel at home in Buffalo.
He got a good job, as did his wife, a daughter and two sons. His youngest daughter is acing her grades at Erie Community College. They found a Congolese church and Congolese friends.
But because of a quirk in America’s refugee resettlement system, Makila’s daughter Agath Mwamini, 22, had to stay behind when the rest of the family came to Buffalo.
Now there is no telling when she will be able to join them.
President Donald Trump’s executive order on refugees and immigrants drew attention – and a court rebuff – for banning travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries and suspending all refugee resettlements for 120 days. But the executive order also reduced the number of refugees coming to America by 60 percent this year, a change the courts have allowed.
The 1980 law setting up America’s refugee resettlement program capped the number of refugees admitted to the United States at 50,000, but allowed presidents to raise the cap. President George W. Bush raised it to 70,000. President Barack Obama raised it to 85,000 in 2016 and to 110,000 this year amid the Syrian refugee crisis. Trump’s order reduced the cap back to 50,000.
The decision will have a big effect on cities like Buffalo, which has relied on refugees to restock its long-dwindling population. The United States already has admitted three-quarters of the new limit since the start of the current federal fiscal year on Oct. 1. That means the number of new refugees arriving in Buffalo is likely to slow to a trickle for most of the rest of the year.
“It is going to reduce immigration, which has been helping to stabilize our population,” said Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, “and it’s going to have a negative impact on the growth of our communities.”
And it means some families, such as Makila’s will remain split for an undetermined amount of time as they wait for refugee slots to open up.
“Every time I call her, I begin to cry,” said Makila, 52, who wept yet again as he recounted his daughter’s saga. “She will say to me: ‘Dad, why did you leave me here?’”
"It's not just the seven Muslim countries," says Paul Makila, 27. "It's affecting everyone." Paul, his parents, a brother and two sisters were resettled to Buffalo, but his younger sister was left behind because of issues with her paperwork. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)Buffalo has welcomed 664 refugees in the five months since Oct. 1. If that is 73.6 percent of Buffalo’s total for the fiscal year, about 238 more new arrivals can be expected through the end of September.
Poloncarz and Mayor Byron Brown, both longtime supporters of the region’s refugee influx, said the cut in refugee admissions could affect the size of the city and county population in the coming years. If Trump keeps the number of refugees coming to America at the lower level he recently set, far fewer refugees will be coming to Buffalo, Poloncarz said.
The county has to pay a share of social service costs for the new arrivals, but Poloncarz said most refugees end up working and contributing to the economy and its growth. In fact, a Buffalo News study last year found that the two West Side zip codes where the most refugees have settled beat the countywide average in job growth and business starts in recent years.
“We want to make sure we are not an economic burden on the country that has welcomed us,” said Paul Malika, who, like his father, works at Harlequin Books in Depew.
The most direct financial impact of Trump’s cut will be felt at the four agencies in Buffalo that receive federal funds to resettle refugees.
“It’s a huge financial challenge for the agencies,” said Eva Hassett, executive director of the International Institute of Buffalo, one of those organizations.
Marlene Schillinger, president and CEO of Jewish Family Service of Erie County – which settled Makila’s family in Buffalo – agreed.
“We’re trying to be proactive while not really knowing what’s going on,” she said. “It’s worse than hard. Our staff was scared to death: they thought we would have to lay them off. We’re just going to have to figure out a way to reinvent ourselves for the current environment.”
Trump’s policy is not the only factor delaying Malika’s journey to America. It’s been longstanding U.S. policy to resettle adults as separate refugee cases, said Apple Domingo, New American director at Jewish Family Service. That means many families have had to wait a few months for a sibling or a grandmother to arrive, because their cases got handled at different paces.
The wait is likely to be longer now, though, because the United States stopped processing new refugee cases when Trump issued his order on Jan. 27.
About half the refugees who have come to Buffalo since the start of the fiscal year are from the Muslim countries Trump tried to ban. But the largest number – 164 – come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose outcasts are primarily Christian.
“My sister is not Muslim, she’s Christian. She doesn’t even know any Muslims,” Paul Malika said.
Working, and waiting
Albert Malika enjoys his job: driving a forklift at Harlequin Books.
“We work together, black and white, we have fellowship,” he said.
The family’s East Side flat is at least twice as big as its tiny two-room apartment in Nairobi, Kenya. With so many family members working, they send money back to Agath in Kenya.
“We are very grateful,” he said. “This is why God must bless America. You have taken us from dust to a place where we can do anything.”
Essentially an illegal immigrant in Nairobi, his daughter Agath can’t work. Frail from a congenital heart defect, she lives in a spare room in her minister’s house and spends her days deeply depressed and waiting.
Makila finds it tough to talk to his daughter now. And it’s taking a toll on both him and his wife. His doctor recently told him he has a heart problem, and his wife’s blood pressure has shot upward.
Pointing toward his living room floor, he added: “If one is very rich, it’s hard to see someone down there, with a problem.”