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Seven years after meeting Moh, I waited to hear: Was he now an American citizen?

Mohammed al Refai.
Andrew Trumbull
Mohammed al Refai.

I knew that Monday, February 14 would be a landmark day for Mohammed al Refai. It would also be a major turning point in a story that I had started following more than six years ago.

I had met the then 22-year-old Syrian refugee during my first reporting trip as a host of All Things Considered. He had recently arrived in Toledo, Ohio, where he was living with four white American roommates who called him "Moh".

Mohammed spoke almost no English when I first met him in October of 2015. He could say hello, count to 10, and rattle off the words he needed to work behind the butcher counter in the Middle Eastern grocery store where he'd landed a job: "Chicken legs, chicken breast, goat, steak, lamb, beef, turkey."

For me, the visit to Toledo was a way to more deeply explore an issue I had covered as an international correspondent based in London. The Syrian refugee crisis was at its height in 2015, and I had reported stories on the mass migration in Turkey, Serbia, and other countries.

When I relocated to Washington, DC, for my new job, I was eager to see what the exodus looked like in the United States. With All Things Considered producer Matt Ozug and NPR photographer David Gilkey (who was killed on assignment in Afghanistan the following year), we flew to Detroit and drove to Toledo, where we reported a number of stories about the Syrian community — including one about Mohammed.

His experience was different from most Syrian refugees. As I explained in that first piece, the U.S. State Department typically keeps families together. But for reasons that were never clear, Mohammed was given a visa to come to the U.S. while his brothers, sisters and parents in Jordan were not. The local organization charged with resettling Syrians in Toledo, Us Together, decided it would be too jarring for this young man to be set up in an apartment by himself. They found a group house with four recent college graduates who were eager to introduce a foreigner to life on the Great Lakes.

Mohammed al Refai's roommates, Johnny Zellers (left), Andrew Trumbull and Doug Walton in their shared house in 2017.
Matt Ozug / NPR
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NPR
Mohammed al Refai's roommates, Johnny Zellers (left), Andrew Trumbull and Doug Walton in their shared house in 2017.

When I showed up, the place was shockingly clean for a house where five guys in their early 20s lived. There was art on the walls, and it looked like it had been recently vacuumed. They all seemed to be getting along well, given the circumstances. There was music and arm wrestling. One of the roommates, Doug Walton, made a Middle Eastern dish of chicken and rice, called kabsa. When I asked him why he and his buddies decided to take in Mohammed, he told me: "My immediate answer just sounds so cliche, but I think the motive is love. I was told he's coming and that I have an opportunity to help him out. And I was like, yeah, why wouldn't I do that?"

Mohammed hoped that he would be able to see his family one day soon. But when I returned to Toledo a little more than a year later, the situation had changed, making that reunion seem more distant than ever. As Matt and I knocked on the door of the group house again in January of 2017, the memory of the 2016 presidential election was still fresh in the roommates' minds.

"We were all kind of together, just, like, hugging him and watching it all go down," Andrew Trumbull told me.

"We didn't really know how to respond," Johnny Zellers said. "What do you tell him? He definitely kind of got sad a little bit just thinking of, like, OK, maybe his family might not be able to ever come here."

Donald Trump had run for president on a platform of stopping Muslims from coming to the US. His election win seemed to slam the door on Mohammed's hopes of seeing his parents again.

"I need to be safe and close to my family, but I can't do anything," he told me. "I feel bad for they are not with me, but I can't do anything to help them." On my first visit to Toledo, I'd spoken with Mohammed through an interpreter. This time, he was able to express himself in English without help.

Two months after Trump's inauguration, in March of 2017, Mohammed's green card arrived. I called the guys from a studio in Washington, and Johnny told me he was the one who opened the mail. "I started reading it, it was like, oh, you are now a resident of the United States." It hit him: "Oh hey, this is the green card. You've got a green card!"

The roommates threw him a party with green cake, and Mohammed called his family with the good news. "My Mom, she said - you can come right now, visit us! And I said no." Mohammed said with a sad laugh, "I can't."

This was just as the Trump administration was banning travel from several majority-Muslim countries. Mohammed was afraid that if he left the US, he might never be allowed back in. He told his family it would be just three years until he would be allowed to apply for a passport, and then he would visit them in Jordan once he was a U.S. citizen.

He counted down the days, and three years later, he sent in his application. It was February, 2020. As the coronavirus shut nearly everything down, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services followed suit. USCIS closed to the public and stopped handling new citizenship applications on March 18.

I got a voice memo from Andrew in June of last year, months after citizenship tests had resumed. "We just got off another frustrating, unproductive phone call with the USCIS," he said. Mohammed had been hitting a brick wall, unable to get an appointment, and he was getting worried. Syrian refugees who had come to the U.S. long after he arrived had already taken their exams and become U.S. citizens. Mohammed wondered if something was wrong that he didn't know about - something he might never know about. After all, he still didn't have an answer as to why he was given a refugee visa while the rest of his family was not. Maybe another glitch in the system would prevent him from becoming a citizen.

Finally, he was given a date and time for his exam: Monday, February 14, 1 PM. He and Andrew spent weeks studying. Mohammed couldn't sleep on Sunday night. He woke up early Monday morning, put on a gray suit and black shirt, and drove with Andrew two hours to Cleveland.

Mohammed al Refai on Monday at the center where he took the citizenship test.
/ Andrew Trumbull
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Andrew Trumbull
Mohammed al Refai on Monday at the center where he took the citizenship test.

They drilled hundreds of questions and answers on the drive east. "What is the Constitution? What are some rights from the Declaration of Independence?" Andrew ran through the 100 sample questions from the citizenship exam and any others he could think of. "Where are you from? What's your job?"

Andrew dropped off his roommate of seven years at the Anthony J. Celebrezze Federal Building in downtown Cleveland. Mohammed walked across the icy plaza and stepped inside the door. Andrew waited in a parking lot for the news. 40 minutes passed. And then Mohammed walked outside with a beaming smile on his face. "I am now an American citizen!"

Andrew ran out and gave him a hug. The new American citizen spent the entire two hour drive home making phone calls to friends and family in the U.S. and Jordan. And then he called me.

"I am so excited to go see my family," Mohammed said. "This is my day. I'm so glad I'm an American!" He kept repeating that sentence: "I'm an American!"

There was a party in Toledo Monday night, with a confetti cannon. His family threw one in Jordan, too. Mohammed plans to fly there as soon as his passport arrives in the mail, perhaps a few months from now. Andrew says he'll go with Mohammed and witness the reunion. After all they've been through together, Andrew says, they've become like family.

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