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IRBID, Jordan – A month before Donald Trump assumed the U.S. presidency, Mohammad Al-Haj Ali, a 28-year old Syrian with a second child on the way, was taking cultural sensitivity classes in Jordan to prepare to start a new life in Illinois.
The International Organization for Migration-run class ended in a graduation ceremony that Al-Haj Ali remembers well, standing next to his pregnant 25-year old wife, Samah Hamadi, and 2-year-old son, Khaled, surrounded by about 20 other families.
"Ten to 15 days and you'll go — get yourselves ready," they were told.
Al-Haj Ali was interviewed five times in the Jordanian capital, Amman, about his family history— at times in sessions lasting more than 12 hours — over a two-year period. Sometimes months would go by with no news, but he thought the stress was worth it.
Assured their refugee life was coming to an end, he quit his job working with kids in Zaatari refugee camp, sold his furniture for 150 dinars ($212), bought five suitcases and packed them. His uncle in Rockford, Illinois, rented him an apartment and furnished it in anticipation.
Gradually good news for other families came — an Iraqi family gone, followed by a Syrian. His was one of the last still awaiting permission to go when news of the White House executive order banning travel from six Muslim nations sapped their hope.
Two months later, Samah gave birth to the couple's second son, two months premature — a tragedy al-Haji Ali still blames on Trump. The family waited in the hospital for a month as the baby struggled to survive in an incubator with partially formed lungs and an umbilical hernia.
They named him Laith, after Al-Haj Ali's brother, who was killed by the Syrian regime. The baby's brother, Khaled, had been named after their grandfather, who died in a regime prison.
The family says they've received no clarification of their status from the coordinating refugee agencies and feel stuck in limbo. Their five suitcases remain in storage.
As he waits in northern Jordan, mere miles from his hometown in war-ravaged Deraa in southern Syria, jobless in a mostly empty house, Al-Haj Ali is desperate to escape the region.
He dreams of a better life, proper medical treatment for his infant son, and of pursuing a doctorate in economics. But not in America.
"Maybe there will be a new law: Refugees aren't allowed to study in universities, refugees aren't allowed in certain hospitals, not allowed to go into New York or some other state," he said, sitting in the family's sparse apartment.
"The future there is not secure."