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Inside an Anchorage Somali restaurant, worry about a policy from a president some supported

Asha Artan, who co-owns Safari Restaurant, talks with her son, Said Eprahin, and Mohamed Shide. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Inside a strip-mall Somali restaurant in the heart of Anchorage on Thursday night, people worried about what President Donald Trump's newly announced order on refugees and migrants might mean for their families — including a few who had supported his bid for the presidency.

One week into his presidency, Trump on Friday signed an executive action instituting new "extreme vetting measures" he said were meant to "keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States."

According to a draft of the order, those measures include suspending all refugee resettlement in the  United States for four months, as well as barring people from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Sudan and Somalia from entering the country, even if they have a visa, for 30 days. The order also bans Syrian refugees from entering the United States indefinitely, and cuts in half the overall number of refugees to be accepted by the United States.

On Thursday night, a handful of people with Somali origins but different paths to Alaska sat around a couple of long tables, glancing occasionally at a TV broadcasting college sports in the corner at the Safari Restaurant.

The president's plan to keep refugees and others from Somalia out of the United States was causing stress and uncertainty among many, said Mohamed Shide, a hospital security guard who has  lived in the United States for 18 years.

"We are worrying about it," he said.

The Safari Restaurant inhabits what used to be an ice cream store, next to a dentist office in Midtown. The ice cream franchise's red, black and white tiles are still on the walls but the shop has become a center for Anchorage's East African community. Today, there are samosas cooking; ugali flour, shampoo and tea for sale on the shelves; and a corner where men quietly perform their evening prayers.

Anchorage's Somali community is still small — maybe about 300 families, by Shide's estimate.

But it has grown quickly: In each of the last four years, Alaska has taken in more refugees from Somalia than from any other country — 69 in the last fiscal year reported. Today, Somali is the seventh-most-spoken language in the Anchorage School District.

The majority of Somalis who come to Alaska do so without all of their family members, Shide said. People who can't get visas or refugee status end up scattered.

"We are all over this world," he said.

Mohamed Shide, a hospital security guard who has  lived in the United States for 18 years, said he had changed his plans to visit his mother in Kenya. He’s worried he wouldn’t allowed to return to the U.S. if he left.  (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Trump's executive order dimmed hopes for many in Anchorage's Somali community that their relatives abroad would be able to join them in Alaska, he explained.

Mohamed Odowa, a taxi driver, said his daughter was one of those people. After a lengthy immigration process, she had made it to Alaska and had been trying to bring her children here too, he said. The order suspending Somalis from even entering the country made that seem like a very distant possibility. She had been crying, her father said.

Shide had been planning to visit his mother in Kenya. But he said the rising tensions had changed his plans. Though he is a citizen who has been voting in U.S. presidential elections since 2004 ("Kerry, Obama, Obama, Clinton," he said, summarizing his voting record) he worried that he wouldn't be allowed back in the country if he left.

"The executive order, it is easy for him," he said.  "I'm scared. I canceled my trip. Who knows what he is going to do?"

But it would be a mistake to assume no one at the Safari Restaurant supported Trump's campaign for the presidency.

Mohamed Odowa, an Anchorage cab driver, said his daughter is concerned that her children won’t be able to join her in Alaska.  (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Asha Artan walked in wearing a purple hijab and flowing robes. Artan's husband owns Safari Restaurant; she runs Salam Halal, a grocery shop nearby. Artan said she had been listening closely to the news, watching a lot of CNN at home. Her son Said Eprahin, a sixth-grader at Fairview Elementary School, nodded in agreement.

Artan said she did not agree with the things Trump had said about Muslims, or his decision to suspend refugee resettlement, though she was hopeful it would be temporary.

Artan herself had lived in Syria and Yemen before she came to America via a visa lottery. In Alaska, she had a business and education for her children.

That, she said, was part of why she had voted for Donald Trump in the November presidential election.

"America is my home," she said. "I believe in this country. This is a strong country and we need a strong guy for our leader."

Though she found Hillary Clinton a better speaker and debater, Artan said she could not bring herself to vote for her. She said she did not believe the presidency was the right role for a woman. 

"I had no choice," she said.

Her husband, she said, had been a supporter of Hillary Clinton.

Ali Hassan, a leather-jacket-clad taxi driver drinking out of a tall coffee container, chimed in too. He said he liked Trump.

"He's a businessman," he said with a shrug.

No one knew what the Trump administration's stance on refugees and migrants from Muslim countries would mean for them in the long term. But they were watching closely, said Shide: If the TV in the corner was not on sports, it was on cable news shows consumed with coverage of the Trump presidency.

"It's all we talk about," he said.

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