Friday, June 25, 2021

in-focus

Repeal of Trump's 'Muslim ban' offers new hope to frustrated immigrants and long-suffering families


ISTANBUL - Danah Harbi went to another doctor's appointment this week without her fiance, as she has for most of her six-month pregnancy, as she has for all manner of appointments and engagements during their long, forced separation. Maybe they will be together when the child is born this spring, but the last few years have been cruel and capricious, and the future has been hard to predict.

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Harbi, 38, lives in Falls Church, Va. Her fiance, Mashaal Hamoud, 34, a Syrian national who lives in Lebanon, has been unable to obtain a U.S. visa for several years because of the Trump administration's 2017 ban on entry to people from a group of Muslim-majority countries, including Syria. The couple had done their best to work around the restrictions. Harbi, an optometrist, traveled to Lebanon several times but was forced to curtail those trips when she learned she was pregnant.

As one of his first acts, President Joe Biden on Wednesday repealed what critics called the "Muslim ban," offering hope to thousands of families affected by the Trump-era regulations, if not an immediate solution, given the enormous volume of visa and waiver cases that must be resolved.

But the ban's legacy will remain. For many of those affected, there will be no regaining what was lost: the moments with loved ones, the money spent on visits to stranded partners or far-flung consulates, the opportunities to live in the United States that were dangled, then dashed or delayed.

"It takes a toll on you emotionally, financially to travel back and forth. Physically and mentally," said Harbi, who took a leave of absence from her job last year to be with Hamoud in Lebanon and was unemployed for six months.

The ban initially applied to seven countries - Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen - but Iraq and Sudan were taken off the list after a court challenge. (Six Asian and African countries, including Sudan again, were added to the list last year.) The Trump administration said the measure was needed to combat terrorism.

Refugees, their advocates and many others around the world saw something else: anti-Muslim bigotry. The ban heaped hardship on people who had already had their fill, including survivors of conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. For a time, many of the ban's victims - doctoral students, professionals and blue-collar workers - were stranded around the world, their lives upended.

Harbi met Hamoud in 2016, when Harbi went to Lebanon to deliver donations to a nonprofit organization helping Syrian refugees. Hamoud worked for that group, and before long, their relationship developed and Harbi began traveling to Lebanon regularly. In 2017, they decided to get married. As the fiance of an American citizen, Hamoud was entitled to apply for a visa to enter the United States.

"I didn't think the travel ban was going to impact us," Harbi said in a telephone interview this week. But from the beginning, Hamoud's application process was beset by delays. After delivering the required documents, the couple said they heard nothing.

"As time went by, I realized that this isn't about keeping us safe," Harbi said. "As an American, I felt like we were being discriminated against."

Now she is more hopeful. "He's such an incredible person," Harbi said of her fiance. "I can't wait for him to prove that to everyone that prevented him from coming here because they thought he was a threat."

Mohamed Abdo Ali Mohamed, a 49-year old Yemeni, has ferried his family around the world trying to obtain a U.S. visa. His lawyers reckon he has spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to secure a U.S. visa that would allow him to leave war-ravaged Yemen and join his father and his siblings in Buffalo, where they had lived for decades, according to Ibraham Qatabi, a senior legal worker at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which filed a lawsuit on Mohamed's behalf.

Much of that money was spent during a fruitless trip from Mohamed's home in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, to the East African country of Djibouti after U.S. officials granted him an interview and then told him, at long last, that he and his family would be issued visas, said Omar Mohamed, one of Mohamed's sons.

They had risked everything to get there - traveling 300 miles across the war's front lines just to get to an airport, then spending more than a year in Djibouti and thousands of dollars every month waiting for an answer. But the visas never came, held up because of the travel ban, said Omar, 31, who now lives in Malaysia and is still waiting for a visa.

"We told them our country is at war. We have to reunite with our family. They didn't do anything," he said.

Rand Mubarak, a 25-year old Iraqi refugee, recalled watching her father's health deteriorate as her family waited in Egypt for the Trump administration to decide whether to admit them to the United States.

Her father, Mubarak Mubarak, had worked as a translator for the U.S. military in Iraq, she said. The family fled their country after receiving death threats during the violent era that followed the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. By 2017, they had reached Egypt's coastal city of Alexandria and received news from the International Organization for Migration, or IOM, that they could soon travel to the United States.

Then came Trump's announcement and, with the stroke of his pen, their dreams of a fresh start were in doubt. Mubarak developed a heart condition. The doctor said a simple operation would help him, but he would need to leave Egypt. Rand called the IOM weekly, telling them her father needed to be transferred to an American hospital.

"He worked for the Americans, after all," she said. "They just told us that they had strict instructions not to process applications." The freeze was in place even though Iraq had been officially removed from the travel and immigration ban.

Mubarak died in July. Now, Rand said, her mother is sick too.

"It's the most hideous feeling, a feeling of being let down, a feeling of being left behind," Rand said.

Days before Biden's inauguration, Pamela Raghebi, who lives in Seattle, misplaced her driver's license. It should not have been a big deal, she said, but she panicked. It was one of those ordinary moments when her Iranian-born husband, Afshin Raghebi, would have known exactly what to do.

"I'm not as young as I was," Raghebi, 75, said. "Afshin would say to me, 'Sit down, relax, think about it.' He protects me. He recognizes that when I get flustered, I get frightened."

But he had been gone since 2018, trapped overseas after traveling to the United Arab Emirates for an interview to finalize his petition for a green card, the couple said in separate interviews.

The two had met at the retirement home where she worked when he came to install windows. They've been married for a decade and now jointly own a window installation business. Afshin had entered the United States illegally in 2006 but was granted a legal waiver to apply for U.S. permanent residency after they were married. Following his interview at the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi, the couple learned that Afshin would not be allowed to reenter the United States because of the travel ban.

Afshin, now 52, settled in southern Turkey, which was relatively inexpensive. He had some money in a bank account and to help support him, Pamela sold her car. At the beginning, Afshin went to the beach to pass the time or socialized with other Iranian exiles, but both pastimes had become "boring," he said.

When Biden took office on Wednesday, Afshin splurged on a bottle of wine to celebrate.

"The U.S., I loved that country. I still love it," he said. "They're playing with our lives."

Published : January 23, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Kareem Fahim, Durrie Bouscaren, Louisa Loveluck