President Donald Trump’s travel ban put an ocean between Maleka Alafif and her 13-year-old son, Daoud. He received a visa to join his U.S. citizen father, but she was rejected under the president’s proclamation banning immigrants from seven countries – five with Muslim-majority populations, including Alafif’s native Yemen.
Alafif had pinned her last hopes on the U.S. Supreme Court. But since the court upheld the ban last month, she now despairs of ever reuniting with her husband and son.
Daoud now lives in Michigan with family friends, separated from his father who works two jobs in California and can’t take care of him. Alafif and her three older sons stay in the African nation of Djibouti, where they interviewed for visas as the U.S. embassy in Yemen had closed because of the war there.
Over a recent grainy video call between mother and son, both broke down crying. “I really miss my mother and I want to be with her,” the 13-year-old said. “I cannot bear to stay alone.”
Seated on a couch in her apartment in Djibouti’s stifling summer heat, his mother wiped tears from beneath her burqa.
“We believe in the miracle of a country of freedom, and we hope one day we can gather in that place and live like any American citizen in peace and safety,” she told The Intercept.
After the Supreme Court’s decision, Alafif now faces an agonizing choice: Wait in Djibouti with little hope of ever receiving a visa, or return to a war zone, where she fears her older sons will be recruited to fight.
“It’s an unknown future – in between two fires – traveling back to Yemen and staying over here to bear expenses in Djibouti,” she said.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of Yemeni-Americans who fled a three-year war at home have been stranded in Djibouti because of the travel ban, which has virtually stopped immigration from Yemen — blocking business, visitor, lottery, or family reunification visas for Yemenis. Although refugees are exempt, their arrivals have plummeted and advocates say that applicants from the banned countries face additional processing. A report published by the legal advocacy organization Center for Constitutional Rights estimated that 1,000 passports belonging to Yemeni family members of U.S. citizens were being held at the embassy in Djibouti as of March.
The Supreme Court ruled on June 26 that the ban – now in its third iteration after legal challenges and turmoil following the initial rollout at the start of Trump’s term — was within the scope of Trump’s executive powers and based on a legitimate national security review. But the court avoided passing judgment on whether the presidential proclamation was motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment, as the plaintiffs argued, after Trump’s campaign calls to ban Muslims. For now, the nation’s highest court has spoken – and stranded many Yemenis in Djibouti.
The Intercept interviewed 14 Yemeni-American families in Djibouti. … The same feelings of shock, betrayal, and despair were echoed in every story.
In the tiny country in the Horn of Africa, the streets swirl with trash-strewn dust and the sun sears up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. Yemenis say rent is at least six times higher than it is at home. Men struggle to find work and children can’t attend school because of the cost and language barriers. In some Yemeni living rooms, the only decorations are suitcases.
The Intercept interviewed 14 Yemeni-American families, amounting to more than 50 people including children, in Djibouti, and spoke to immigration lawyers, advocates, and community leaders who know hundreds more. The same feelings of shock, betrayal, and despair were echoed in every story.
Sixteen-year-old Hazem Al-Shawbi, who journeyed alone 15 days through four countries for a visa interview and the chance to join his father in North Carolina, wondered why Trump wouldn’t allow a young kid looking for a brighter future into the United States.
Redwan Nagi had already bought a birthday present for the 1-year-old daughter he hasn’t met yet, expecting to see her soon after his interview. Since his visa was rejected, he worries constantly about his U.S. citizen wife in California, who has been diagnosed with depression.
Gamal Al-Omaisi, who struggles to walk because of a spinal cord condition, couldn’t believe that the embassy wouldn’t consider his medical condition when deciding whether he could join his wife in California.
U.S. citizen Salah Hussein has been in Djibouti waiting for his family’s visas for four months. Three of his five children are also citizens, but he would be unable to take care of them without his wife, whose visa was denied. He also supports his 3-year-old nephew, who he said cries every day because the toddler’s petition to join his U.S. citizen mother was rejected.
Ismail Alghazali, another U.S. citizen who is trying to bring his wife, disabled sister, and 5-month-old son to New York, questioned how his family poses a national security threat.
“Did you hear of any case of someone like my wife coming to the U.S. and bombing herself or doing anything like this?” Alghazali said. “I’m one of the people who wants the U.S. to be safe from all that stuff – but not this way, separating families.”
Yemenis have been immigrating to the United States for a century, but especially since the 1960s. More than 60,000 Yemeni-born individuals lived in the U.S. in 2016, according to census data. Men often came alone to work with the goal of bringing their families after they established themselves. But this pattern was upended when war began in Yemen in early 2015.
After Houthi rebels rose up and ousted the government, a Saudi-led coalition began a bombing campaign funded and armed by Western powers, including the United States and the United Kingdom. More than three years later, the country is in chaos.
At least 10,000 Yemeni civilians have died, the United Nations estimates, although watchdog groups like the Yemen Data Project report the number could be far higher. More than 8 million people are at risk of starving. A cholera epidemic has infected 1 million and killed more than 2,000. Boys as young as 11 are being recruited to fight. And the situation is only worsening: An assault on the port city of Hodeidah in June sparked fears that fighting will block humanitarian aid.
“Especially with the Supreme Court ruling with Trump’s decision, it’s really devastating for all of us.”
When the war started and the U.S. Embassy in Yemen shut down, family members of U.S. citizens flooded the embassy in Djibouti with visa applications. Over the next three years, many of these same families left Yemen when they were granted interviews in Djibouti.
The lucky ones flew straight from the southern city of Aden, but when fighting flared and infectious diseases spread, the airport was often closed. Refugees had to travel by cattle cargo ships across the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, known as the “Gate of Tears” because it frequently claims migrants’ lives. Others traversed roadblocks and crossed the border into Oman to catch a flight to Sudan, where they waited at least a week to get entry visas to Djibouti.
When the final version of the ban was implemented in December, chaos erupted. Visa approvals that had been issued on paper as early as June of last year, but hadn’t been processed, were revoked. In some cases, children received visas, but their mothers didn’t, or vice versa.
Two weeks after the ban went into effect, attorneys and advocates reported that an estimated 250 Yemenis were called to the embassy and denied en masse. Ashwaq Mobqel, whose U.S. citizen stepfather lives in Seattle, remembers her entire family crying that day as they took their passports back from the consular officer. Her visa is still processing, but her three children have been denied.
“I wish that they would accept my children instead of me. I just want a brighter future for them, that’s all,” Mobqel said in an interview in a friend’s apartment. “Especially with the Supreme Court ruling with Trump’s decision, it’s really devastating for all of us.”
Yemenis in Djibouti who had a visa interview scheduled after December received a one-page sheet stating that they were ineligible for visas under the presidential proclamation, followed by two options: A waiver has not been granted, or the applicant is being considered for one.
Waivers under the travel ban are only offered if the U.S. government decides that the denial of the visa would cause undue hardship, its issuance is in the U.S. interest, and the applicant doesn’t pose a security risk. A State Department official said that at least 655 applicants were cleared for waivers from December 2017 to May 2018 worldwide.
Inside the Djibouti office of U.S.-based law firm Goldberg and Associates a week after the Supreme Court’s ruling, a dozen men waited, desperate for help. All had their visas refused after the ban. They came to submit additional information to the embassy on the hardships their families are facing for waiver consideration – even though there is no formal application process for doing so.
Goldberg and Associates paralegal Lee Whitaker said all Yemenis should be considered for waivers because of the ongoing war. Two months ago, he began compiling a list of Yemeni applicants and a description of their cases, which he shared with the embassy. In all, he wrote up 292 brief individual stories of hardship. He said he did so because he was concerned that visa interviews – which he said last a maximum of 15 minutes – don’t cover all the information necessary to consider applicants for waivers.
Before the Supreme Court’s oral arguments in April, some applicants who were already refused began receiving emails that they were being considered for a waiver – and more have come in the months following. Diala Shamas, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, said that she sees no pattern in who is considered or not. The only cases that are approved are ones with significant public attention, she said.
The family of Shaema Alomari, a girl with cerebral palsy, was granted a waiver after their story was highlighted by the media and in Supreme Court oral arguments. Seventeen families whose approved visas were revoked after the ban finally received them via court order after a lawyer brought a case on their behalf. Shamas knows of no other waivers granted in Djibouti.
“The lack of transparency around it is particularly troubling because it’s affecting so many people’s lives, including U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents who can’t bring their families.”
“I know of cases that should be very obviously within the category of eligibility that have not yet received any notice of reconsideration,” Shamas said. “The lack of transparency around it is particularly troubling because it’s affecting so many people’s lives, including U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents who can’t bring their families. It can’t be left up to an opaque and reasonless process.”
Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer’s dissent in the June ruling questioned whether the waiver process was being implemented effectively. Waivers are the only relief under the ban, and the only government proof that the proclamation doesn’t amount to broad discrimination.
“If they’re not applying the waiver process, this would be a determination or differentiating factor as to whether religious animus played a role,” said Yolanda Rondon, a staff attorney with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
Even if applicants receive consideration for waivers, they’re then subject to a security review that has no set time period – further extending the limbo with little hope for success. The U.S. Embassy in Djibouti declined an interview request and would not provide numbers on Yemeni applications for visas. An emailed statement from the State Department official said that the agency has been and will continue to process visa applications to implement the ban and court decision.
Since the Supreme Court ruling, many Yemenis have already chosen war over waiting. Amr Tito, who works as a translator for a Yemeni immigration service in Djibouti, estimated that at least 500 people left in the week after the ruling, and more are booking flights every day.
One is Haleef Saleh. Six of his siblings have U.S. passports. In 2002, he applied for visas for his family, but after his wife’s U.S. citizen father, the petitioner, died, he had to resubmit their application with her brother as the petitioner.
When the family received an interview, they sold their house in Yemen and traveled to Djibouti in March 2016. Their case has been processing ever since. After the ban and the Supreme Court ruling, they’ve lost hope.
“The thought of going back to Yemen is killing us. Either I starve over here until I die, or go back there and die with a bullet.”
“We came to Djibouti because we love the United States. It’s the country of liberty and equality,” Saleh said, crouched in his living room surrounded by his wife and six children, who range from ages 3 to 15. “These kids, what harm can they cause for national security?”
Saleh struggles to afford the steep cost of living in Djibouti. In the past two years in his hometown on the frontlines in Yemen, his niece has been killed by a car bomb, his brother by an airstrike, and his neighbor by a roadside explosion. He said his 7-year-old twin girls told him they don’t want to go back to Yemen because they fear the rebels will kill them.
“The thought of going back to Yemen is killing us,” Saleh said. “Either I starve over here until I die, or go back there and die with a bullet.”
Banned by the United States, Saleh’s choice was made for him. The day after The Intercept met with his family, they returned to the war zone.