Some Yemenis are nonetheless combating for US visas: NPR after the journey ban ends

Hatem al-Showaiter with his daughter in Djibouti when his daughter was three and a half years old. She is now seven and a half years old. Hatem al-Showaiter hide caption

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Hatem al-Showaiter

Hatem al-Showaiter with his daughter in Djibouti when his daughter was three and a half years old. She is now seven and a half years old.

Hatem al-Showaiter

BEIRUT – When the US government offered Hatem al-Showaiter and his wife Reema the opportunity to immigrate to America from Yemen in 2017, they decided to risk anything to make it happen.

To get passports, they made a harrowing trip across the front lines with their then three-year-old daughter in the long-running civil war in Yemen. Then to process her family’s visasThey were ordered to go to the US embassy in Djibouti, about 270 miles above the Red Sea. The American embassy in Yemen has been closed since 2015.

A Yemeni American wanted to bring his family home.  Then came the travel ban.

To raise the money for their trip to Djibouti – $ 8,000, much more than they could afford – they sold a dental clinic they owned. If that wasn’t enough, they borrowed from friends.

There was reason for hope.

But now, almost four years later, that hope has largely disappeared. The Showaites still live in Yemen. They are among the thousands who won a US government lottery but were later refused entry to the US due to the 2017 travel ban imposed by the Trump administration on citizens of Yemen and several other Muslim-majority or African-majority countries has been.

On his first day in office, President Biden lifted the ban, calling it “a stain” in America’s national consciousness. But his government still refuses entry to some of the most vulnerable people affected by the ban – people like the Showaiters.

Legal Restrictions

The family’s hometown, Taiz, is devastated and penniless since they were first promised a better life on the US Showaiter. The 36-year-old says he spends nights listening to shell fire that sometimes lands near his home: “Cluster bombs hit in residential areas,” he tells NPR over an Internet connection that he had to walk more than a mile to get to Find. “They killed children. This is our day after day.”

In 2017, Showaiter were invited to apply for the US Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which grants up to 50,000 visas to people from countries that are underrepresented in the US immigrant population. Applicants often come from impoverished countries or war zones.

The Showaiter family received an invitation to an interview at the US embassy in Djibouti on October 31, 2017. At that time, the Trump administration’s travel ban was in place. When Showaiter went to the embassy that day, he said officials took the family’s passports and gave him a piece of paper that was seen by NPR and told them to check their visa status online.

Anwar Alsaeedi stands with his children Nada (9) and Mazeen (6) in the Yemeni capital Sanaa. Reem al Saeedi hide caption

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Reem al Saeedi

Anwar Alsaeedi stands with his children Nada (9) and Mazeen (6) in the Yemeni capital Sanaa.

Reem al Saeedi

Showaiter says he was never contacted by the embassy again. When the family tried to go in person, they were not allowed to enter.

After five months of waiting, they could no longer afford to stay in Djibouti. Since the US embassy still had their passports, the Yemeni consulate gave them emergency travel documents to return to Yemen.

Both the US Embassy in Djibouti and the State Department tell NPR that they cannot discuss individual cases because the visa records are confidential under US law.

President Biden’s lifting of the ban means many people have other types of visas can apply again or have their cases reassessed. However, that doesn’t include thousands of diversity visa recipients whose visas have expired during the ban. Their only option, the administration says, is to get back to the lottery – where they may compete for years and never get selected.

Anwar Alsaeedi’s daughter Nada, then 6, and Mazeen, then 3, on the plane from Aden to Djibouti in 2017. The family traveled there in hopes of completing the process to obtain visas that would allow them a new life in the United States but was rejected because of the Trump administration’s travel ban. Reem al Saeedi hide caption

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Reem al Saeedi

Anwar Alsaeedi’s daughter Nada, then 6, and Mazeen, then 3, on the plane from Aden to Djibouti in 2017. The family traveled there in hopes of completing the process to obtain visas that would allow them a new life in the United States but was rejected because of the Trump administration’s travel ban.

Reem al Saeedi

“Instead of restoring the golden opportunity that the diversity visa represents, President Biden dusted Trump’s ‘closed’ sign and locked the door behind him,” says Manar Waheed, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who worked to highlight the situation .

In a written statement, a State Department official told NPR that the law provides that diversity visas can only be issued in the same fiscal year that applicants are selected in the lottery program. According to current law, expired visas cannot be restored.

“We are restricted in several ways by US laws or current regulations,” said the official.

But Waheed argues that the administration could try to change the law or bypass it. For example, it could provide people like Showaiter and his family with humanitarian probation that would allow foreigners to come to the United States for a temporary period on urgent humanitarian grounds.

She says once they’re in the US, people like the Showaiter could explore other ways to stay legal.

“The Biden government could do so given the incredible harm of the bans and the fact that people won a literal lottery and were then turned down on bans that this government says are discriminatory, false and unconstitutional,” says Waheed.

“We don’t know what to do”

“Our lives were destroyed by what happened,” Anwar Alsaeedi, 43, told NPR by phone from the Yemeni capital Sanaa. “I really have no hope that my family can recover from it here. There is nothing left in Yemen now.”

Alsaeedi applied for the Diversity Visa Lottery for 16 years. His efforts paid off in 2017. Like the Showaiter family, Alsaeedi and his family have been advised to go to the US embassy in Djibouti to process their visas.

Alsaeedi, his wife Reem – then pregnant – and their two young children crossed the front line to get from Yemen’s capital Sanaa to Aden. Houthi militias interrogated the family for hours and accused Alsaeedi of trying to get to the other side.

“The whole time war planes were flying over us and war was going on around us,” he says.

Alsaeedi says the family sold everything they had, including a small piece of land and Reems jewelry. Like the Showaites, they borrowed money from friends and promised to repay it once they made a new life in the United States.

Based on the experience of others who had received diversity visas, Alsaeedi expected the interview at the US embassy in Djibouti to be a final step before traveling to the US. Instead, the interrogator simply gave him a letter – which NPR has verified – on the grounds that the family’s visas were denied based on President’s proclamation 9645, Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from Yemen and elsewhere.

“Why are you calling us? Why do we have to pay the cost of the interview, the test, the trip to Djibouti and go through the whole routine just to refuse at the very end?” Alsaeedi says.

The Alsaeedis waited in Djibouti for weeks, hoping the US Supreme Court would lift the travel ban. When that did not happen, they had no choice but to make a dangerous journey back to Sanaa.

With almost no savings left, they had to return by sea. About 27 hours after the boat trip began, Reem suffered a miscarriage.

Before they left Sanaa, Alsaeedi had to quit his job as a bank clerk. Since his return, it has been impossible to get the job back. Nowadays he sometimes works as a day laborer and supports another construction worker as he knows little about building.

Before winning the lottery, the family was financially stable. Now Alsaeedi says he has to pull his children out of the private school they used to attend because he can no longer afford the fees. The family avoids buying expensive foods such as meat. And he still has to pay back his loans.

Alsaeedi hoped his family would finally get their visas when President Biden lifted Trump’s travel ban. With renewed vigor, he and others in his position organized an online campaign in which they tweeted President Biden’s thanks and her request to reinstate their visas with the hashtag #I_Want_My_Miracle_Back.

Then the government announced that it would not consider applicants whose diversity visas had expired during the Trump ban.

“Our situation is devastating,” says Alsaeedi. “We don’t know what to do.”

In the absence of alternatives, he says he will continue to write appeals on Twitter in the hopes that someone will pay attention.

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