Djibouti, Djibouti

In December, Sharifa walked out of the US embassy in Djibouti triumphant. In her hands, she clutched a slip of paper that said her visa had finally been approved. She and her four children would be in America by New Years, she thought. She just needed to wait for her visa to be printed; after years of war in Yemen, her family would be safe together. “I love my country, but the situation there forced me to flee. I just couldn’t risk the lives of my children,” she said.

Her kids are American citizens like their father, Mohsen, who works at a grocery store in Alabama to earn money for them. The years of separation and the costs of traveling to Djibouti—navigating checkpoints to reach the city of Aden and then boarding a plane to Sudan, where they would wait nearly three weeks before arriving in Djibouti—would all be worth it.

But a few days before her visa interview, the US Supreme Court gave the green light to the third version of President Donald Trump’s travel ban, which bars entry for nationals from Yemen and four other Muslim-majority nations.

By the first week of March, Sharifa was still in Djibouti waiting for her visa. In that time, she had watched hundreds of other Yemenis in Djibouti receive rejection letters from the US embassy. Just like her, they were all relatives—usually a spouse or child—of a US citizen, and had applied for visas years ago, well before Trump introduced the ban.

When Sharifa finally received an update from the embassy three months after her interview, everything unraveled. Her visa had been denied. The decision was final; there would be no appeal.

The small piece of paper that said her visa was approved and once signaled her future mocked her now. “Many were given this same paper, but then they ended up rejecting them,” Sharifa said quietly, sitting on the floor of the small apartment she shares with one of her few friends.

Since December, her family has split in half. The passports for their two oldest children, Stralah, 10, and Ahmed, 8, were expiring, so they left with their father to go to the United States, believing Sharifa would follow shortly thereafter. Their 5-year-old daughter, Lama, and toddler Mohamed have stayed in Djibouti with their mother. “We spent all the money we had, and now we are stuck,” Sharifa said. “I can’t go back to Yemen, but how do I live in a country I don’t know?”

As Sharifa spoke, Lama wandered to the corner where a pink backpack sits and pulled out a red shirt, bringing it to her chin to embrace. “She always holds her dad’s clothes, that’s the way she remembers him,” Sharifa explained.

Sharifa and her family’s separation is likely what awaits US citizens with family members across the countries affected by Trump’s travel ban. Their one hope now is the Supreme Court. After its December decision that allowed the ban to go into effect, the Court announced in January that it would hear a challenge brought by the state of Hawaii. Arguments took place in late April, but many court watchers believe the justices will uphold the ban. A decision is expected this month.

The Supreme Court decision is particularly fraught for Yemeni Americans. Before the war, which began in 2015, they were able to maintain a life between their two home countries—working in the United States to support their family back in Yemen, whom they would visit often. The war changed all of that. Houthi rebels continue to fight an international coalition led by Saudi Arabia and supported by the United States. Over the last three years, the country’s infrastructure has been destroyed, and over 17 million people are going hungry—more than a third of whom are on the brink of famine. Frequent blockades by the Saudi coalition have aggravated an already low supply of humanitarian aid and medical supplies. According to the United Nations, over 1 million people have been infected with cholera, and humanitarian officials warn that, with the arrival of rainy season, another outbreak is looming. 

Since there hasn’t been a US embassy in Yemen since 2015, the cases of visa applicants trying to flee Yemen are assigned to foreign countries, primarily Djibouti. The application process is arduous, often involving DNA tests to prove relationships, and the first phase can take years. Then, once they make it through and receive an interview date, they must navigate an exit from Yemen. Many applicants sell everything, including homes and businesses, so they can afford the travel costs and living expenses in Djibouti. The airport in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, is closed to civilian flights, and the airport in Aden periodically shuts down as well. When that happens, many travel to Djibouti by boat, a dangerous journey across the Red Sea. The relief of arriving for the last step of the visa process dissipates when they now confront the next obstacle: Trump’s travel ban.

“I can’t settle down in a strange country that I entered for the first time in my life,” Sharifa said anxiously. “I can’t speak the language here; I can’t communicate with anyone. I feel like a prisoner here.” Djibouti is now her purgatory. On one side, a home destroyed by war; on the other, a country that has deemed her a threat to its security.

“My kids are away from me. They call me every day, and they cry,” Sharifa said, scrolling through photos of Stralah and Ahmed on WhatsApp. “They are not even living together.”

Her absence has had a domino effect on the family. The original plan hung on the idea that Sharifa would receive a visa, and the family would be able to begin their life together in the United States. But without her there, Mohsen had to leave the two eldest children with separate family friends—one in Michigan, the other in a different town in Alabama—because he can’t look after them while he works. “We are a dispersed family now,” Sharifa said.

In January, she found out she was pregnant, carrying a child who will be eligible for US citizenship but born to a mother who, for now, is not allowed into America.

There is supposed to be a pathway, albeit a narrow one, to the United States for applicants like Sharifa. Just one week after his inauguration, Trump implemented the first travel ban, which triggered protests at airports across the country. While the rallies faded, the ongoing legal battles forced the ban to morph through two more iterations. One of the changes that emerged is a case-by-case waiver for visa applicants, which could allow some individuals into the country.

The criteria to qualify are broad. A person is eligible if the applicant does not pose a threat to national security, the person’s entry is in the national interest, and denying the visa would cause “undue hardship.” Many applicants from Yemen seem like they would qualify, particularly when it comes to the “undue hardship” requirement, but the administration says approval is at the discretion of consular officers.

“I would say the waiver process remains as clear as mud,” said Shoba Wadhia, director of Penn State Law’s Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic and coauthor of an amicus brief filed in support of the state of Hawaii in its Supreme Court case.

“[The proclamation] says ‘unless the individual can demonstrate that they will meet these three things,’” Wadhia said. “How can you be making decisions on somebody’s eligibility for a waiver without even giving the individual an opportunity to demonstrate eligibility?”

Under the proclamation, among the “individual circumstances” that could be considered for waivers are applicants seeking to live with an immediate relative who is a US citizen. But, just in the first month of the ban’s going into effect, the Yemeni embassy in Washington said it received reports of 201 denials of Yemenis who applied to reunite with an American-citizen family member, including 57 who had been initially approved.

And that was just for one country in one month. According to data the State Department sent to Congress, only two waivers were approved out of the 8,406 applications processed from the targeted countries in the first month of the ban. The latest figures that go through May 15 say that 655 applicants have been cleared for waivers (though this does not mean a visa has been issued), though the State Department declined to reveal the total number of applications they’ve processed in this period.

When Sharifa received the letter saying she had been rejected for a visa, it also said she had been denied a waiver. She and her husband, Mohsen, didn’t even know there was such a thing as a waiver—or that they could have made a case for one.

“The reality is, I don’t know how someone without an immigration attorney, without resources, without access would even have knowledge about the waiver process and the steps necessary,” Wadhia said.

Sharifa and her husband aren’t alone. During the filming of our Fault Lines documentary, “Between War and the Ban,” our crew met dozens of families, all composed of US citizens who applied for relatives in Yemen who had been denied waivers. Most told us they didn’t even know about the waiver or had their interview prior to the ban’s being implemented in December.

That was the case for Mohammed, who is an American citizen, his wife, Aziza, and their 5-year-old daughter, Umniah. Their interview at the embassy in Djibouti was in October, and Umniah received her visa just a few days later. But the wait for Aziza’s visa lasted three months, ending with a letter of rejection for a waiver that the couple didn’t even know existed.

“How come they gave a daughter a visa and they gave the mother a rejection?” Mohammed asked, still trying to make sense of why the consular officer would reject his wife knowing their daughter had been approved. “Do you know what you’re doing?”

Their life as a family had been already defined by war and separation, with Mohammed living and working in Brooklyn as a plumber to support the family as they waited for the visa applications to be processed. After the rejection, they knew Umniah would go with her father to the United States so she could apply for a green card.

Fearing a return to Yemen, they decided Aziza would go to Jordan, where Mohammed’s brother lives. The last place the family was together was in the airport in Doha, Qatar. As they waited for their connecting flights after leaving Djibouti, Aziza attempted to cheer up her daughter. “I tried to get her excited about going to America. I was smiling and laughing, but I was dying inside,” Aziza said. “I can’t stand it. I can’t imagine being far from them for a long time.”

Back in Brooklyn, Mohammed’s apartment is filled by Aziza’s absence. “We’re telling [Umniah] a lot of things—we’re going to play outside, in the park—so she has a lot of things in her mind,” Mohammed said as he watched his daughter run between rooms, playing with her dolls. “There’s a lot of things we can tell her, but when she sleeps, she says, ‘Call Mommy.’”

They don’t know what their future as a family will look like if the ban is upheld—or where they’ll be able to call home.

“What did we do to deserve a daughter being separated from her mother?” Aziza asked. “What did we do wrong?”

The administration’s reasoning for adding the waiver scheme to the travel ban remains unclear—particularly as few applicants seem to be receiving them. “Overall, it plays this role of acting like it mitigates the effects of the ban, even though in reality it doesn’t,” said Diala Shamas, a staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights. The organization has filed a Freedom of Information request with the State Department seeking clarification about the waiver process and how applicants are approved.

“It’s a bit of a shadow-boxing exercise, because you don’t really know what it is you need to show to meet the criteria,” Shamas said. “But If you put yourself in the position of a consular officer, and you’re sort of told in the rhetoric in the administration there is an overall ban—these people from these countries are essentially undesirable—you’re going to have a much harder look when you are deciding whether or not someone should be eligible for a waiver.” 

It’s not just civil-rights and immigration attorneys that are troubled by the lack of transparency regarding the waiver process. During Supreme Court arguments, Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Ruth Ginsburg all pressed Solicitor General Noel Francisco about how waivers were being reviewed and if the process was actually just “window dressing” for the ban.

The Alomari family in Djibouti was brought up multiple times during arguments. Nageeb Alomari, an American citizen, applied for visas for his two eldest daughters and his wife three years ago. His youngest daughter is already a citizen, eligible because she was born after he became a citizen. Most crucially, Alomari’s oldest daughter, 11-year old Shaema, has cerebral palsy and is need of urgent and stable medical care that she can’t get in Yemen.

“She needs an operation, a surgery for her leg,” Nageeb said, sitting next to Shaema on the small mattress she spent most of her days on in Djibouti. “I tried in Sanaa, but there were no such capabilities.”

When he walked into the embassy carrying Shaema on January 29, he thought they would walk out with their visas. Nageeb was one of the rare applicants who knew about the waiver process. But even still, a rejection seemed preordained. After the consular officer told him all their papers were in order, Nageeb was immediately handed a rejection letter.

“I talked to him and tried to convince him,” Nageeb said. “I told him, ‘We have a medical case. I think there is a waiver for it.’ He said, ‘I’m sorry but there is a presidential decree.’”

Even amid the flood of other denials, Nageeb’s rejection was surprising given Shaema’s condition, which is one of the reasons it was brought up multiple times at the Supreme Court.

But, after receiving no further information from the embassy after their rejection, Nageeb received an unexpected e-mail in April from a consular officer in Djibouti: The waiver had been approved. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was sent the day before the Supreme Court arguments. A few weeks later, he received notice that they could come to the embassy to pick up their visas. The family arrived in the United States on May 26.

Since the Supreme Court arguments, there seems to have been a shift for others, too. Advocates and translators who have been assisting Yemeni families in Djibouti say that dozens of applicants they’ve worked with received e-mails from the American embassy starting the week of May 20 notifying them that they were being reconsidered for waivers. A State Department official would not provide details about what had led to the change in status for these applicants.

“The State Department has not, as the administration suggests, been very clear about the steps one should take to seek a waiver,” said Wadhia of the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic. “We don’t have enough transparency and—or the passage of time—to know exactly how these waivers are being considered, which ones are being granted and why there’s a denial and whether there’s even a meaningful process.”

The State Department declined requests to interview officials in Washington, DC, or at the US embassy in Djibouti.

Even with a possible loosening of the waiver system, the travel ban is still separating American citizens from their children and spouses. In the case of Yemenis in Djibouti, it’s forcing people to choose to become residents in a foreign land or return to war.

During our interview with Nageeb in Djibouti, he asked a question that deserves an answer from the administration: “What is the difference between me and any other American citizen holding the same passport?”

Even if the travel ban is struck down, it’s not clear that the families that have already been rejected will be given another chance or if their futures will remain torn in pieces. For now, these American citizens and their families can only wait for the Supreme Court’s decision and hope.

For Sharifa, as each day passes in Djibouti, that’s all she can hold on to. “It’s very difficult for a mother to live away from her own children,” she said. The ceiling fan in her room rumbled unsteadily, its breeze trembling family photos, copies of her husband’s and children’s US passports, and documents of Mohsen’s life in the United States: a Sam’s Club card and copies of his tax returns—records of what he earned for his family that were sent to the government tearing his family apart.

“I am so scared and worried. I don’t know what is waiting for me,” she said, trying to rock Mohamed to sleep. “I am not sure that I can get to my husband, my children, and my family. I really hope someone can help us.”