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'They Took My Heart With Them': Yemeni Parents Stranded By Trump's Travel Ban

Sara Mohsin, 12, and Muslim Mohsin, 3, at her fifth grade graduation.<strong> </strong>
Courtesy of the Mohsin Family
Sara Mohsin, 12, and Muslim Mohsin, 3, at her fifth grade graduation.

In Detroit, 6-year-old Albukhari Mohsin pushes a toy car across the floor of his uncle's living room. His sister Sara, 12, sits on the couch with their two brothers. Ahmed is eight and Muslim is just three.

"It's tiring," Sara said. As the oldest child, she's become the de-facto mother to her little brothers, especially the toddler. "I shower him, I dress him, I play with him."

They're living with relatives in the United States, parentless, because of the travel ban. A banthat became law one year ago.

On June 26, 2018, the Supreme Court upheld the third iteration of President Trump's executive orderthat bars most people from seven countries from traveling to the United States. That version bans almost all immigrants, refugees and visa holders from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, North Korea and Venezuela.

The order became known as a "Muslim ban," because it focuses largely on Muslim-majority countries like Yemen. That's where the Mohsins are originally from.

President Trump says the ban is needed for national security, arguing the countries have not cooperated with the U.S. to properly document or vet travelers. Critics of the ban say it's Trump fulfilling his discriminatory campaign promise for a "total and complete shut down of Muslims entering the United States."

While it became law a year ago, the ban actually went into effect in December of 2017, the time period that Mohamed Mohsin, a Yemeni American, was in the final stages of bringing his children and his wife from Yemen to the United States.

The Michigan truck driver became an American citizen in 2009 and was traveling between Michigan and Yemen where his wife and four children lived. In the U.S., he was saving money and setting things up so his family could join him. In 2015, he applied for them to come to the United States to get away from the devastating Saudi-led war in Yemen.

The U.S. Embassy in Yemen is closed. But in November 2017, they got interviews at the U.S. Embassy in Djibouti. Mohamed traveled with his family to the African nation.

"Everything went well," Mohamed said by phone from Djibouti, where he and his wife are now stranded. "After the meeting, the consular [officer] told me 'good luck, you've been approved.'"

He handed him a sheet of paper that read: "Your visa is approved. We cannot guarantee how long it will take to print it and have your passport ready for pick up. You should check the status of your visa online."

Weeks passed and Mohamed checked online. What he found worried him. His children's visas were approved but he couldn't find his wife's.

Still in Djibouti, he went to the embassy to find out what was happening.

"I asked him 'what about my wife? How do you give the kids without my wife, what am I going to do?'" he said. Mohamed said the consular officer explained it was the ban but reassured him that in a month or two her visa would be printed.

The visa never came. Months later, his wife Ahlam Alsoufi got her passport back with a denial letter.

So, a few days before the children's visas were about to expire Mohamed made the difficult decision to send his children to the United States alone. He was worried that if he didn't, he'd squander their one chance.

Mohamed tried to explain to the embassy that this was hurting his family, that he was a father, that he didn't know where the kids would live. But, he said, it changed nothing.

And separated families like the Mohsins are not unique. The Bridge Initiative, a research project on Islamophobia housed in Georgetown University, analyzed the impact of the ban in 549 cases. It found that one in four children were separated from their parents.

Mohamed had an impossible choice, but said he couldn't abandon his distraught wife in a foreign country completely alone.

"If I left her in Djibouti, I worried that she'd go crazy. That she might kill herself," he said.

He paid for a relative to travel to Djibouti and take the kids to Michigan.

"They took my heart with them," he said.

Sara, his oldest, cried every night before they left.

"I told her don't worry about it. The consular [officer] promised me after a month your mom will be able to come," he told her. "She asked me 'what am I going to do with three kids?' I told her Allah will help us to protect them."

The last few nights Sara didn't sleep. Her father promised her she wouldn't be alone long. But months turned into over a year.

"This crazy thing made my heart broken," he said. "Nothing is in my hands ... the kids want mom and dad. My wife cries for the kids."

Mohamed tries to keep it together for them. If he breaks down he said, "I'm going to destroy my family, believe me."

In Michigan, the children are separated in three different relatives' homes. No one family could afford to take them all.

Sara sleeps in a twin bed with her youngest brother Muslim, her cousin sleeps on the floor.

"In the night, all the time he's crying," she said about her brother. "I tell him mom and dad are coming soon."

Every time the 3-year-old sees a plane in the sky he yells "It's mama!" She tells him no, but soon.

When her parents call, Sara asks when they'll finally be together and the answer is always the same, "after two weeks," her parents tell her.

But it's been over a year. Her father, Mohamed, sold his car and borrowed some $70,000 from friends and family to support his children and pay for living expenses in Djibouti. He hasn't worked in nearly three years, he can't find a job in Djibouti. He gave up his house in Michigan as collateral to cover the debt.

In theory, families like the Mohsins should be eligible for a visa waiver due to "undue hardship," according to the executive order. But there is no separate application for the waiver according to the State Department's website.

"Applicants are automatically considered for a waiver based on their visa application," said Mary Taylor, assistant secretary in the State Department, in a letter earlier this year.

Many question whether there is a process at all. Only 5.1% of visa waivers were approved between December 2017 through March 2019.

Many Yemeni families like the Mohsins are stranded in Djibouti because of the war in Yemen and the U.S. ban.

"We have a lot of family separation. We have kids without parents, we have kids going to school without any support," said Ibraham Qatabi, a senior legal worker at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing the Mohsin family and dozens of other families that are separated by the ban. "We have moms and dads and children stranded abroad."

And, he said, there is no recourse for these families.

"We are in a crisis right now that needs to be addressed and that's not being debated in the broader American public," he said.

Back in Michigan, the children gather around a cell phone with their dad on speaker. It's a rare occasion that they're all together.

They chat about school and their father asks them how they're doing.

"Is there any news?" Sara finally asks.

Mohamed skirts the question.

"Everything will be fine, God willing," he responds.

Later, Sara says she misses them. She went to her fifth grade graduation recently with her uncle and baby brother.

"As soon as I got my diploma, I told my uncle 'I want to go home,'" she said.

All the other children had moms and dads there.

Claire Heddles contributed to this report.

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Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.