Imagine, if you can, what it was like for a mother separated from her children to hear the news of 3 refugee travel bans and the suspension of the family reunification process she was depending on. If you add to that scenario a case of terminal cancer, unbelievably complex paperwork complications, and multiple travel cancellations, you might begin to understand a bit of Zaraha’s life experience.
In the violence of the Somali civil war, Zahara’s first husband was killed and she became separated from her children. In 2009, she left her children with their aunt to keep them safe and then had to travel to the US as a refugee alone. In the years that followed, Zahara remarried and applied for her children to join her. She was also diagnosed with terminal cancer.
In August of 2017, 8 years after she became separated from her youngest children, she finally received word that they would be arriving soon. Her cancer had just gone into remission and she was so excited to see her 3 youngest children, now ages 13, 15, and 17.
Unfortunately for Zahara and her family, 2017 was the year of refugee travel bans in the United States. Imagine her anxiety when the first travel ban for refugees from Somalia was ordered in January, and then again in March. Still, she received word that her children would arrive in September and began to prepare for their arrival.
Shortly before her children should have arrived, their travel was cancelled because the Ethiopian government said their exit permits were not in order and they could not leave the country. What followed was a complex international nightmare involving 3 national governments, expensive fees, lawyers, travel, and overnighting documents to secure a stamp on their exit permits. In November, they were again scheduled to travel and cancelled because of another paperwork snafu.
During this time, President Trump announced new security clearance requirements and the suspension of the family reunification program they were using. Zahara’s children had valid visas until February, so we were racing against time to get them to Minnesota. In December, the Ethiopian government finally cleared them to leave the country without a moment to lose. Zahara called in tears almost every day, trying to keep up to date with the details of their case. She would have moved mountains to see her children, but this bureaucracy was an invisible fence that she could not touch and the uncertainty and confusion of travel bans and legal challenges greatly fueled her anxiety.
Zahara’s children finally arrived on January 31st, just days before their visas would expire. It was a reunification that our staff will not forget after an intense journey walking with Zahara and advocating with national partners to shepherd these children through a complex international process. In past years, we would have had confidence that paperwork slowdowns would be minor setbacks but in 2017, we did not know if this family would ever be reunited.
The bright spot of this story is the miracle that Zahara’s children did arrive. Their vulnerability and their mother’s illness highlighted their case to national authorities and they were allowed to travel. Zahara’s cancer remains in remission and her children are enrolled in school and thriving in Minnesota. At the same time, we know there are hundreds and thousands of other refugee families still waiting for their chance to be together again.