As we mark one year since the first executive order on refugees was signed, families impacted by this and subsequent policies continue to struggle daily with the heartache of separation and the frustration of not knowing when, or if, they will be reunited with their loved ones. For Mohamed and Mumina, the changes in policy have divided their family between two continents:
Kismayo, the third largest city in Somalia, sits on the coast of the Indian Ocean about 520 miles southwest of Mogadishu. There, Mohamed, Mumina, and their young sons Hassan and Yusuf and their daughter Khadija enjoyed a comfortable life.
When the Somali Civil War broke out in 1991 and militias began to fight for control of the city, the life they had known and the future they had imagined was shattered. Like thousands of other Somalis, the family was forced to flee, leaving their home behind to escape the violence. Along with their children, aged seven, five, and three at the time, they made the journey to the border with Kenya. Eventually, they registered at Dadaab, a group of five refugee camps in eastern Kenya that soon became the largest in the world, and which still hosts over 200,000 individuals today.
They would remain there for the next 26 years.
As time carried on the family grew, welcoming three more children, Farah, Fartun, and Najmo. The older children, Khadija and Hassan, married and had families of their own. But all of their lives were on hold – restricted within the borders of the camp and reliant on the support of the UN to get by. At home, Mohamed worked in construction to support his family, building homes in Kismayo. But in the camp he says “there was no chance to be self-sufficient, you had to accept what they gave you and that was it.” Insufficient food supplies and security issues were frequent concerns and educational opportunities were very limited.
The family began the application process for resettlement soon after arriving in Dadaab, but it was sixteen years before their turn came up to start the vetting process. Finally, in 2007, they had their first of three interviews with the United Nations. This turned out to be the first step in a series of interviews, background checks and medical screenings that would take another 10 years to complete. Because some of their children were adults by this point, the family was split into several separate cases for processing, but since they all applied at the same time, in general they progressed through the process together.
Just when it seemed that decades of waiting in limbo might come to an end, the first executive order halting refugee arrivals from a number of Muslim-majority countries, including Somalia, was signed.
In the months that followed, some family members were able to travel to the U.S. during windows when refugee arrivals were allowed. Mohamed, Mumina and their youngest children Farah, Fartun, Fadumo and Najmo arrived on May 25th 2017 while the second executive order was halted by a temporary restraining order, and Yusuf arrived four months later on September 27th, 2017 during the time when cases with bona-fide family relationships were allowed to travel. But just one month later, right before the final pieces came together for Khadija, Hassan and their families to follow, new orders were issued on October 24th 2017 establishing a 90 day processing suspension for refugees from 11 countries, again including Somalia, and introduced new vetting procedures.
Today the family remains separated, not only by the thousands of miles between them but also the because the very same system that finally got some of them out of the camp is now keeping others there. Khadija, Hassan and their families remain in Dadaab unable to join their family. Before the rules were changed, they had passed all the interviews and background checks, and completed the required medical screenings just like their family members who have arrived in the United States, although some of those are now set to expire in March and will have to be redone if and when they have the chance to resettle in the future.
Family members on both continents are distraught and speak via cell phone or video call most nights, often with tears because they have once again found themselves unable do anything to change their situation. And because they can’t explain to their grandchildren, aged 9 months to 11 years, who grew up with their grandparents, aunts and uncles nearby why they can’t be together now. Mohamed says that they are grateful for what the U.S. has done for them, but also that they think the U.S. government should finish what it started and help the rest of their family the same way they helped them, “they should at least ease things for families that are apart” he says.
For now, all they can do is wait and hope as they start to build a new life in the United States.
Najmo, the youngest, attends high school in City Heights, and her older siblings attend English classes at adult school in the neighborhood. Farah earns an income as the primary caregiver for his mother who over the years has lost the use of her hands and feet due to a degenerative condition. They say they understand that the IRC is unable to do anything to directly impact their family’s case overseas, but agreed to share their story with the hope that if more people understand the heartbreak and challenges that families like theirs are facing, something will change so they can be reunited.
Through all that they have experienced over so many years, one constant was that the family remained together. Together they escaped the civil war and made the journey to Kenya. They waited decades for the chance to get out of Dadaab and start their lives anew, but at least they waited together and shared the work of raising children, caring for aging parents and life's other challenges. Now for the first time they are apart, separated by a policy that offers no options for reunification for families like theirs. But they remain determined, once again exercising incredible patience in the face of an extraordinarily frustrating situation. All that Mohamed wants is to have all his children and his grandchildren with him and he says the family "will do anything we can so that we can be together again.”