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Waiting to Live Again

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Hassan Haron looks down at photos of the family he hasn't seen in six years.

Photo: Ana Lewett/IRC

Hassan Haron holds up pictures of his young sons and daughters with a solemn face as he looks at at the colorful photographs. Over six years have passed since he last saw them. Divided by conflict and bureaucracy in a war-torn country, Hassan waits apprehensively for the day they will finally join him in safety.

Hassan lived with his wife, Khadija Essa, and seven children in Sudan in relative peace. Then, war broke out in the Darfur, his home region. The family was separated as they fled for their lives. The family made it safely to the country’s capital, Khartoum, and, because of illness, Hassan was sent to Egypt for emergency surgery. He has not been reunited with his family since.

It is now summer of 2017, and Hassan lives in Baltimore, Maryland, having been resettled as a refugee by the International Rescue Committee. He works year after year as a landscaper, saving money as he prepares to apply for U.S. citizenship. He introduces himself with a kind, gap-toothed smile and an Arabic accent.

“Life has not been easy since I arrived in the United States,” he says. “It is hard to live without your family.”

As he was being treated for his sickness in Egypt, the United Nations asked him to pay for his family to join him. Despite his lack of funds, they said they would be able to relocate the rest of his family within the next two years. He was sent to the U.S., while the family stayed in Khartoum.

After arriving in Baltimore in 2012, Hassan wasted no time in petitioning for family reunification with help from the IRC. These documents were processed and accepted by the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum in 2014, much to his delight. However, years continue to pass without further word of when his family will finally be coming.

There is sadness and confusion in Hassan’s tone as he explains this painstaking process of bringing his family to the U.S. He cannot continue to build a new life while his family’s future remains uncertain.

“They did all the tests; blood work, immunizations and vaccinations- they should be cleared. They should be here. I don’t know why they haven’t been able to come yet,” he states.

As he becomes increasingly adjusted to life in America, Hassan’s wife, two sons and four daughters wait in bureaucratic limbo in Khartoum. Although the family has attended multiple interviews at the U.S. Embassy, completed DNA testing to confirm their biological relationships and undergone all the required medical examinations, the embassy has yet to arrange for their travel to the U.S.

On multiple occasions the embassy assured the family that their travel date was only weeks away, only to delay the departure for undisclosed reasons. Nearly another year has gone by since the last time Hassan was told his family was finally coming, in August of 2016.

According to Laura Brown, the Immigration Services Coordinator at IRC Baltimore, about five percent of petitions like Hassan’s are unsuccessful. This may be because the government doesn’t believe the relationship exists, or a family member dies or decides to stay overseas. Some applications take longer than others; they may take years and years, or be accepted within less than a year.

Hassan’s case, however, is unusual. All the necessary tests, documents and applications were processed and accepted by the embassy years ago. This summer, Hassan will reach his five-year mark that allows him to apply for citizenship, and there is still no arrival date in sight for his family.

“The immigration system has really failed Hassan,” Brown said. “I’ve worked on hundreds of similar cases, and I’ve never seen a case as mishandled as his.”

Hassan has no choice but to continue this wearisome waiting game. He considers going back to Sudan just to see his family again.

“Year after year, refugee friends that I’ve made here, many [of them] also from Darfur, have had their families come,” Hassan says. “After five years, I am still alone. I don’t know what else I can do.”

He worries about his family’s safety in Khartoum, especially after thieves attempted to take over part of the family’s home. The intruders threatened and intimidated the family by entering their home at night, shining bright lights in their faces and startling them with loud noises. In addition to threats to their safety, they face prejudice in the city because they are from Darfur.

Khadija and the children are unable to move, as they have nowhere else to go. They cannot return to Darfur as their original trip to Khartoum took the family four days in the back of a truck using their life savings and risking death on the open road.

Hassan continues to wait for the embassy to approve his petitions so he can bring his family to safety. “I’m not comfortable. I cannot sleep. All the time I am thinking. And there is no change,” he laments.

When they arrive in Baltimore, Hassan hopes his children, who are now becoming young adults, will graduate high school and attend university. Two of his eldest daughters should be in university, but are waiting until they are finally sent to the U.S. to finish their education. In the meantime, the family works to sustain themselves in the city.

“I will be so happy. They will be so happy. Life will finally be able to continue and I will be a citizen of this country,” Hassan states.

He bought a car with money he had saved over the years so that he could prevent cold winter mornings waiting at the bus stop, as he had done for so long. He hopes his car will allow his wife and children the sense of freedom he’s been waiting to give them all these years.

Story by Ana Lewett/IRC