Ameen Naji’s son almost realized his dream of coming to study in the U.S.
After fleeing the war in Yemen, Naji’s 14-year-old son Hamza traveled to Sudan, and then Cairo. Last year, he was finally granted an interview at the U.S. embassy in Djibouti to determine if he was eligible to join his father in New York.
Hamza met his father in Djibouti for the interview in January. But they were too late – the Supreme Court had partially reinstated President Donald Trump’s executive order that banned Yemeni citizens and nationals from seven other countries (at the time) from entering the United States. Hamza’s visa was rejected.
The rejection was not only an emotional blow for Naji but also a financial one. He works seven nights a week as a cashier at a grocery store, from midnight until 10 a.m., to afford living in New York City. But now he has one more expense: $2,000 per month to support his son, who is stranded in Cairo because of Trump’s travel ban.
Naji is among the many Yemeni New Yorkers who are drowning in legal and travel expenses as they try to save their families from Yemen’s civil war. Their hope is that their burden will be lifted by a Supreme Court ruling against the travel ban expected in the next week.
The war in Yemen began in March 2015 when a coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia began carrying out air strikes in the country. Since then, it has claimed the lives of 6,000 civilians, according to the United Nations human rights office, and devolved into the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. As a result, Yemenis have tried desperately to flee the country. Yemeni-Americans, in New York and elsewhere, have been filing petitions to have their families join them in the U.S.
To apply for a visa, Yemenis must first leave the country. Some opted to fly to Sudan, Egypt, Jordan, or Malaysia, while others took a boat from the coastal city of Aden to Djibouti, a small coastal country on the Horn of Africa, east of Ethiopia.
Mohamed Taaher Hamza’s family opted to take a boat. Hamza owns a cellphone store in the Bronx and has lived in the United States for over 20 years. Now a U.S. citizen, after the war broke out he decided he should get his wife and five children out of Yemen.
“They took a boat that’s meant for cattle, not people,” Hamza told Documented, sitting in his store when he was in between customers.
Upon arriving in Djibouti, the costs began to pile. At first he rented an apartment for his family that cost $1,500 per month. Utilities bills ranged from $200 to $400 per month. They would also spend $500 to $700 on food and drink per month, but sometimes more.
”Everything over there is expensive,” said Hamza. “Can you believe the electricity is more expensive than New York?”
He was eventually able to find a cheaper apartment for them but he estimates that he still spends around $2,000-2,500 per month to house them in Djibouti.
Three of his children got U.S. passports through him and have come to America. Two are in Michigan with his wife’s cousin, while his oldest son, 17, is with him in New York City. He began the process of sponsoring his wife, his youngest son, and oldest daughter who remained in Djibouti.
A silver lining appeared in November when they were granted an interview with the U.S. embassy. The consular officials asked for additional details. In April, they were notified that their application had been denied due to Executive Order 13780, aka the travel ban.
A week into his presidency, Trump signed an executive order which banned citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entry into the U.S. The order sparked protests at airports around the country and legal challenges were launched. Several federal courts blocked this first executive order and the two versions of the order that followed.
The legality of the order will be decided by the Supreme Court in a case the state of Hawaii, the American Civil Liberties Union and others filed against the Trump administration. A decision on the case is expected in the coming week.
In December, the court allowed parts of the third iteration of the ban – which blocks access to most visas for citizens from Iran, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, North Korea, and some Venezuelans – to go into effect.
As a result, Hamza’s family was blocked from entering the country. As he awaits the ruling that will decide his family’s fate, Hamza estimates he has spent $60,000 trying to get his family to the U.S., which is more than his income, he said.
He’s not alone. About 26,000 New Yorkers have been impacted by the travel ban, according to Bitta Mostofi, director of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates show there are roughly 44,000 people of Yemeni origin living in the United States. The Arab American Association of New York estimates about half live in New York.
Recently a delegation from the Center for Constitutional Rights and Yale Law School traveled to Djibouti to interview Yemenis stuck in the small coastal nation. While there, the team was contacted by 150 to 200 Yemenis and found that as many as 2,000 people are stranded there awaiting visas, according to Diala Shamas, a staff attorney at the legal center.
Abdo Elfgeeh is among the Yemeni New Yorkers with relatives stuck overseas, and eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court decision. Elfgeeh’s wife and four children were living in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, when the war broke out. Elfgeeh, a U.S. citizen, applied to sponsor their visas in June 2015 and they were finally granted an interview at the U.S. embassy in Djibouti in January 2018.
It is costly to get relatives out of Yemen. Elfgeeh paid for a driver to take his wife and four children from Sanaa to the coastal city of Aden, navigating conflict zones and checkpoints which demanded “fees” for entry. He booked them a flight from Aden to Khartoum, Sudan where they stayed in a hotel for a few weeks while waiting on a visa. They traveled to Djibouti in January where he met them.
In Djibouti, Elfgeeh and his family were also foiled by Trump’s travel ban. His family’s visa was rejected on January 29, 2018.
Elfgeeh said that he spent around $10,000 getting his family from Sanaa to Djibouti. Once there, he rented them an apartment that cost $1,000 each month without utilities, which added an additional $300 per month
“Staying in Djibouti is very costly, and very inconvenient,” Elfgeeh said. His family stayed there a month and a half before they “couldn’t take it anymore,” he added. He moved them to Amman, Jordan.
Zaid Nagi, the vice-president of New York’s Yemeni American Merchant Association, said the majority of New York’s Yemeni community is feeling the effects of the travel ban. “It’s easier to find someone who somehow isn’t affected,” said Nagi, whose mother and grandmother are in Amman waiting on a visa. “The financial strain, the mental health issues that arise from this … it’s literally slowing down a whole community.”
Nagi paid for his mother and grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, to move to Amman in 2015 shortly after the war broke out. A U.S. citizen since he was 13, he filed a petition to bring them to the U.S. three years ago but has still not received a final decision. During that time, he and his family have racked up costs of over $50,000, he estimates, to cover her rent, bills, food, and the legal fees associated with the case.
At his cellphone store in the Bronx, Hamza is starting to feel the pinch. He’s been behind on the rent for his store for a few months but since the owner is Yemeni, he’s let him slide. Cellphone shops are not as lucrative as they once were and he’s now considering driving a cab.
“Financially, we’ve spent a lot of money,” Hamza said. “But the psychological burden is worse. I wake up every morning with a desire to live with my family and this is depressing.”