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Yemeni-Americans Stranded Abroad Struggle to Return to New York

U.S. citizens are stranded in Yemen as the country struggles to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

As temperatures soar over 90 degrees this summer and power outages happen frequently, it has become difficult for Yemeni-American Mohamed Al Jamal to continue to wait in Yemen’s Aden for his turn to go back to the U.S., despite the loosening travel restrictions.

The 71-year old is one of hundreds of Yemeni-Americans, permanent U.S. residents and visa-holders, who have become stranded in the war-torn country since COVID-19 hit in March and travel restrictions were introduced.

The State Department recently announced two repatriation flights traveling from Aden, Yemen to Washington-Dulles International Airport, via Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on June 28 and July 1. Families stuck in Yemen are required to show valid travel documents and pay $1,500 per ticket to board one of those flights.

“Dealing with cases involving U.S. citizens in Yemen and areas where we do not have a consular presence is extremely complex, particularly with the ongoing pandemic,” a State Department spokesman said.

The State Department suspended operations at the U.S. Embassy in Yemen in 2015 after a coalition led by Saudi Arabia invaded the country and sparked a devastating conflict, which is currently ongoing.  According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data, more than 100,000 Yemenis have been killed as a result of the fighting. 

The State Department earlier informed the Council on American-Islamic Relations in New York (CAIR-NY) that they have received over 2,000 requests to bring stranded Yemeni-Americans and residents back to the U.S., according to the litigation director at CAIR-NY, Ahmed Mohamed.

The civil rights group has received over 500 requests to bring individuals home, ranging from elderly families who need medical attention to people who are diabetic and women with high-risk pregnancies. Mohamed Al Jamal’s son Bassam made a request but was unable to secure a booking for his father on one of those flights.

“We have a woman who gave a premature birth to her child last week because of the anxiety and the saddest thing about this situation is that her infant who is a U.S. citizen by birth doesn’t have a travel document and while she can come back to the U.S., he can’t,” said Mohamed from CAIR-NY.

After reaching out to CAIR for help, Bassam filled out an application form asking the American embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to bring his father,  who has an underlying heart condition, home. His father Mohamed traveled to Yemen for a short vacation before getting stuck due to COVID-19.

Due to the high volume of requests, Mohamed was placed on a waiting list while CAIR works with the State Department to provide additional flights.

“My father can’t tolerate the heat, it gets over 100 degrees in Yemen sometimes and he is old and alone with only his brother’s family taking care of him,” said Bassam who lives in New York with his siblings.

Surviving in Yemen is getting harder due to the lack of proper healthcare, certain food supplies and consistent electricity, according to Bassam who mentioned that his father should be among those prioritized for return.

“Demand for these flights exceeds capacity and the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh is attempting to arrange additional flights,” said a State Department spokesman, “Where space is limited, we prioritize those with greatest medical needs in accordance with CDC and Department of State guidance.”

In June, the United Nations head of humanitarian operations in Yemen Lise Grande revealed that the death toll from the pandemic could exceed the combined toll of war, malnutrition, and disease which is over 230,000 deaths as of late 2019, according to a UN report.

Grande warned that general health services in 189 of the 369 hospitals available in the country will start closing in three weeks due to the lack of funding.

The country’s already weak healthcare system has been impacted by the lack of medical facilities compounded with doctors and medical staff, leaving because of war and the fear of contracting COVID-19 with minimal available protection.

For 20-year old Yemeni-American Noor, who requested to be identified only by her first name, poor internet connection and power outages are two of her primary challenges since she has been stranded with her husband and grandmother.

The frequent power outages have made it difficult to contend with the strong heat waves. 

“This year has been the hottest year. My neck and chest have heat burns and it is only the beginning of the summer,” said Noor.

In addition to high temperatures, she said her house flooded due to harsh rains that hit the country this year.

Rising heat and rainy days were not the only challenges that stranded Yemenis faced, they also had to protect themselves from the spread of Dengue Fever and Chikungunya disease alongside the spread of COVID-19. To this day, Yemen has 1,190 confirmed COVID-19 cases according to the latest tally.

Although Noor was able to recover from Dengue Fever when she was infected only a week after she arrived in Yemen, others are unable to afford medication or receive proper health care, she added.

Noor flew to Yemen in 2019 for her wedding and was scheduled to return to the U.S. with her husband and grandmother on March 26, only days after Yemeni airports closed due to COVID-19.

She filled out the forms for the Saudi repatriation flights from Yemen, but said she didn’t receive any information and was advised on Monday by CAIR to submit another form.

Mohamed, of CAIR-NY, said that even some families who have valid travel documents including travel ban waivers — which was placed by the Trump administration in 2017— are unable to come back to the U.S. because their visas and passports expire in few days, thus they will be required to renew those documents.

Yemeni-Americans, permanent residents, and visa-holders are required to go to the nearest U.S. Embassy or consulate to renew their travel documents. However, due to the ongoing conflict closing the U.S. Embassy in Yemen and the pandemic shuttering neighboring borders, that has become almost impossible. This means people with passports that are expired or close to expiration are basically stranded.

This is not the first time that the U.S. has not properly managed to bring stranded Yemenis home, according to the co-founder of Yemeni American Merchants Association (YAMA) Debbie Almontaser.

“The U.S. basically always punished many Yemeni-American citizens for visiting their family’s home country, for example when the war broke out, the U.S. government did nothing to evacuate Yemeni-Americans when all of the other countries did,” she said.

Even if families and individuals in Yemen were able to secure a flight booking, it was often hard to reach them, according to Mohamed, from CAIR. Internet and phone services have become unreliable and poor in Yemen which makes it hard for representatives from Saudi Airlines to call travelers to book their flights.

“We’re getting an alarmingly high number of individuals who are having calls dropped when they receive a call from one of the Saudi Airline’s representatives and that is the only way they can communicate because many individuals don’t have internet access especially those living in rural villages outside Yemeni cities,” he said.

For other families and individuals, being stranded in Yemen has taken an emotional toll on their mental health and has financially burdened them.

“We know families of six or seven members who depleted all their personal finances in Yemen and so their stability is shaken as they tried to book flight tickets for the whole family,” added Almontaser.

YAMA and CAIR are currently working together to push for more flights from Yemen as Almontaser confirmed that YAMA is pressuring congressional leaders and senate offices to pay closer attention to the matter.

To this day there is no confirmed news about when the additional flights will be announced, but travel restrictions due to COVID-19 has created additional stress to Yemenis who are already challenged by the Muslim ban.

“All of this is because of the Muslim ban. The promise of bringing your family and building a life in the U.S. has not been really the American dream, it has been the American nightmare,” Almontaser said.

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