How American Citizens Are Trapped In Djibouti

Posted on Mar 28 2018 - 5:21pm by Editor

NPR 23 March 2018

How President Trump’s travel ban has left a number of American citizens and Yemeni-American families trapped in the tiny country of Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa.

NOEL KING, HOST:

This morning, we have a story of Americans trapped by the war in Yemen. It’s a story about refugees, but it’s different from a lot of other tales about refugees because U.S. citizens and their loved ones are stuck. Many of them are children. Steve, you’re just back from covering the war in Yemen. How did Americans get caught up in this?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Well, they’re Yemeni-American families who are trying to flee the war. Many people in the families are United States citizens, but they’re at risk because of slow U.S. immigration processes and because of President Trump’s ban on travel from certain countries, including Yemen.

KING: But isn’t President Trump’s administration all about taking care of American citizens first?

INSKEEP: Well, that’s what the president and his advisers have said, so it is noteworthy that U.S. citizens are affected. To reveal this and document it, we’ve reported from three continents – Asia, Africa and North America – and we could say that this begins as a Bronx tale.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: We went for a walk in the Bronx in New York City. Our destination was Rhinelander Avenue, a street name suggesting days when Germans were the newcomers. Now, there’s a different wave of immigrants. Our producer, Emily Ochsenschlager, and I were looking for a particular Yemeni restaurant.

EMILY OCHSENSCHLAGER, BYLINE: I think this is it up on the corner here.

INSKEEP: Oh, with the red sign in English and Arabic.

Two men came down the street to meet us.

Are you Zaid?

OCHSENSCHLAGER: Thank you, Zaid.

ZAID NAGI: I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.

OCHSENSCHLAGER: Don’t worry about it.

NAGI: (Speaking Arabic) How are you doing?

INSKEEP: OK.

MOHAMMED HAMZA: Mohammed Hamza.

INSKEEP: Mohammed Hamza, hello there.

Zaid Nagi is Yemeni-American, owner of local cellphone stores. He brought another Yemeni-American, Mohammed Hamza, and we ducked into the restaurant for lunch. Over a thick bubbling Yemeni stew called saltah…

Oh, that’s hot.

…We talked.

When did you come to the United States?

NAGI: 1994.

INSKEEP: 1994. And you’re a United States citizen now.

NAGI: Yes.

INSKEEP: Zaid Nagi leads a Yemeni-American business association. And that’s the first thing to know. Yemenis run enough stores in New York to have a business association. Yemenis have come to the U.S. for generations. And just like previous waves of immigrants from Italy or Ireland, not all brought their families. Many worked in America to support families left behind.

NAGI: And what do you do is, every month, you send them the money. So you literally is – you are a candle burning itself so for others to survive.

INSKEEP: So it worked until Yemen’s civil war endangered the families at home. Now Yemeni-Americans are trying to bring their families over. But Mohammed Hamza, who is also a U.S. citizen, has a problem. He got his family out of Yemen to the nearest U.S. consulate. It’s in Djibouti in East Africa, but the consulate did not give them U.S. visas.

Mohammed Hamza, is your family still in Djibouti?

HAMZA: Yeah, I have – my family is separated.

INSKEEP: He switched over to Arabic to explain better as Zaid translated. His wife and children went for visa interviews. Their 3-year-old is a U.S. citizen through his father, but an older sister and the mother are not citizens, so all of them are stuck.

NAGI: The toddler has a U.S. passport, but who’s going to take care of him here? He has to stay with his mom and his older sister.

INSKEEP: Hamza says he cannot care for the toddler alone since he is working to support his family. We asked if we could visit Hamza’s family in East Africa, and he gave us a phone number. Two and a half weeks later, 7,000 miles away, we stood on a noisy street in Djibouti. We entered an apartment building tucked between a furniture workshop and the Dar es Salaam hotel. One of the residents led us up the stairs to a little apartment.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hello?

INSKEEP: And we sat on a mattress in a windowless room with Hamza’s wife Saba.

We had an opportunity to meet your husband in New York City.

SABA: (Speaking Arabic).

INSKEEP: “Yes,” she said, “I wish I could be with him.” And she produced a packet of papers, including the blue U.S. passport of 3-year-old Suleiman.

When did you begin to feel that it would be difficult to remain in Yemen?

SABA: (Speaking Arabic).

INSKEEP: She says, when the war came in 2015, talking while Suleiman, the 3-year-old American, climbed on her lap.

I’m just going interrupt to mention he’s giving you a hug with his passport still in hand.

It’s not easy to leave Yemen, but the family fled by boat. They found a place in this apartment building, which is filled with Yemenis. They went to the U.S. consulate seeking visas. Remember the husband in the Bronx? He came over to bring everyone home with him. He was able to take home two older children who were U.S. citizens, but his wife, Saba, and 18-year-old daughter Fatima had no citizenship and received no visa.

Do you remember the day you said goodbye to them?

SABA: (Speaking Arabic).

INSKEEP: “They left while I was asleep,” she said. “They didn’t tell me because they didn’t want to upset me.” As we spoke, Saba and Fatima were completely covered in black except for their eyes, but their eyes said everything.

I’m sorry if this is upsetting to talk about.

Saba and Fatima believe they still have a chance at visas. They’ve waited for months but have not been formally rejected. Other Yemenis here are blocked by President Trump’s travel ban. As we sat on the floor, Amr Mozeb appeared from another apartment in the same building. He’s a U.S. citizen who had flown here from New York. He was hoping to bring back his wife and two small sons. The sons are U.S. citizens, but his wife’s visa was formally rejected. He showed us a paper citing Presidential Proclamation 9645, the third travel ban which blocks most visitors from Yemen.

Do you mind if I read this out loud? Taking into account the provisions of the proclamation, a waiver will not be granted in your case.

Amr Mozeb told the officer at the consulate his family can’t stay in Djibouti. They’re running out of money. He says the consular officer suggested moving them to Somaliland, which is cheaper.

But did you say to him I’m a U.S. citizen? This is my spouse. Help me out here.

AMR MOZEB: I tried.

INSKEEP: Amr Mozeb says the president’s decision left him no options.

MOZEB: I can’t take any more loans. I have to do something, so now I’m going back to the U.S. I’m flying next week. And my family – I’m still deciding whether to take them back to Yemen or go to Egypt because over here I can’t – it’s too much for me.

INSKEEP: The family will be split and the future of his U.S. citizen sons is uncertain. We called the U.S. ambassador to Yemen. Matthew Tueller said he’s heartbroken by these cases. We also called the State Department in Washington where an official says the U.S. has granted some waivers to the travel ban. But as we sat on the floor behind the Dar es Salaam hotel, people began appearing from more apartments. They too had children with blue U.S. passports. They too had letters from the U.S. embassy saying they’d been rejected. Some seemed to think that we, visiting Americans, might be able to give them better news and say the United States has not forsaken them. There was nothing we could tell them.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE GASLAMP KILLER’S “LISTEN FOR MY WHISTLE”)

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