Every morning for the last two years, Abbas has woken to his alarm at 5:30 a.m. Just seconds after opening his eyes and still in bed, he reflexively turns off the alarm on his phone and, in the same swipe, opens his email to scan for a particular message from the U.S. Embassy.
But the Department of Defense employee has yet to receive that email. Abbas, a 33-year-old Muslim American, has no choice but to break the same old news to his wife, a Syrian native stranded in Turkey, that his own employer has not yet allowed for her to join him in his home country.
“I wake up in the morning and I’m just ready to serve the country and serve the people who protect us, yet they tell me, ’Your wife is not allowed to come here’” Abbas told HuffPost. “It is very ironic that I work in the U.S. government to help protect our national security, yet this very same national security is used as a pretext to keep me away from my wife.”
Two senators want to end the travel ban, upheld by the Supreme Court last year, that’s keeping Abbas and thousands of families like his apart. On Wednesday, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) will introduce the National Origin-Based Antidiscrimination for Nonimmigrants Act, also known as the NO BAN Act, which would terminate President Donald Trump’s travel ban and outlaw future faith-based discrimination in immigration.
In addition, the bill would require future presidents to consult with the State Department and Department of Homeland Security before implementing any similar bans.
Chu will be leading the legislation in the House, where Democrats have control, in conjunction with Coons in the Senate.
“We feel that now is the time to do this. To have concrete action that will stop this kind of ban which has harmed so many families and harmed our economy and fueled all kinds of anti-Muslim violence and discrimination,” Chu told HuffPost.
“Now is the time ... to have concrete action that will stop this kind of ban, which has harmed so many families and harmed our economy and fueled all kinds of anti-Muslim violence and discrimination.”
For the last two years, Abbas and his wife, Layla, have struggled to reunite because of Trump’s executive order restricting immigration from several Muslim-majority countries, as well as certain citizens from North Korea and Venezuela. In 2018, the U.S. State Department rejected more than 37,000 visa applications — an increase of at least 1,000 rejections since the prior year.
During the 2016 fiscal year, when there was no ban in place, the U.S. issued approximately 72,000 visas for citizens of the now-blacklisted countries. The U.S. only issued around 14,600 visas to people from those same countries from Oct. 1, 2017, to Sept. 30, 2018.
These visa rejections have forced families to take drastic decisions. HuffPost has reported on an American mother who decided to move to a war-torn country to reunite with her husband, and a Yemeni native who was initially prevented from seeing her dying son.
HuffPost is withholding Abbas and Layla’s real names to protect them from backlash from both the U.S. and Syrian governments. Both individuals still have families who reside inside Syria.
Abbas is an Arabic instructor with the Defense Language Institute, the Defense Department’s educational arm, which provides foreign language training to various branches of the government including the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. Abbas is proud of the work he does for his country but is baffled that his own employer has denied his wife entry to be with him.
“I make sure that we are teaching and we are educating our service members to protect us, to protect the nation, to protect the country against any threat, and yet they say my wife is a threat,” Abbas said. “It’s a joke.”
Abbas and Layla have taken on an unprecedented series of financial burdens, endured the toll the separation has taken on their marriage and an agonizing wait that has brought them no closer to a solution since they married in April 2017.
After their ceremony in Lebanon, Abbas immediately flew back to the U.S. to begin the visa application for his wife. Since the ban was still being contested in court at the time, the couple felt hopeful Layla would receive a visa — after all, Abbas worked for the U.S. government.
But Abbas’s work training service members to protect Americans made no difference. He said he reached out to his senator, his representative, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the State Department and even the White House — all without luck. Layla was stranded.
To date, the couple have spent thousands of dollars on travel. Before moving to Turkey, Layla would smuggle herself out of Syria to nearby Jordan or Lebanon to meet Abbas for an embassy appointment or just to be together. It took a whole year for Layla to be granted an interview in Jordan in June 2018. She hasn’t heard back since then.
“This damage they are causing to our lives — is this worth anything to them? Don’t we deserve at least a clear answer so we can make plans accordingly?”
Crossing borders, where militants and government forces were fighting, was extraordinarily dangerous for Layla. For her safety, Abbas bought his wife an apartment in Istanbul, where she now resides.
“The money that I’m spending in Turkey every month, it’s better for me to use it here inside the U.S, to start a family, to build a house and own my place for my family. So why should a foreign country benefit from money I’m sending over every month because of such a biased ban?” Abbas asked.
Layla, who is a registered refugee in Turkey, lives in limbo. The former postgraduate student was forced to quit her studies in Syria when the war broke out. She hasn’t continued studying in Turkey, fearing she might have to drop out again once the U.S. approves her visa, which can come at any time and without warning. The couple also really want a baby — but how could they start a family when they live so far apart, not knowing when they will be reunited?
“This damage they are causing to our lives — is this worth anything to them? Don’t we deserve at least a clear answer so we can make plans accordingly?” Layla told HuffPost by phone from Istanbul.
After the Supreme Court upheld Trump’s travel ban last year, the government added a waiver process for families to request an exemption if they could demonstrate a proven hardship. But critics of the ban and human rights advocates, including Samatha Power, the former U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, called the waiver system a sham. Not only is the waiver notoriously difficult to get, but critics say there is no actual system or clarity as to how one qualifies. Past recipients have only received waivers after their stories went viral, such as the Yemeni mother who wanted to see her dying son in California.
With no timeline in place and no clarity from the State Department, Abbas and Layla are unsure if they’ll ever get a waiver.
Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates, a national civil rights organization based in D.C. and one of nearly 400 groups that signed a letter to Congress endorsing the No BAN Act, has seen firsthand the travel ban’s damaging consequences for families like Abbas and Layla’s.
“The Muslim ban has been one of the ugliest, most bigoted policies enacted by any president,” she told HuffPost. “[This bill] is an opportunity for Congress to do its job and pass this law which would terminate the existing executive orders and amend the federal statutes to prevent any president from implementing any kind of discriminatory ban again.”
Read the joint letter to Congress from travel ban opponents below.
In order to cope, Abbas and Layla have attempted to synchronize their schedules to make up for the distance, but it doesn’t always work.
Abbas calls his wife every morning during his 25 minute car ride to work. Nearly 7,000 miles away and 7 hours ahead, Layla is winding down her day. The couple will then call again during Abbas’s lunch time while Layla gets ready for bed. By the time Abbas gets home from work late in the evening, he calls one more time, but this time, Layla will be beginning a new day. The time change and the distance exacerbates their situation.
When on the phone, the two try to limit talking about the ban and the waiver because of the emotional toll it has taken on their marriage but they say, it’s inevitable. To pass the time, the newlyweds play games such as 21 questions and even coordinated reading books together so they can discuss it together. But the elephant in the room weighs heavy and the outcome seems bleak.
“We honestly have no other solution but to be hopeful, even though the end of the tunnel doesn’t seem close. It’s a dark tunnel. But we have to be hopeful, otherwise we go crazy,” Abbas said. “We’re both depressed, we’re feeling down and just exhausted financially and emotionally.”
Abbas is off from work next week and is set to leave for Turkey where he will spend the next 10 days with his wife. But upon his return, like every other time, he’ll have to come back alone.
“This process is killing every part of happiness in our life. Nothing is working out.”