Chasing Safety

Osamah Mahyoub and Emad Al-Azabi survived armed rebels, poisonous snakes and sinister smugglers. Now they face the greatest threat of all: the U.S. immigration system.

Illustration by Patrycja Podkościelny

Osamah Mahyoub wasn’t always a man on the run, or the target of a murderous rebel group. He used to live a comfortable life in Taiz, a city in Yemen with chocolate-brown masonry and some of the finest coffee in the world. He was a happy child who played soccer all day long with his favorite cousins, Abdelsalam and Jamil. Sometimes, if the cousins promised to be good, they were allowed to go to the market with Mahyoub’s uncle, a local imam, to buy mangoes, tomatoes and onions. Soccer, cousins, the market. Happy memories.  

When Mahyoub grew up, he studied accounting at a local college and was making a good living at it until his home became the setting of a new story: a bloody, never-ending war.

Taiz became a city of snipers, and Mahyoub became a target. In March 2015, when Mahyoub was 27 years old, the Houthis, an Iran-backed rebel group, captured Taiz. Members of the group demanded that Mahyoub’s uncle give up his home in the mountains so that it could be used as a launch site for their airstrikes. His uncle refused. So the Houthis bombed his uncle’s home, then Mahyoub’s home. If they couldn’t have it, no one could.

Mahyoub and his family survived the bombing and escaped to relatives nearby, but they weren’t safe. Because his uncle had stood up to the rebels, they had enemies. And although the rebels wanted revenge, they also wanted new recruits. They offered Mahyoub a choice: join them in exchange for his and his family’s safety, or die. Without hesitation, he refused their offer, instead participating in peaceful protests and persuading others in the city to reject the rebel group. The rebels threatened to kill him. With nowhere to hide, Mahyoub fled to the nearby country of Djibouti. 

But the Houthis caught up with their targets in Yemen. They murdered Mahyoub’s cousin Abdulsalam in June; they found and killed Jamil the following month. More cousins were picked off over the next few months and years. In total, Mahyoub lost seven members of his family, according to death certificates and legal documents reviewed by HuffPost. In 2016, his brother was shot by Houthis and lost his leg to gangrene.

Soon the death threats followed Mahyoub to Djibouti. After living and working there for three years as an accountant, the rebel group found him on Facebook. They knew where he was. 

The Worst Humanitarian Crisis In The World

The United Nations estimates more than 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen since the start of the war, but also that that number is likely far higher. More than 24 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance inside Yemen. Families are forced to flee their homes, many with just the clothes on their back, and cross deserts and mountains. Airstrikes have crumbled schools, and more than 130 medical facilities have been attacked. Yemen was one of the world’s poorest countries before the war and largely relied on imports for food and medicine. The war demolished any remaining hope for its people.

There are daily reports of civilian casualties, or of people dying from preventable diseases or not having enough food, said Shabia Mantoo, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Mantoo visited Yemen in 2017 and 2018, seeing firsthand the dire situation inside the country. More than 2 million children under the age of 5 have been classified as acutely malnourished. Poor sanitation and waterborne diseases such as cholera have infected more than a million people and left hundreds of others dead. 

Left: Taiz before 2015. Right: Buildings in Taiz demolished after bombings in 2015.
Left: Taiz before 2015. Right: Buildings in Taiz demolished after bombings in 2015.

More than 3 million Yemenis had been displaced by the ongoing conflict as of last year, and over 65,000 Yemenis had fled the country entirely. Few countries have provided relief for these refugees, including the United States; President Donald Trump signed an executive order in 2017 that barred entry to the U.S. from several Muslim-majority countries, including Yemen. The U.S. closed itself to Yemenis in spite of its own complicity in the war there: It has provided billions of dollars in weaponry and intelligence support to Saudi Arabia, which backs the Yemeni government, further escalating the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. There has been little to no progress to end the war, and international groups including the U.N. have accused both Saudi Arabia and the Houthi rebels of committing war crimes.

People like Mahyoub are paying the price.

Blacklisted Friends

In Djibouti in 2015, Mahyoub met Emad Al-Azabi, a 34-year-old Yemeni national from Taiz. Al-Azabi had also defied the Houthi rule of his home city and had fled to protect himself. 

One year before, Al-Azabi had been supposed to graduate college with a degree in English. He and his friends drove over six hours from his hometown to Sana’a, the nation’s capital, for the ceremony. But fighting broke out between government forces and the armed Houthi militia group that day. As the capital burned and the Houthis seized control of the prime minister’s office, the state television channels and the military headquarters, Al-Azabi and his friends headed home, only to discover Taiz had also fallen to the rebels. 

Soldiers were soon in the streets, calling on people to join the armed militia in exchange for money and security. Al-Azabi pleaded with people not to join the group, and just like Mahyoub, he and his family became targets for speaking up. Al-Azabi was forced to flee to Djibouti, where he was able to find work as a translator.

Several members of Al-Azabi’s family were killed in the war. His uncle, a soldier, was killed in August 2015; a cousin, a military peacekeeping member, was killed the following summer. Another cousin, a lieutenant, was killed by shrapnel from an IED bomb a year later. Al-Azabi had been in Djibouti for three years when he thought it was safe to go back to Yemen and visit his mother. But back home, it quickly became clear that the Houthis still wanted him dead.

Suddenly, both men needed to escape.

Nowhere Safe

The men set their eyes on Ecuador, which allows visa-free entries for nearly any foreign national from any country in the world. Al-Azabi arrived in Quito in 2017, after a brief stop in Egypt. Mahyoub followed him in January 2018. 

Life was good in Quito. The men dedicated themselves to making the city their new home. On his second day in the country, Al-Azabi strolled down the streets, hunting for similar faces when he came across two Middle Eastern restaurants, one Egyptian and one Lebanese. There, he met Arabic-speaking nationals, and soon his network grew. In no time, the men secured work at a local Yemeni-owned mini-market, where they found a small hub of other Yemeni refugees. On their days off, they enjoyed the warm weather, swam and played soccer.

Al-Azabi got in touch with his dad and Abdullah, a cousin from New York who visited Ecuador for two weeks in April 2019. Abdullah went sightseeing with Al-Azabi and Mahyoub in Quito and the port city of Manta, which reminded them of Taiz before the war.

“I was so happy for them,” Abdullah told HuffPost. “They were in a safe place.”

But trouble soon followed. Mahyoub was playing pool at a local bar one day in June 2019 when five Yemenis entered. The men, who were Houthi sympathizers, forced Mahyoub out into the streets and began to beat him. Police officers intervened and broke up the fight, but no arrests were made. Mahyoub realized that even in Ecuador, thousands of miles from Taiz, his life was still in danger.

He and Al-Azabi lost their jobs to other workers who accepted lower wages. Money was running out and their tourist visas had expired. Then they heard about a plan for America.

Abdullah, Emad Al-Azabi's cousin, stands with his nephew on the balcony of his home in Queens, New York City, in April. 
Abdullah, Emad Al-Azabi's cousin, stands with his nephew on the balcony of his home in Queens, New York City, in April. 

The Longest Road

Over the last few years, migration and immigration experts have witnessed the rise of an extraordinary phenomenon called “extra-continental migrants,” a term that refers to individuals who have tried to come to the United States by traveling across multiple continents.  

With the lax immigration laws in South America and European countries shutting down their borders, refugees and migrants fleeing the Middle East have been forced to look westward. For many migrants and refugees, it’s arguably cheaper and less dangerous to cross the South American continent to the United States than it is to embark on a risky boat ride across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

Although most migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico borders are from Central America or Mexico — nearly than 700,000 during the 2019 fiscal year — there has been an increase of migrants from other continents. According to the Migration Policy Unit of Mexico, more than 670,000 migrants from Asia entered Mexico through legal ports of entry during 2019 and more than 675,000 did so in 2018. Customs and Border Protection apprehended nearly 7,000 people from India, 1,200 from Bangladesh, and 600 from the Democratic Republic of Congo during the 2019 fiscal year. It apprehended 34 Yemenis that same year.  

Migrants and asylum-seekers from these countries face unique challenges. It takes longer to complete their journeys compared to their Central American counterparts, and many face language barriers within Mexico and are forced to rely on smugglers for information. Migrants from the Middle East, India and parts of Africa are a very specific group with very different needs, said Estela Aragon, a researcher at the International Organization for Migration. 

Many do not make it. But for those who do, the challenges don’t end when they arrive in the U.S.

Embarking On Mission Impossible

On a warm July evening in 2019, Mahyoub and Al-Azabi left for the long trip north with about $2,000 in savings and a backpack filled with food. They were joined by four other migrants and refugees ― three Yemenis and one Sudanese. The group mapped out a route that would take them along the Pan-American Highway, the longest road in the world. From Ecuador, Mahyoub and Al-Azabi would go to Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico before finally arriving at the U.S. border in Texas.

In Quito, the men had heard of others leaving for the U.S. They heard stories about long journeys ending in safety, that the U.S. would protect them from murderous rebel groups, from being forced to return to a country at war. They heard they could go to the U.S. and start over. Al-Azabi didn’t tell his father in New York that he was making the journey. He didn’t want him to worry. 

First, the men embarked on a bus from Quito. Three bus rides and 10 days later, they arrived at the Colombian-Ecuadorian border at dawn. The immigration officers hadn’t arrived at their shifts yet, so the men kept on walking across the border. Getting to Colombia was the easy part, and the most dangerous and longest part of their journey was up next.  

Aerial view of the La Penita indigenous village in Panama. Migrants cross the border between Colombia and Panama through the
Aerial view of the La Penita indigenous village in Panama. Migrants cross the border between Colombia and Panama through the Darien Gap.

Mahyoub and Al-Azabi knew that trekking through the Darien Gap was going to be difficult, but they had no idea it could kill them. The Gap, which connects the North and South American continents and is mostly used to cross between Colombia and Panama, is over 60 miles of swamps, jungles and mountains, as well as poisonous plants, venomous snakes and other hostile wildlife. It is also the perfect cover for drug smugglers, human traffickers and paramilitary groups that have long claimed this lawless region as a home where anything goes. Yet tens of thousands of desperate refugees and migrants from Cuba, Africa and Asia risk their lives every year to cross it. 

Under the cover of the jungle, the Yemeni men and their group crossed illegally from South America to Central America, paying smugglers often known as coyotes along the way. The men hiked through the thick jungles for seven days straight, 12 hours a day. At night, they usually slept in tents. But if the land was too dangerous, they climbed into the trees and slept in branches to hide from dangerous wildlife and even more dangerous men. Halfway through their week-long trek, gunmen stopped the group and demanded money. Afraid for their lives, Mahyoub and Al-Azabi gave up a few hundred dollars and their cellphones, almost everything they had. In addition to the dangers posed by the jungle and smugglers, the polluted river meant no washing and no drinking. There were no safe stops to rest. No matter how tired, they were forced to keep walking. Mahyoub and Al-Azabi said they saw five corpses along the way. They prayed they would not become one of them.

“If I knew that the trip was going to be what I had experienced, I would have never gone,” Mahyoub said. “I pray that no one ever experiences this.” 

Detained In Panama

After surviving the most dangerous part of the trip, Mahyoub and Al-Azabi were immediately apprehended by members of the Panamanian border patrol. Panama’s small size, as well as its established immigration partnerships with Colombia, Costa Rica and the United States, allows it to monitor and control the influx of migrants. Panama’s National Border Service allows 100 migrants to move through its country every day, and shuttles them from its most southern border to the northern border at Costa Rica. Those who don’t make that day’s cut are housed in processing centers until it’s their turn.

Some experts say the processing center wait is a benefit for migrants, as they don’t have to rely on smugglers for that portion of the journey.

“But it pays off for the Panamanian authorities because they can be sure that migrants aren’t necessarily staying in their country,” said Jessica Bolter, an associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.

Mahyoub and Al-Azabi were detained for 55 days among thousands of other migrants of all races and backgrounds — including women and children — where they received basic services such as food, shelter and medical assistance. The men stayed in outdoor facilities that they described as overcrowded and lacking proper bathrooms and running water. They ate rice and vegetables provided by the authorities. There was not much to do but wait. To pass the time, they took naps in the afternoon, conversed with other Arabic-speaking migrants, and regained their strength for the next leg of their journey. 

Eventually, their turn came and they were put on a bus to Costa Rica.  

International Crackdown On Immigration

Once the bus arrived at the border of Costa Rica, Mahyoub and Al-Azabi were shuffled to another immigration facility. Costa Rican officials questioned the men extensively. Then the routine continued: bus ride, followed by an immigration visit and detention stops, paying fees, and then another bus ride to the next country. Ride and repeat.

They passed through Nicaragua, where Mahyoub and Al-Azabi were forced to camp outside in the streets with other migrants waiting for immigration officials to call their names and check their passports. Two days later, they were placed on yet another bus to their next destination: Honduras.

While passing through transit countries, migrants have to cross into countries with different migration policies. Some borders can be crossed regularly, but others are crossed irregularly by migrants who often rely on smugglers. Mahyoub and Al-Azabi paid smugglers for seats on the bus that would get them through Honduras and Guatemala. Nearly 70% of migrants who cross the Mexico-Guatemala border travel with coyotes.

Osama Mahyoub, bottom left, and Emad Al-Azabi, top left, along with photos from their time living in Ecuador.
Osama Mahyoub, bottom left, and Emad Al-Azabi, top left, along with photos from their time living in Ecuador.

When they finally arrived in Mexico in October, the impact of Trump’s changes put a temporary halt on their journey. Just a few months prior, Trump had signed an agreement with Mexico to reduce the flow of migrants. Mexico deployed thousands of guard members at its border crossings with Guatemala in the south and along the U.S. border up north. In the weeks following the deal, the Trump administration announced a 28% drop in individuals detained at the U.S.-Mexico border.

At the same time, the number of Yemeni nationals migrating to or through Mexico was climbing. During the 2019 fiscal year, Mexican authorities apprehended 62 Yemeni nationals either at its borders or inside the country, according to data provided by the Migration Policy Institute, compared to 46 nationals during the 2018 fiscal year and 27 during the 2017 fiscal year. Between 2007 and 2017, by comparison, the largest number of Yemeni nationals apprehended by U.S. authorities at the U.S.-Mexico in any year was three. 

Mayhoub and Al-Azabi were stuck. For one month, they waited in Monterrey, Mexico, desperate to make their final crossing into the United States. 

‘America Isn’t Paradise’

It was nearly midnight when Mahyoub and Al-Azabi made it to the U.S. border, but even the night’s darkness could not cloud their excitement. A rush of relief and joy washed over them as they got off their last bus ride in Mexico and walked into Texas. The excitement was brief. Within a few minutes of touching U.S. soil, the men were apprehended by border patrol and taken to the San Antonio detention center. Upon their arrival, they faced a new onslaught of challenges, including navigating complex immigration laws, language barriers and lawsuits. 

“I was so happy at first when I entered America, but then I immediately regretted it,” Mahyoub said. 

Mahyoub and Al-Azabi have been held by U.S. immigration officials since arriving in the U.S. on Nov. 28, 2019. A migrant can request asylum at either a port of entry or after they enter the U.S. The first step in that process is a meeting with an asylum officer, who determines whether that person has a “credible fear” of persecution or torture back in their country of origin. As they wait for their immigration hearings, individuals are either released on parole or taken to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center. Asylum officers determined neither Mahyoub nor Al-Azabi had credible fear of returning to their home countries. Their attorneys appealed the decisions, but that was denied in March as well. 

A spokesperson for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services declined to comment, saying it was the agency’s “practice not to comment on individual cases” and that “asylum records are confidential under immigration law.” ICE declined to comment on the possibility of deportation.   

Mahyoub and Al-Azabi believe deportation would be a death sentence. 

The Maze Of The Immigration System

The U.S. government has acknowledged the danger facing people returned to Yemen. About 1,500 Yemeni nationals who have been living in the U.S. since 2015 are protected by Temporary Protected Status –– a program that allows individuals already living inside the U.S. to receive protection because their home country has been deemed too unsafe to return to, or because it would not be able to adequately take them back.

The program, which is up for renewal every 18 months and was just renewed earlier this year, excludes thousands of other Yemenis who are at risk for deportation because they entered the U.S. after the cutoff date. Earlier this year, the U.S. deported a Yemeni photographer without warning back to Yemen, still a war zone, prompting widespread concern for other Yemenis inside the country who fear a similar fate.

Since Oct. 1, 2017, the U.S. has accepted only five Yemenis through the refugee resettlement program, in which people are approved to come to the U.S. before they make the journey. (Those who arrive at the border, like Mahyoub, can seek asylum, not refugee status.) In 2018 and 2019, the U.S. hasn’t accepted any Yemeni refugees, primarily due to Trump’s travel ban.

“A lot of Yemeni migrants and refugees are being judged, or there are preconceived misconceptions that Yemenis are terrorists or they pose as a security risk to the United States,” said Assma Ali, a Mississippi-based immigration lawyer who represents Mahyoub. 

“Yemenis are being persecuted and there’s evidence of them being persecuted in Yemen, and the U.S. is slamming the door on them and not allowing them to file for protection from the United States,” Ali said. “They are not believing them. There is no way you can disagree, there isn’t a threat to his life.”

Changes implemented by the Trump administration have only made it harder for migrants to receive asylum at the border, including severely limiting access to asylum claims and making it harder for migrants to prove a fear of persecution or torture if returned ― especially when they are not being given the chance to do so in a courtroom. In July 2019, when Mahyoub and Al Azabi were just starting their journey from Quito, the Trump administration also announced another new rule change: Migrants who traveled through another country before reaching the U.S. and did not apply for asylum in those countries could not do so in the U.S.

A federal judge temporarily blocked this transit ban, the so-called asylum ban 2.0. But in September, the Supreme Court ruled the ban can take effect while a legal challenge against it works its way through the courts. That means that those who do not pass a reasonable fear interview ― people like Mahyoub and Al-Azabi, potentially ― can be swiftly deported. (The preliminary interviews for asylum is called credible fear, whereas asking for the withholding of removal is called reasonable fear. Meeting the criteria for a reasonable fear interview is higher than credible fear.)

I regret all of it. If I knew this was going to happen to me, I would have never come. Osamah Mahyoub

In the current environment, it’s almost impossible for people to convince officers that they’re afraid of being returned to their country, said Kate Richardson, an attorney at the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.

Those who are allowed to continue the process to seek protections are subjected to a slew of restrictions. They are eligible for only two very limited forms of protection against deportation: withholding of removal, and protection under the Convention Against Torture. Unlike asylum, which is only granted after passing a credible fear interview, the individual can never acquire a green card or become a U.S. citizen. If the conditions of their home country changes, their protections can be terminated.

If granted asylum in a best-case scenario, Mahyoub and Al-Azabi would never get a green card or U.S. citizenship, and their lives would always be in the hands of immigration officials.

In another win for the Trump administration, in March the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Migrant Protection Protocols, a controversial immigration program that allows U.S. border officers to return non-Mexican asylum-seekers back to Mexico as they wait for their day in U.S. immigration court. Now, more than 66,000 asylum-seekers are stranded in Mexico, forced to wait months or years for their cases to be decided in the US. Less than 0.1% of asylum claims have been granted since the implementation of the program.

Mahyoub and Al-Azabi are in limbo.

Running Out Of Time

Life inside the San Antonio Detention Center was difficult.

Mahyoub and Al-Azabi were housed with nearly 100 people inside the facility. They found comfort with each other’s presence. Al-Azabi, who speaks Arabic, English and Spanish, translated for his friend often. But most of the time, they tried to keep to themselves. Mahyoub said guards at the facility taunted him because of his Muslim faith and Arab background, mocking his name. They called him “Bin Laden.” They also referred to him as “Taliban” whenever they wanted his attention, drawing stares and concerns from fellow detainees.

In February, Mahyoub was separated from Al-Azabi ― his friend, his connection to home, his lifeline. Immigration officials moved him to Adams County Detention Center in Mississippi, where he has been held ever since. He has no one to translate for him, and the detention center has provided no translation services. He broke into tears when he found out about his relocation, afraid of being apart from the only man who really knows him.  

“I didn’t expect America to treat us this way,” Mahyoub said. “I can’t go on like this.”

An ICE spokesperson said the agency “does not tolerate any mistreatment including verbal abuse of people in its custody” and provides detainees channels to raise concerns. The agency also noted that it provides interpretation and translation for people with limited English proficiency.

The spread of the coronavirus outbreak threatens both the health and safety of Mahyoub and Al-Azabi in their respective detention facilities. In April, Al-Azabi and the rest of the detainees were given face masks as a precautionary measure in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Al-Azabi used to be able to go outside with the other detainees and play soccer, but that one hour of freedom has been taken away because of the pandemic. He is worried an outbreak could happen at any moment and would spread in such tight quarters.  

Al-Azabi’s father, who lives in New York City and wasn’t aware of the journey his son took, was devastated when he found out about his son’s current situation. 

“I tell my son America isn’t paradise,” said 59-year-old Abu Emad. HuffPost is withholding Abu Emad’s real name and referring to him with a term that translates to the “father of Emad” because he is an undocumented resident.

Abu Emad said he regrets that his son ever left Ecuador. If he knew Al-Azabi was planning to make the journey, he would have told him not to go. Abu Emad, who is suffering from kidney failure, also tested positive for COVID-19 in April. Without proper care, his condition continues to worsen. Al-Azabi’s cousin, Abdullah, looks after him. They both hope that Al-Azabi will come home to them soon.

“I’m afraid for my son. If they deport him, it will be the end of him,” Abu Emad told HuffPost. 

Emad's father posing for a portrait in his neighborhood in Queens, New York City, on April 27.
Emad's father posing for a portrait in his neighborhood in Queens, New York City, on April 27.

Al-Azabi is regretful. He said he feels devastated by the rigid immigration system that is failing him.

“Every day I hear new bad news. A friend who was killed or a relative who was killed. When I call my parents, my mom cries and cries. I can’t handle her calls anymore,” Al-Azabi said from the detention center in a call in April. 

For over two months, I have spoken to Mahyoub and Al-Azabi nearly every day. Before the coronavirus pandemic, they were hopeful. They talked about what their new lives would look like in America. They both want to move to New York City, where over 50,000 Yemenis reside. They were eager to find work and start a new life among fellow Arab Muslims, to have a community. We discussed our respective families. They wanted to hear about mine but grew quiet when I asked about theirs. They seemed to feel shame about their current predicament. But mostly, they were deeply sad that they may never see their loved ones again. They are now fasting for Ramadan, a time that usually brings family and community together, and they feel a particular loneliness. Mahyoub told me I am the only person on his call list. He has no one else.   

Without Mayhoub, Al-Azabi spends his days writing. He writes about the journey across South America, the things he has seen, and the people he has met. He hopes to publish a memoir one day.

“What I know of America is that it is the country of freedom and justice and the country for everyone, but when I got here I was shocked,” Al-Azabi said.

Two weeks ago, Mahyoub developed cold-like symptoms; he is gravely worried about a possible coronavirus outbreak where he is. He now wonders if the journey to America was worth it.

“I regret all of it,” he said.  “If I knew this was going to happen to me, I would have never come.”

For now, he’s in limbo and praying that the U.S., which is complicit in demolishing his home country, will give him a chance at life. He could be deported any day. 

“I can’t return to Yemen because my life is in danger. Where would I go in Yemen? Our homes are destroyed,” Mahyoub said. “If I return, I would be forced to carry arms, and I refuse to carry arms. I reject violence of any kind.”

The idea of returning back to a war zone is unfathomable, he said. He has no home to return to. His family members are barely escaping death, between the daily bombs and the Houthis’ threats. If enduring the war in Yemen, the threats in Djibouti, and the journey across South America has taught him anything, it’s that he has a knack for surviving. He prays God is on his side one more time.

“I am only asking for safety,” Mahyoub said. “This is my last chance.”

testPromoTitleReplace testPromoDekReplace Join HuffPost Today! No thanks.
CONVERSATIONS