Mississippi family yearns for children stranded in Yemen

Photo: Ridgeland resident Mustafa Almatari talks alongside his family Monday about his two sons, Khalid, 12, and Mohammed, 10, who are stranded in Yemen awaiting word about traveling to the U.S. to reunite with their family.(Photo: Justin Sellers/The Clarion-Ledger)

 

Maryam Almatari goes to the park near her Ridgeland home every weekend. The 39-year-old mother of six sits and watches her two toddlers play. But her eyes are drawn to the distance, where a group of boys are playing soccer. Almatari begins to cry. She wonders about her two sons, Khaled, 12, and Mohammed, 10, and if they have been able to play soccer that day or, if her fears have become realized, and they have been killed by bombs.

She has no way of knowing.

Looking at her two toddlers, Maryam said, “I feel like they are in heaven and (Khaled and Mohammed) are in hell.”

Khaled and Mohammed are trapped in Yemen, caught in a legal limbo that seems almost impossible to navigate. The boys are two of the estimated 90,000 impacted by a travel ban enacted by President Donald Trump. The travel ban, which has since been overturned, affected those from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Yemen and applies to visa and green card holders as well as refugees.

Signing his executive order, Trump said "we don't want them here" and prioritized Christian refugees over Muslim refugees.

The Almatari family said they not only want to be in the United States but their lives depend on it.

In their Ridgeland home, the family has a backyard and access to parks. In their former neighborhood in Yemen, people are afraid to go outside, Maryam said.

"We were so afraid and scared," Maryam said. "We have no justice in our country."

In January 2015, Almatari, and her husband, Mustafa, came to the United States from Yemen on a tourist visa. They brought their two teenage children, Abdulrahman, 17, and Khadega, 16, and their 4-month-old baby, Abdullah.

Expenses forced them to leave Khaled and Mohammed with Maryam’s mother in Yemen.

The family flew into New York, intending to stay for one month. In Yemen, tensions were high.

Mustafa, a businessman who manufactured aluminum and imported and sold cars from the U.S., is a Sunni. The Houthis, primarily made up Shiites, were prevalent in Mustafa’s neighborhood and he vocally disagreed with their line of thinking.

"I'm a human being and I want to be free about what I'm thinking and I want to be free about what I'm doing," he said.

One day, armed men lined the streets and stopped Mustafa’s neighbor, a woman, and questioned why she was driving a car.

Mustafa stepped in to defend her. Soon, threats followed. The Houthis burned Mustafa’s car.

The family thought a month away would give tensions time to calm down. However, while they were in the U.S., Mustafa’s businesses were commandeered and the family was left with nothing to return to.

Mustafa got word, if they returned to Yemen, they would be killed.

Interpreting for her father, daughter Khadega said, “They told him they would kill his children.”

Fearing for their safety, the family decided to move to Mississippi, a state they said is known for it’s “hospitality” and “nice people.”

The family settled into life in Ridgeland, where Mustafa is a delivery driver, and welcomed a new baby, Nourelhoda.

With Khaled and Mohammed still in Yemen, without visas, the family turned to attorneys Abby Peterson and Jeremy Litton for help.

Peterson helped the Almataris file for asylum. While their case was pending, the attorneys sought humanitarian tourist visas for Khaled and Mohammed, which were denied.

Mustafa, Maryam, Abdulrahman, Khadega, Abdullah and Nourelhoda were each granted asylum in the United States.

Peterson then filed a refugee/asylee relative petition for Khaled and Mohammed. It was approved, and the case was then sent from Homeland Security to the Department of State to schedule an interview and medical exam.

On Dec. 18, Peterson was notified via email the boys had been scheduled for an interview and medical exam in Djibouti nine days later.

Each visa interview must occur at a U.S. embassy or a consulate. Yemen doesn’t have a functioning government, so there is no U.S. embassy. The closest  one is in Djibouti, Africa.

To get to Djibouti, Maryam said, the boys must fly to Sudan or Egypt because the ferry between Yemen and Djibouti is closed.

By the time the boys were able to get to Sudan, they had missed their appointments in Djibouti.

Without paperwork and proof of an interview appointment  to enter Djibouti, the boys were stranded in Sudan.

Peterson said she made numerous attempts to reschedule the interviews but has not received a response from the State Department.

Then, Trump issued the travel ban.

The boys were in Sudan for a month, waiting to hear if their interviews had been rescheduled. The travel and month’s stay cost the family $5,000. Money ran out and the family couldn’t afford to wait any longer. Khaled and Mohammed returned to Yemen.

One of the main airports in Yemen is closed, and another is in jeopardy of closing. If the second airport closes, Khaled and Mohammed will have no legal way to get to Djibouti, Peterson said.

Clarionl Edger

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