Trump's Muslim ban has trapped this Yemeni mother in a home destroyed by airstrikes
Bushra al-Fusail wanted to be heard.
She made that happen on Jan. 31 during a televised CNN town hall debate. With millions of viewers watching, the Yemeni asylum-seeker told former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi that her mother was trapped outside of the United States because of President Donald Trump's executive order on refugees, which bars immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S.
"My mom isn't able to come to the U.S., due to [the order] Donald Trump signed recently," al-Fusail said with a mic in hand. "What could you help us and our people to ensure more families are not turned apart?"
Pelosi did not mince words.
"Your family is suffering because our president is reckless and his administration is incompetent," Pelosi said, offering to help with al-Fusail's case.
Nearly a month later, al-Fusail's mother Alia remains stranded in Sanaa, Yemen, living in a house partially destroyed by airstrikes. Al-Fusail — who came to the U.S. on a tourist visa last year and stayed when fighting in Yemen intensified — said her lawyers had sent Pelosi's office documentation regarding her mother's case but hasn't heard back yet. And with Trump's travel ban, Alia fears she may never be able to reunite with her daughter in the United States.
"I raised my children to always be together," Alia said in a phone interview. "I want them to learn and grow up to take care of each other."
Since March 2015, Yemen has been under siege by Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Middle Eastern countries following the ouster of former Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Several human rights organizations, including the United Nations, have found that Saudi-led airstrikes — with the military assistance of the U.S. — are responsible for the majority of civilian casualties in Yemen. According to an August 2016 U.N. report, more than 3 million Yemenis are now displaced because of the siege, and 10,000 are dead.
Al-Fusail still remembers the day when airstrikes first began in Saana. It was just a few minutes past midnight on March 29, 2015. Al-Fusail and her family were sleeping when they heard explosions and looked out to see missiles exploding on the surrounding mountains. Her father Abdulsharif and mother Alia grabbed al-Fusail from her room and took shelter in the basement.
"We were so afraid," she said. "My mom and sisters were crying."
Al-Fusail and her family remained in the basement until sunrise, when the electricity came back. But the city remained shut down for a whole week, leaving the family without access to food.
"I didn't think we'd survive," she said. "I honestly don't know how we survived with no food for one week."
Al-Fusail, who was the main breadwinner for her family, said her family mainly survived on the food they had at home. When needed, the al-Fusails would ask neighbors to spare any wheat, milk or other ingredients.
In Yemen, if someone doesn't die from an airstrike, they'll either die from starvation or lack of medical access, Al-Fusail said.
According to an August 2016 United Nations report, nearly 1.5 million Yemenis are suffering from life-threatening malnutrition. The humanitarian non-governmental organization Save the Children reported that there are 10,000 preventable deaths each year due to the lack of medical supplies and staff.
Al-Fusail came to the U.S. in June 2016, when she was working for the United Nations' International Organization for Migration in Europe. She then applied for and received a tourist visa to travel to the U.S. to visit a Yemeni activist friend. But when airports in Yemen were shut down due to bombings, she was forced to stay in the U.S. She subsequently applied for asylum, leaving her mother and father behind.
Those granted asylum receive one year of resettlement benefits, which includes cash assistance, health care and integration programs like English speaking courses. But getting one's application approved can take 2-4 years.
"Asylum seekers don't get benefits, zero," immigration lawyer Diego Aranda Teixeira said in an email.
While she waited for her application to be approved, al-Fusail remained stranded in the U.S. with no government assistance to pay for rent, food or clothing. Al-Fusail's lawyers advised against applying for food stamps since it could impact the verdict of her asylum application.
Then she got hit with more bad news.
On Dec. 14, Abdulsharif, al-Fusail's father, went to the only remaining hospital in Sanaa after kidney stones made him bleed. Abdulsharif needed a simple blood transfusion, but because of the blockade, the hospital did not have the necessary supplies to perform the procedure. Abdulsharif was turned away.
Al-Fusail spoke to her father the day after Christmas, begging him to come to the U.S. She had made the same plea many times before. Each time, her father refused. But this time was different.
"You're right, Bushra," Abdulsharif told his daughter. "I'm just going to go. I'm tired of this war. I'm going to get out of Yemen and see you. Inshallah, we'll be a family again."
Two days later, Abdulsharif died, leaving his wife to fend for herself in the war-torn country.
"This war killed him," al-Fusail said. "He was the most precious man in my life. It just hurts knowing that his last wish was to come to the U.S. so we can all finally be together again. And this war killed him."
In early January, al-Fusail was finally granted a worker's permit. But finding employment has been difficult while fighting to reunite with her mother and grieving her father's death. Her 25-year-old brother Ali al-Fusail is a lifeline in that fight. Ali, a University of Chicago graduate, was born in Portland, Oregon, where his father had pursued an engineering degree decades earlier. As a U.S. citizen, he can sponsor his mother for immigration.
Alia has the right to file an I-130 petition — an application for relatives of a lawful resident or American citizen intending to immigrate to the U.S. Alia was notified that application had been accepted in February, which allows her to apply for a visa. Under normal circumstances, Alia would undergo the vetting process for a family-based visa. But with Trump's order, Alia does not know whether she would be granted a visa even if she met the requirements.
Making matters worse, to apply for a visa Alia would have to visit a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office to go through DNA tests, biodata collection and additional interviews and screenings. But the office is in Cairo, which would cost al-Fusail thousands of dollars in travel expenses that she does not have. Leaving Yemen itself is a major obstacle given that the only airport that remains open is in the south of the country, which is controlled by ISIS.
For the moment, Alia's lawyers have their hands tied. They must wait and see how the current imbroglio over immigration plays out.
But despair will not suppress al-Fusail. The Yemeni activist said she has gone to Washington, D.C., with the anti-war activist group Code Pink to protest and lobby the war in Yemen. Al-Fusail said she will continue to go to stand up for her people and her mother.
"I lost my father to the war," al-Fusail said. "Now, I won't let Trump's ban make me lose my mother, too."
Alia, on the other hand, feels that the only thing she can do is have faith in God.
"I have so much faith in God," Alia said. "I pray everyday, and before I sleep, my children and I get reunited soon. I am telling my kids to focus on our life instead of being worried what happens next."