Najeeb al-Omari’s eyebrows are furrowed as he sits on the front steps of his home in the province of Ibb in central Yemen, describing how his daughter, who has a severe mental health condition, had recently been denied a visa to the United States.
Al-Omari, a US citizen, has been trying to get visas for his 11-year-old daughter Shaima – whose severe mental and physical disabilities have been compounded by Yemen’s civil war – his wife Asma, and two other daughters, Salma, aged 8 and Lamiya, aged 6.
“I did all I can; sold everything I’ve got and knocked on every door I know,” al-Omari says, holding Shaima on his lap, her mouth slightly ajar as she looks up at the morning sun.
“The ban has left us with no hope,” he tells Al Jazeera in a video call.
“We’re completely helpless in the middle of this war,” he adds, pausing to move the tip of his checkered headdress to shade her eyes from the sun.
Al-Omari’s family is among thousands of Yemeni-Americans who have been stranded in Djibouti for months or forced back into war-torn Yemen after being denied visas to travel to the US due to controversial travel restrictions – often referred to as the “Muslim ban” – implemented by US President Donald Trump.
Unveiled in September, the third version of the ban was allowed to come into full force on December 8, even as it was challenged in courts. It restricts travel for nationals of five Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen – as well as some individuals from Venezuela and North Korea.
The Trump administration maintains that the restrictions are intended to target countries that inadequately vet prospective migrants to the US and therefore represent a threat to US security. Human rights groups and others argue, however, that it disproportionately targets Muslims.
This week, the Supreme Court will hear final arguments in a challenge to the ban, with a ruling expected in June.
The ban’s left us with no hope. We’re completely helpless in the middle of this war
NAJEEB AL-OMARI, US-YEMENI CITIZEN
For those trying to flee Yemen, these restrictions have come at a considerable cost.
While many families face prolonged waiting times, most visa applications have been rejected, according to families and lawyers who have worked on the applications.
Only about 100 waivers – which allows for case by case assessments of applications that need urgent medical care, or ones where denial would cause “undue hardship” – were granted between December 2017 and January 2018, according State Department data provided to Reuters news agency.
Al-Omari’s family was not one them.
Journey to Djibouti
The 39-year-old father was dividing his time between California, where he worked at a petrol station, and Ibb, where his wife and three daughters had been living, since 2010 when he was granted US citizenship, 13 years after moving to the US.
“I was happy for the girls to grow up in Yemen; Shaima’s condition was stable and everything was fine,” al-Omari tells Al Jazeera.
But after a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states launched a military campaign in 2015 to defeat the Houthi rebels who had taken over Sanaa in 2014, al-Omari decided it was time to bring his family to the US.
“Providing Shaima with the healthcare she needed was becoming increasingly difficult. So many doctors had left Yemen, and the medication she depended on was no longer readily available,” he explains.
With the US embassy in Sanaa closed since February 2015 because of fighting between Houthi rebels and Saudi-backed forces, al-Omari had to take his family to Djibouti to apply for their visas.
Like many Yemenis who planned to make the journey, al-Omari sold everything he owned and took out loans in the US, incurring thousands of dollars in costs.
“I knew I needed a good sum of money for the lawyers and the travelling. I worked day and night to save all I could,” he says, recalling that a well-known American lawyer based in Djibouti had quoted him $12,000 just to look at his case.
Instead, al-Omari sought the help of an immigration advisor based in New York.
Mosheer Fittahey had set up a Facebook page to advise Yemeni migrants to the US on how to proceed.
“We were getting thousands of inquiries every day from Yemenis needing help with their visa applications, so I set up this page to help guide as many people as I could,” Fittahey tells Al Jazeera by telephone.
“When he [al-Omari] reached out, I informed him of the waiver package and told him his chance at getting a visa for his family was higher than others because of Shaima’s medical condition.”
To get to Djibouti, the family of five first endured a 10-hour journey involving multiple military checkpoints to reach Aden. But the night they arrived on November 5, a Houthi missile launched at Riyadh led to the airport being closed and direct flights from Aden to Djibouti cancelled.
They instead flew to two other destinations – Khartoum, Sudan, and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – before reaching Djibouti. Each stop added a week to a journey which would have normally involved a mere two-hour flight.
But for al-Omari, Fattehey’s words had given him the push he needed: “He gave me hope, and all I needed to do is give it my all for the sake of Shaima.”
Rejection and disappointment
The small Horn of Africa state of Djibouti is now home to more than 40,000 Yemenis who have fled their war-torn country.
Despite Djibouti’s own economic struggle, the people and government are making a sincere effort to welcome Yemenis and to consider them a group that could drive significant economic growth for the country.
But with the cost of living in Djibouti extremely high – averaging $4,000 to $5,000 a month for a family’s basic needs – many Yemenis have been forced to return to their war-torn country.
“When we got to Djibouti, everything became even harder,” al-Omari says, recalling renting an empty flat for $1,000 a month and having to furnish it from scratch.
But, according to al-Omari, the most difficult part of Djibouti was the heat coupled with a lack in medical care for Shaima. “The extreme heat and lack of medical facilities for Shaima made our lives 10 times harder.”
Shaima was slipping away from us. I’d spent all the money I had and more. We had no choice but to return to the war and destruction we tried to escape.
NAJEEB AL-OMARI, US-YEMENI CITIZEN
Al-Omari’s wife Asma told Al Jazeera that while they were able to smuggle in some of Shaima’s medication when it ran out in Yemen, in Djibouti, there was no way to get some of the things she needed.
“Shaima had to go for a whole month in Djibouti without one of her medicines,” Asma tells Al Jazeera. “Her seizures got worse every day. It broke my heart to see her suffer.”
After a failed first attempt, al-Omari visited the US embassy for a second time in early February to file his application. By then, Shaima had developed an infection in her esophagus and her overall health had deteriorated dramatically.
“Shaima was so unwell, she couldn’t even eat. We were feeding her through a drip or giving her sips of milk,” al-Omari says.
“Still, however, in our [al-Omari and his wife] minds, this was the last push before we could provide her with the healthcare she needed.”
But the day of the visa interview brought no relief. Although al-Omari had expected the visas to be approved because of Shaima’s condition, he was rejected without much deliberation.
“Taking into account the provisions of the Proclamation, a waiver will not be granted in your case,” the rejection document, seen by Al Jazeera, read.
“As soon as I walked through the door of the interview room with Shaima in my arms, the embassy worker threw the application back at me and informed me it had been rejected,” al-Omari says.
“He didn’t even take a glance at us. I felt no mercy in him.”
When contacted about the case of al-Omari and his family, a US Department of State official told Al Jazeera that it could not comment on individual cases.
The official said consular officers can “grant waivers and authorize the issuance of a visa on a case-by-case basis when the applicant demonstrates to the officer’s satisfaction that: a) denying entry during the suspension period would cause undue hardship; b) his or her entry would not pose a threat to national security or public safety of the United States; and c) his or her entry would be in the national interest.”
According to Fittahey, only a handful of Yemenis have been granted visas in recent months.
“After other Yemenis got rejected, I emailed the consulate on their behalf. Some had prepared a 39-page waiver package which the embassy didn’t even look at,” Fittahey says, explaining that waiver packages cost up to $6,000 to prepare.
But accordingto Fittahey, the consulate had told him that applicants with medical cases would be the only ones they would consider. He told Omari he had a good chance.
“Despite the reassurance, al-Omari’s case, whose daughter is ill and disabled, wasn’t even considered, I know of cases who’ve been given visas through the waiver package without qualifying for any of its routes,” he adds.
“It seems as though the process is quite random and arbitrary.”
According to the Department of State, consular officers “carefully review each case to determine if the applicant is affected by the Proclamation and, if so, whether the case qualifies for a waiver”.
After receiving the embassy’s decision, al-Omari filed an appeal, but after a few more weeks of waiting in Djibouti, it became apparent that he would have to return to Yemen.
“Shaima was slipping away from us. I’d spent all the money I had and more. We had no choice but to go back to the war and destruction we tried to escape,” he says.
For Shaima’s mother, the expected Supreme Court decision on the ban is the final straw of hope her family can clutch at.
“I wish with all my heart that we can get to the US and provide Shaima with the care and attention she needs,” Asma says.