HALEDON, N.J. ― Every night at 11 p.m., after her sons have long gone to bed, Zarmina Noori drags a chair away from her kitchen table and into her youngest son’s bedroom. She places it next to the twin-sized bed where 14-year-old Ahmad sleeps hooked to the machine that helps him breathe. Then she sits down, holds her iPhone in one hand and a cup of black tea in the other, and waits for the phone to ring.
Noori hasn’t gotten a full night’s sleep in years. Ahmad suffers from spina bifida, a neural birth defect that often results in damage to the spinal cord and nerves. He has hydrocephalus, or extra fluid in and around the brain, and neuromuscular dystrophy, the progressive loss of muscle mass. He can’t speak or see properly and requires 24-hour care. A home nurse takes care of Ahmad during the day, but for the past 10 years, Noori has been the one looking over the boy at night.
Everything would be easier if Noori’s husband were there to help. But Mohammad Hamid Ayoubi can only call. He is stuck on the other side of the globe, waiting for the U.S. government to approve his application to join his wife. Each night, as they FaceTime, she tells him how much she needs him and asks him if his application has been approved yet. Each time, his answer is the same: no.
Ayoubi worked as an interpreter for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, including in the volatile Kandahar province, but was forced to leave after militants threatened his life. He is seeking to come to the U.S. on a visa, but his application has been pending for two years.
President Donald Trump’s administration has decimated the U.S. refugee resettlement program, shrinking the number of people admitted and adding vetting requirements that slow down the process. Noori and Ayoubi fear that even though Ayoubi aided the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, he won’t be allowed to join them in New Jersey, and they won’t ever learn why.
“We are a family. We need to be together,” said Noori, who met Ayoubi when they were both refugees in Turkey. “I married to be together, not to be separate.”
“He worked with American soldiers and for the American people. They know my husband. I don’t know why they won’t give him a visa,” she continued. “If Trump was not president, maybe my husband would be here right now. I think Trump is making my husband not come.”
Noori and Ayoubi did not know each other before they both arrived in Turkey from Afghanistan in 2013. Noori and her sons fled Kabul when increased suicide bombings terrorized the Afghan capital. “Boom everywhere. At the schools and at the hospitals and the mosques,” she said, describing the atmosphere. “Every day I am nervous, [thinking about] what time [my sons] are leaving and what time they are coming back. Every time this happens, I think, when can I leave Afghanistan?”
Ayoubi, meanwhile, was working as an interpreter for the U.S. military in Afghanistan when he received a call from an unknown number ― someone who told him working with infidels was forbidden and that he had a week to quit his job, Ayoubi said. He thought it might be a joke, but received another call a week later saying he could be beheaded.
When Ayoubi quit and went back to his hometown, the threats continued. His family worried Afghanistan wasn’t safe for him anymore and encouraged him to leave for Turkey in July 2013.
Once in Turkey, Noori and her youngest son left the city of Isparta once a week at sunrise for a six-hour bus ride to the Turkish capital of Ankara, where the boy could receive medical treatment. Outside the local hospital during one of these trips, Ayoubi overheard Noori speaking Dari to her son. He told her he was also a refugee from Afghanistan. Within months, they were married.
When Noori met Ayoubi, her family felt whole again. Her sons welcomed their new stepdad. Ayoubi cherished the boys as his own. The couple didn’t talk much about what came before and tried to focus on what was to come. “We started a new life to be happy and to enjoy,” Ayoubi told HuffPost from his home in Turkey. “We built a new life.”
There was one problem. Noori had applied for refugee status for her and her sons, since it was hard to get Ahmad the right care in their town in western Turkey. By the time Noori and Ayoubi married, her resettlement application with the United Nations was much further along than Ayoubi’s. The resettlement agency warned that merging the applications could slow both of them down, and advised Noori to petition for her husband to join her after she entered the U.S.
Noori and her sons were approved for resettlement to the U.S. in 2014. But the moment was bittersweet. Ayoubi’s application to be recognized as a refugee was still pending, and the family was forced to leave him behind. On a hot June day in 2015, Noori and her sons said goodbye to Ayoubi.
“We were crying a lot,” Noori recalled. But Ayoubi soothed them and told his wife that it would only be a few months before he would join them.
Caught In Bureaucratic Limbo
Noori petitioned for Ayoubi to join her in the U.S. in 2016, under a visa for spouses and unmarried children of refugees. He went for an interview at the U.S. Embassy in February 2017, but since then, his case hasn’t progressed. As of late September 2018, his application is still under administrative processing.
The U.S. government has not explained what’s causing the delay ― it usually doesn’t comment on individual cases ― but refugee resettlement has plummeted under Trump, who likened Syrian refugees to a Trojan horse and vowed to ban Muslims from the U.S. before taking office.
It was never easy to come to the U.S. as a refugee, but the Trump administration plans to cap the number of refugees entering the country to 30,000 for the next fiscal year ― the lowest number in the history of the program. There are nearly 2.5 million refugees from Afghanistan who are, like Ayoubi, registered with the United Nations refugee agency.
Increased vetting measures, many of them imposed as part of Trump’s travel ban orders, have slowed the refugee admissions process. The U.S. government reduced the number of officials who conduct refugee interviews and added new background check requirements for certain refugees.
The number of refugees admitted this year to the U.S. from Afghanistan, where the U.S. has been at war since 2001, is likely to be about one-third of what it was in 2016.
Ayoubi’s other efforts to join his family are also stalled. The U.S. has special visas available to Afghans and Iraqis who worked with the U.S. military during the wars. Ayoubi has tried to reach out to people he knew from the U.S. military to serve as references, but he hasn’t gotten any replies.
Shoshanna Malett, an attorney with the Immigration and Refugee Program at Church World Service who is assisting the family in their reunification efforts, could only speculate as to what is causing the holdup in Ayoubi’s application. There are rumors that “administrative processing” is code for security screening and that there is a backlog, but she doesn’t know.
It’s “maddening” to see a family separated, especially when a sick child is involved and the person left behind has worked with the U.S. military, she said.
“You couldn’t paint more of a humanitarian picture,” Malett argued. “And I can’t get him out.”
Starting Over Alone
It’s been more than three years since Noori last saw her husband. Her eldest sons have made a lot of progress in America: Ali and Amir Rajabi are nearly fluent in English and are both enrolled in school full-time ― Ali at Passaic Community College and Amir in a local high school.
But Noori has yet to catch up. She is uncomfortable speaking English and has no community supporting her. She’s navigating medical bills, rent, learning English and raising her three sons alone. This wasn’t the plan, she said. The plan was for Ayoubi to help lead their new life in America.
“Here, there is no friends. No Afghan family. I’m not in contact with any families or people. I only have my sons and the nurse,” Noori said. “I can’t go outside because I don’t understand [English.] I can’t drive. I can’t pass tests because the driver test is in English and my English is no good. It’s really, really hard. If [Ayoubi] is here, everything would be fast.”
It’s difficult to be unable to do anything for each other and only see each other’s faces on the phone, Ayoubi said. They’re running out of energy.
All Noori can do is wait.
“[I need him] to be here with me, to be together with me,” said Noori. “He jokes with me. We talk. We laugh. But right now, I have nothing.”