Dr. Muhamad Alhaj Moustafa and Nabila Alhaffar wed in 2015 and planned to start a family this year. He was almost through his residency at Washington Hospital Center, and they both longed for children.
On Jan. 27, Moustafa went to Dulles International Airport to pick up Alhaffar when she returned from a short trip to visit her mother, a breast cancer survivor, in Qatar. But due to the order issued by President Donald Trump earlier that day, she was denied entry and put on a plane back. For 10 days, the young Syrian couple found themselves separated by continents and contentious politics, unsure when they would be together again.
The heartache and confusion mirrors that of so many families touched by the on again off again travel ban. A unanimous ruling Thursday by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals continued the ban’s suspension and set the stage for the case to go to the U.S. Supreme Court. Still, those from the seven Muslim-majority countries covered by the president’s original order remain worried about the ban’s eventual outcome and about future actions the White House might pursue against immigrants and refugees from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and Sudan.
“Never ever have we felt like this in my 40 years in this country,” says Abdulhakem Alsadah, president of the National Association of Yemeni Americans based in Dearborn, Michigan.
Alsadah came to the United States as a student and eventually became a citizen, marrying and raising three children. He remembers the profiling and fear of people with names like his after 9/11. “This is how we feel now,” he says. “People are so confused and they have no idea what is next.”
Alsadah and Elmi say they have been heartened by the outpouring of support by many Americans. “One minute you are hit with something of that magnitude and you say that’s the end of the world,” says Alsadah, “and then you see regular people in the street who maybe had bad thoughts about Muslims before but forgot all that and came out to walk with us.”
That widespread support led to court challenges and the suspension of Trump’s order by a Seattle judge a week after it was imposed. That ruling by federal Judge James Robart opened a window that at least for now has given his wife back to Moustafa and reunited others initially kept apart by the ban. But even with the 9th Circuit refusal Thursday to reinstate the ban, the future for many immigrants and refugees remains clouded in uncertainty and unease.
Moustafa, 29, worked as a researcher at the Mayo Clinic before moving to Washington, D.C. for a residency in internal medicine as part of a visa program aimed at helping meet the U.S. need for primary care physicians.
“We live in an area which is very diverse and we have a community here,” he says, adding how they enjoyed hiking in the nearby parks and barbecuing with friends. “Everything was good. We never had any problems at all until this happened.”
Depression turned to elation when the Seattle judge ruled last Friday. Not knowing what might change again, Alhaffar quickly booked a new flight and arrived home and into her husband’s arms Monday night.
“I was really scared because I didn’t know if they would let her in,” he says. Butt Alhaffar had no trouble when she landed at JFK and then flew on to Dulles where he was waiting. “She was crying the whole time,” he says. “We’ve had a very tough week but we are happy right now, extremely happy.”
As for future travel to see family or have their parents visit here Moustafa says “We can’t really travel at all right now. It’s dangerous for us to travel in this political atmosphere.”
His mother is a doctor working in Qatar. His father is a doctor who has stayed in Aleppo with his brother, a medical student there. He doesn’t know when he will see them again. “It’s a very difficult situation because I don’t know the future of my family.”
For now, he has several years left in his training program at Washington Hospital Center. And with his wife home, they will start a family. “That’s the plan,” he says.
Emily Reimann said “yes” to the dress, secured her bridesmaids and set up a gift registry. All she needs now is her bridegroom.
“Marwan balances me,” says Reimann, now a graduate student in cybersecurity at the George Washington University. “When I’m around him I’m calm, and we always laugh.”
He proposed last summer, and they held an engagement party with their friends in Turkey in October. In November they met in Beirut for a weekend by the sea.
Apart since then, they had assiduously pursued the paperwork for his K1 fiancé visa and were scheduled for the required interview Feb. 13 at the embassy in Ankara because he has Turkish residency. All appointments were canceled when the president issued the ban.
“We had estimated end of April would be the right time for the wedding,” says Reimann. “I bought a dress, my sisters have bridesmaid dresses, we picked out a venue and once the visa was final we were going to print the invitations.”
An old family friend who is an ordained minister said she’d love to officiate, and Reimann started to plan a short interfaith service incorporating both cultures at the venue near her Albion, Michigan, hometown.
For the week following the ban, they stayed in close contact taking advantage of the growing number of apps that make it easier and less expensive to communicate across continents. When they applied for the visa and needed to show proof of the relationship, Reimann says she submitted a six-month period of WhatsApp calls totaling 42 pages.
Meanwhile, Massah spent the week sleeping on a friend’s couch in Gaziantep. He had planned to be in Ankara this week for the scheduled medical checkup required as part of his visa application. That too was canceled when the ban was issued. Following the judge’s order lifting the ban, they learned that they technically were allowed to make an appointment, but there weren’t any available. “There are so many unknowns. The most difficult part is the lack of answers,” says Reimann.
But at least they are together again, for now. Massah was able to get a tourist visit when the ban was suspended and arrived here Monday. She greeted him at Dulles with a “Welcome Marwan” sign in her hands.
“Part of the stress is over, but now there’s new stress,” says Reimann. Massah has a return ticket to Turkey for Feb. 26 and they continue to hope he’ll be able to reschedule the visa interview and be approved in time to return for a late April wedding. “There’s still questions and uncertainty but we have faith it’s going to work out.”
DR. AZZA ABEL HAK
Azza Abdel Hak of Damascus, Syria, is working in the United States like Moustafa under the program for primary care physicians. For the last four years, she has treated patients from an underserved community on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
During an earlier residency at Lincoln Hospital Medical Center in New York, Hak met Foad Abandeh, a physician from Jordan. They married in 2012 and had children after coming to Virginia – a girl and boy, now 3 and 1.
Hak, 34, was at home Jan. 27 with her husband listening to the news when Trump’s order was announced. “We were completely confused. Would it affect us or not? We did not sleep. We asked the lawyers and they are confused like us. Is he [Trump] planning to do something with those here legally in the United States and want them to leave?”
Hak and her family live in a rented house in a small town not far from the Shore Medical Center in Parksley, Virginia, where she works. Her husband works in a nearby hospital also providing care to a medically underserved populace. She does not wear a hijab, but guesses that her patients know she is Syrian from her name.
The region is conservative and voted for Trump. “One of my patients at the end of the visit told me please let me know if you want me to send a letter to our congressman, and she gave me a hug. At that moment, my eyes were tearing and I couldn’t hold my feelings and told her thank you,” says Hak.
Her parents are teachers in Damascus. She doesn’t know when she will be able to see them again. “I’m not sleeping since the order was signed. I cannot leave to see my parents because there is no guarantee I can come back. And I do not know if my parents will be able to come to visit me. I’m talking about myself but many of my friends are in this situation.”
She worries that her stress about the ban and its aftershocks is getting in the way of playing with her children. “Even my Luna [3-year-old daughter] tells me, ‘no cell phone.’ What can I do?”
DR. YASSER ALDURRA
Yasser Aldurra, 32, is part of a Facebook group with Mohammad Moustafa and Azza Hak. All are Syrian doctors who received visas in response to the growing U.S. shortage of primary care physicians. He works at a county hospital in Indianapolis and was on track to get his green card this month and start a new fellowship there. Like Hak, he now worries that there will be a delay that could change his plans.
“We never felt we were being discriminated against until this order,” says Aldurra. “That’s why we were shocked. It’s the feeling now of uncertainty. That’s painful. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We are fearful that maybe one day our legal status will be taken away and we will be sent away.”
“Our whole life is frozen until we know what will happen.”
Aldurra says he spends a lot of time online checking government internet sites for updates and commiserating and sharing worries with other Syrian physicians in their closed Facebook group. “There is a lot of fear and anxiety,” he says. “A few people are starting to think of going to Canada or what does it take to work as a doctor in Australia or New Zealand or maybe we should sell our houses and live in apartments until we know what will happen. All the crazy things you can think of. Our whole life is on hold now. It may come to the best. It may come to the worst. We don’t know.”