Syrian refugee family hopes end of travel ban reunites them with loved ones stuck overseas
When the Alsidnawis sit down to breakfast, more important than any dish on the table are the screens that join them.
Sometimes from a laptop and sometimes from family members’ phones, the faces of 27-year-old Ahmad Alsidnawi, the family’s only son, and 32-year-old Sami Labbad, the oldest daughter’s husband, hover over the food. The two have been stuck overseas, waiting for years to reunite with their loved ones in El Cajon, Calif., a process complicated by the Trump administration’s 2017 travel ban that restricted visa processing for Syrians.
Between fiscal 2016 and fiscal 2019, the number of visas issued annually to Syrians decreased by 64%, from more than 2,600 to fewer than 950, according to U.S. State Department reports. Just 14 of the more than 11,000 visas issued in December 2020 were to Syrians, according to State Department data.
Now that President Biden has put an end to the travel ban — which blocked visas for several nationalities, most from countries with Muslim majorities — the number of visas issued to Syrians should increase. The Alsidnawis are hoping like never before that the U.S. government will act quickly to make their family whole.
“We love each other a lot, and we are like one body. I don’t know how I can say it,” said Huda Alsidnawi, 23, the married daughter. “Because my brother is living far away, we just feel something — we need something. There is something that is not complete.”
The Alsidnawis lived a comfortable, middle class life in Damascus before the war broke out. The father, Khaled Alsidnawi, was a barber and owned his own business.
In 2012, they were forced to leave that life behind when a bomb exploded at the father’s hair salon. Police had also recently detained Ahmad for about five hours, and the family was worried he would be further targeted by the regime.
They fled to Egypt, and months later, Ahmad went to Turkey on his own to try to pursue his college degree in electrical engineering, which he was unable to do in Egypt. His family hasn’t seen him in person since then, almost a decade ago.
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Ahmad’s studies ended up stalled in Turkey as he scrambled to work enough to survive. But after travel between Turkey and Egypt was blocked because of the Syrian conflict, he could not rejoin his family.
When the rest of the family was approved for resettlement to the United States in 2016, Ahmad was not included.
Khaled’s wife, Merfat Salas, filed an application to sponsor a family-based visa for her son after she got her green card. But the already-long wait for processing stretched even longer under the travel ban.
“He can’t do anything there,” Salas said through Huda’s interpretation. “He’s just staying without anything. It’s wasting time of his life. If he will be here, he’s not going to lose his time. He’s going to work for his future.”
The Alsidnawis now have a home in El Cajon. They have restarted their lives — Khaled learned enough English to pass California’s barber licensing exam, and the three daughters are in school.
“I’m so happy in this country, and I just miss my son very much,” Khaled said with Huda acting as interpreter. “I just want him to be with me in this country and be happy like me and live the same way I live.”
Tasnim, 19, the middle daughter, is studying at Grossmont College in El Cajon to be an elementary school teacher and is working as a teacher assistant.
She remembers being inspired as a child by her brother’s studies. She worked to learn English to be like him.
She also recalls him hiding snacks — chocolate and potato chips — for her in their home in Egypt. He didn’t tell Tasnim that the treats were for her. He told Huda to show Tasnim where they were and pretend they were sneakily stealing his food to give the girl some fun in the midst of all they were going through.
Huda is also now working on her college degree, also at Grossmont, and plans to become a translator.
Meanwhile, Ahmad is still in Turkey, frustrated to watch his family struggle through their new life from a distance.
“When I was young and when I was studying, my dad was working very hard work and paying everything for my study and spent all his money on me,” Ahmad said. “Now that my dad is getting old, and he needs my help, I can’t help him because I’m far away.”
Huda’s husband, Labbad, is in Germany. He met Huda when they were both refugees in Egypt but has since moved to finish his master’s degree in water engineering.
Because of time zones, both men stay up until late into the night so that they can be present in their family’s life.
Huda was with Labbad in Germany in November 2020 during the presidential election. Ahmad was on the phone with them when they learned Biden won. He began jumping up and down joyously, saying, “He’s going to bring me there! He’s going to bring me there!” Huda recalled.
From his vantage point through Huda’s phone camera, Labbad has watched his wife and her parents and sisters carry the weight of Ahmad’s absence.
“You will not complete your happiness without you complete your family, and it’s very difficult,” Labbad said. “I saw every day my mother-in-law crying because Ahmad is far away. All the time they are thinking about the future and what will happen with Ahmad. The conversation is always about this.”
Similar to Ahmad and many other college-age Syrian men, Labbad ended up separated from his own parents and siblings because of his studies. Many of his family members were resettled in Canada. A few months away from finishing his undergraduate degree at the time, Labbad opted to stay in Egypt rather than start the years of school over again.
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He and Huda were married in 2018 when she visited him in Egypt, and she filed an application to sponsor his visa to the U.S. As a spousal visa, his will likely be processed more quickly than Ahmad’s.
Being 10 hours ahead of his wife‘s time zone is difficult, Labbad said, but what’s harder is the emotional toll and the wait for travel.
“He doesn’t sleep at night. He just wants to be with me in the morning for me, so he doesn’t sleep at night until like 5 a.m. or 7 a.m.,” Huda said of her husband. “Then he sleeps. Then I wait for him until he wakes up. Then I stay with him for a few hours, and then I sleep, and then he waits for me to wake up.”
She beamed with pride during a virtual group interview as Labbad described his master’s program and his ideas for helping California with its water shortage once he gets his doctorate in the United States.
“We’re not asking for the money,” Huda said. “We are coming here to study and to work and to help the government. They want to come to work and improve themselves, to work and to help America.”
Morrissey writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
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