The international arrivals terminal at San Francisco International Airport was packed Wednesday with dozens of people who came to support the arrival of a Yemeni mother who had been separated from her dying son.
Shaima Swileh was separated from her family for months under the Trump administration’s travel ban as they sought care for her boy, Abdullah. The State Department granted the waiver Tuesday morning after the family’s story quickly spread across social media.
“This is a difficult time for our family, but we are blessed to be together,” Abdullah’s father, Ali Hassan, told reporters in the terminal.
The 22-year-old said the ban had hurt both Yemeni and American families.
“It needs to end,” he said to applause.
In a scene reminiscent of the throngs who poured into airports across California last year, some in the terminal Wednesday evening held signs in English and Arabic protesting the ban. Many were Yemeni Americans.
“We have families,” one sign read. “Remove the ban.”
“No ban, no wall,” another said.
Two-year-old Abdullah was born in Yemen and traveled to the United States with his father a few months ago to receive treatment for a degenerative brain disease. He is currently on life support at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital.
Both are American citizens, the Council on American-Islamic Relations said.
When the parents realized Abdullah needed better care than what was available in Yemen, they had to travel to Cairo, where Hassan could petition for Swileh to receive a visa. The request was denied.
In October, they applied for a waiver. Hassan flew to California with their son while Swileh waited for a decision.
Members of Congress penned a letter to Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo this week asking that the government expedite its decision on a waiver.
Visa waiver applications are decided on a case-by-case basis, according to the State Department. There are three criteria outlined in the proclamation for a waiver: that denying entry would cause the applicant hardship, entry would not pose a threat to the national security or public safety of the U.S., and entry would be in the national interest.
The Trump administration was forced to revise its original travel ban order twice since its rollout in January 2017 to resolve legal problems over due process, implementation and exclusive targeting of Muslim nations.
The Supreme Court upheld the modified ban in June. The current version covers five Muslim-majority nations — Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen — as well as North Korea and some government officials from Venezuela.
Banan Al-Akhras, an attorney representing the family, said the State Department’s issuance of a visa waiver this week was “not an act of kindness.”
“The embassy and the Department of State had a legal obligation to adjudicate Shaima’s request within a reasonable amount of time, and they failed that obligation,” Al-Akhras said. “The result of that failure is that a dying 2-year-old boy has suffered for the last two months without his mother by his side.”
Basim Elkarra, executive director of CAIR’s Sacramento Valley chapter, said 21,000 people signed the organization’s online petition to help Swileh.
“It didn’t have to come to this,” he said. “This family desperately reached out to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo 28 times … and despite their pleas only received automated responses.”
Swileh, her husband and her father-in-law were visiting Abdullah in the hospital room by 9 p.m., Elkarra said. CAIR officials were also there, waiting outside the room and praying.
The moment, Elkarra said, was bittersweet for everyone.
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