BEIRUT — When the U.S. government offered Hatem al-Showaiter and his wife, Reema, the chance to emigrate from Yemen to America in 2017, they decided to risk everything to make it happen.
To get passports, they made a harrowing trip with their daughter, then 3, across front lines in Yemen's long-running civil war. Then, to process their family's visas, they were instructed to go to the U.S. Embassy in Djibouti, some 270 miles across the Red Sea. The American Embassy in Yemen has been closed since 2015.
To raise money for their trip to Djibouti — $8,000, much more than they could afford — they sold a dental clinic they owned. When that wasn't enough, they borrowed from friends.
There was reason for hope.
But now, almost four years later, that hope has largely vanished. The Showaiters are still living in Yemen. They are among thousands who won a U.S. government lottery but were later denied entry to the U.S. due to the travel ban imposed in 2017 by the Trump administration, which targeted citizens of Yemen and several other Muslim-majority or African countries.
On his first day in office, President Biden repealed the ban, calling it "a stain" on America's national consciousness. But his administration is still denying entry to some of the most vulnerable people affected by that ban — people such as the Showaiters.
The family's home city of Taiz has been devastated, and they've been rendered destitute since they were first promised a better life in the United States. Showaiter, 36, says he spends nights listening to the shellfire that sometimes lands close to home. "Stray bombs hit in residential areas," he tells NPR, speaking via an internet connection he had to walk more than a mile to find. "They've killed children. This is our day to day."
In 2017, the Showaiters were invited to apply for the U.S. Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which grants up to 50,000 visas to people from countries underrepresented in the U.S. immigrant population. Applicants often come from impoverished countries or war zones.
The Showaiter family received an invitation for an interview at the U.S. Embassy in Djibouti for Oct. 31, 2017. By that time, the Trump administration's travel ban was in place. When Showaiter went to the embassy on that date, he says officials took the family's passports and he was given a piece of paper, seen by NPR, telling them to check their visa status online.
Showaiter says the embassy never contacted him again. When the family tried to go in person, they were not allowed in.
After five months of waiting, they could no longer afford to remain in Djibouti. Because the U.S. Embassy still had their passports, he says they obtained emergency travel documents from the Yemeni Consulate to return to Yemen.
Both the U.S. Embassy in Djibouti and the State Department tell NPR they cannot discuss individual cases because visa records are confidential under U.S. law.
Biden's repeal of the ban means many people with other kinds of visas can reapply or have their cases reassessed. But these don't include thousands of diversity visa recipients whose visas expired during the ban. Their only option, the administration says, is to return to the lottery — where they may spend years applying and never be selected.
"Instead of restoring the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that is the diversity visa, President Biden dusted off Trump's 'closed' sign and locked the door behind him," says Manar Waheed, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who has worked to highlight the situation.
In a written statement, a State Department official tells NPR that the law provides that diversity visas can only be issued in the same fiscal year in which applicants are selected in the lottery program. Under current law, expired visas cannot be reinstated.
"We are constrained in several ways by U.S. law or current regulations," the official says.
But Waheed argues that the administration could seek to change the law or work around it. For example, it could offer people such as Showaiter and his family humanitarian parole, which allows foreign nationals to come to the U.S. for a temporary period because of an urgent humanitarian reason.
She says once they're in the U.S., people such as the Showaiters then could explore options to remain legally.
"The Biden administration could do this, given the incredible harm of the bans and the fact that people won a literal lottery and then were denied because of bans that this administration says were discriminatory, wrong, unconstitutional," Waheed says.
"We don't know what to do"
"Our lives have been destroyed by what has happened," Anwar Alsaeedi, 43, tells NPR by phone from Yemen's capital, Sanaa. "I really have no hope that my family can recover from this here. There's nothing in Yemen now."
Alsaeedi spent 16 years applying to the diversity visa lottery. His efforts paid off in 2017. Like the Showaiter family, Alsaeedi and his family were advised to go to the U.S. Embassy in Djibouti to process their visas.
Alsaeedi, his wife, Reem — then pregnant — and their two young children crossed the front lines to get from Sanaa to Aden. Houthi militias interrogated the family for hours, accusing Alsaeedi of trying to defect to the other side.
"The entire time, there were warplanes flying overhead and war around us," he says.
Alsaeedi says the family sold everything they had, including a small piece of land and Reem's jewelry. Like the Showaiters, they borrowed money from friends, promising to repay them once they set up a new life in the United States.
Based on the experience of others who'd won diversity visas, Alsaeedi expected the interview at the U.S. Embassy in Djibouti to be a final step before traveling to the United States. Instead, he says, the interviewing officer simply handed him a letter — which NPR has reviewed — saying the family's visas were denied because of Presidential Proclamation 9645, Trump's executive order banning immigrants from Yemen and elsewhere.
"Why call us? Why make us pay the costs for the interview, for the test, for the travel to Djibouti and go through the whole routine, only to refuse us at the very end?" Alsaeedi asks.
The Alsaeedis waited for weeks in Djibouti, hoping the U.S. Supreme Court would reverse the travel ban. When that didn't happen, they had no choice but to make a dangerous trip back to Sanaa.
With almost no savings left, they had to return by sea. Some 27 hours into the boat journey, Reem suffered a miscarriage.
Before they left Sanaa, Alsaeedi had to give up his job as a bank teller. Since his return, it's been impossible to get the job back. These days, he sometimes works as a day laborer, assisting another construction worker since he knows little about building.
Before their lottery win, he says, the family was financially stable. Now Alsaeedi says he's had to pull his children out of the private school they used to attend because he can no longer afford the fees. The family avoids buying expensive food such as meat. And he still has to repay his loans.
Alsaeedi hoped his family would finally get visas when Biden reversed Trump's travel ban. With renewed vigor, he and others in his position organized an online campaign, tweeting to the U.S. president their thanks and pleas to reinstate their visas, with the hashtag #I_Want_My_Miracle_Back.
Then the administration announced it would not consider applicants whose diversity visas expired during the Trump ban.
"Our situation is devastating," Alsaeedi says. "We don't know what to do."
In the absence of alternatives, he says he'll keep writing appeals on Twitter, hoping someone pays attention.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
One of President Biden's first actions in office was to end the Trump administration's ban on immigration from some Muslim-majority countries. We spoke to a man in Yemen after that happened, and he had hoped that maybe after years of trying to get to the U.S., he had a chance. But the Biden change has not helped him and many others trapped in the war in Yemen. NPR's Ruth Sherlock followed up.
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: When President Biden repealed the travel ban back in January, Anwar As Saeedi was ecstatic.
ANWAR AS SAEEDI: (Speaking Arabic).
SHERLOCK: I have faith in the American justice system, he told me by phone from his home in Yemen for a story then. Saeedi and others were far along in the visa process when the ban was imposed. When President Biden lifted it, they tweeted every day their thanks and hope that their visas would be reinstated. But now, four months later, their wishes have been rejected. The administration says people in Saeedi's position will not be allowed to come to the U.S.
(SOUNDBITE OF DIAL TONE)
AS SAEEDI: Hello.
SHERLOCK: When we call Saeedi again, he's upset.
AS SAEEDI: (Through interpreter) I can't believe that the United States, which stands for freedom and human rights, would do such a thing - to tell us we won the visa lottery only to be denied in the end.
SHERLOCK: In 2017, Saeedi won the lottery for a diversity visa, which is aimed at people from poor countries and war zones. The family was asked to travel to Djibouti for interviews and processing at the U.S. embassy there. And as they waited there for months, Saeedi lost his good job at a bank back home. The family went into debt only to have to return penniless back to Yemen, where there is war and famine.
AS SAEEDI: (Through interpreter) Our lives have been destroyed by what has happened. Now we living in hunger and poverty, and we've surrendered to it. We have no other option.
SHERLOCK: The family were doing OK before winning the visa lottery. Now Saeedi can barely feed his children. Manar Waheed, a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union who represents Saeedi, says the Biden administration's decision breaks a promise to some of the most vulnerable people affected by the ban. She says there are several thousand in total from multiple countries.
MANAR WAHEED: Instead of restoring the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that is the diversity visa, President Biden dusted off Trump's closed sign and locked the door behind him.
SHERLOCK: Diversity visas come with a time limit, and a written response from the State Department told NPR that visas like Saeedi's, which expired during the Trump ban, cannot be reinstated under current law. But Waheed says there are things the administration could do.
WAHEED: There's other provisions in law - right? - like humanitarian parole.
SHERLOCK: Humanitarian parole allows people to come to the U.S. for a temporary period during a travel emergency. Waheed says people like Saeedi could then seek further options to legally remain in the U.S.
WAHEED: The Biden administration could do this here given the incredible harm of the bans and the fact that people won a literal lottery and then were denied because of bans that this administration says were discriminatory, wrong, unconstitutional.
SHERLOCK: For some people in this situation, these decisions are urgent. Hatem Al Showaiter lives in the Yemeni city of Taiz. Speaking by phone, he tells us artillery shells land close to the home where he lives with his wife and 7-year-old daughter.
HATEM AL SHOWAITER: (Through interpreter) Stray bombs hit in residential areas. They've killed children. This is our day-to-day.
SHERLOCK: Showaiter's wife Reema was selected in the visa lottery in 2017. Like Saeedi, they had to make the expensive trip to Djibouti. So the couple made the hard decision to sell their dentist clinic to raise the money. They also borrowed from friends. A proud man who'd owned a successful business, Showaiter says returning to Yemen with nothing was crushing.
AL SHOWAITER: (Through interpreter) It's unbearable the way our friends, family and everyone we know now look at us with pity.
SHERLOCK: He says his wife suffers from depression now but that they're both trying to keep going as best they can.
Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.