US Travel Ban Traumatizes Yemeni Women
Living in limbo – Women unable to send children to school, support families or integrate into new communities.
February 1, 2019
The case of Shaima al-Sweileh, the Yemeni mother denied entry into the United States as part of President Donald Trump’s Travel Ban, illustrates the damage that the travel ban is inflicting on Yemeni women seeking to rejoin their families in the US. Al-Sweileh had to wait months for a visa so that she could travel to the US to say goodbye to her dying two-year old son who was in hospital in California. The travel ban had left her stranded in Egypt and she was allowed entry to the US only after public outcry mounted and an exceptional visa was issued.
Yemen is one of the seven, mostly Muslim countries, whose citizens are excluded from entering the US under the ban invoked in 2017.
Yemeni women and their families, fleeing the 4-year war in Yemen, face the prospect of living in limbo for years as they await visas to the United States. Women4Yemen Network contacted a number of women trapped in Jordan, Djibouti, Egypt, and Malaysia to hear their stories.
“Shaima’s is only one story. Other Yemeni women experience the same suffering because of Trump’s decision,” said one interviewee in Djibouti. “Shaima’s suffering was heard, while ours is not.”
The enhanced screening and vetting required by the Travel Ban only serves to complicate and all but grind to a halt the chronically-slow US visa application process. Yemenis were already navigating a system where:
- The US embassy in Yemen is closed and visa applications are only being processed through US embassies hosted in neighbouring countries. Yemenis seeking US visas must travel to these neighbouring countries in order to apply.
- The US application process is complicated and prolonged. The US Travel Ban makes it even worse. It can take up to four years for visas to be processed.
- Yemenis, in general, have a difficult time obtaining visas for entry to the neighbouring countries. Few countries (Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan and Malaysia) allow Yemenis to enter.
- The few countries that do accept Yemenis are often inhospitable, have difficult temporary resident visa requirements and often only issue six-month, short-term resident visas. Since the beginning of 2018, for example, Malaysia has only offered Yemenis six-month visas, after which the Yemeni’s must leave Malaysia and seek re-entry in order to continue processing their US visa application at the US embassy in Malaysia.
- Only one airline flies in and out of Yemen. Booking a flight to the hosting country can take up to one month, but is necessary given that only temporary visas are only being issued.
- The US grants some family members visas, while others are forced to wait. This fractures families and causes undue stress—particularly for those left behind, most often women and children.
For the women living in neighouring countries, while applying for a US visa, the challenges are many and daunting. They include:
Yemini Women face the stress of being left alone to care for their families in foreign countries. They are under immense pressure to economically provide for their family, care for their children, secure healthcare, and all the while dealing with the host country and US visa procedures as they strive to re-unite their families.
Families are often separated because some members receive a visa, while others are left to wait. It is usually the women who remain with family members who have yet to get their visas. The interviewees revealed that the separations have resulted in psychological trauma for the children and poor school performance.
Impact on education and health:
Children often do not go to school or, if they do, they attend sporadically. The short-term resident visa restrictions mean that children must be pulled out of school frequently in order to leave the host country upon expiry of the visa. And children with US citizenship, staying with their mothers until the mothers are granted US visas, are only permitted to attend private schools in the host countries. The school fees, however, are prohibitively expensive and many children are forced to drop out.
Accessing to health care is also difficult. The temporary nature of the visas means that health insurance is not available and most health services are too expensive for the Yemeni families to access.
Difficult economic situations:
Waiting for a visa while living in a host country for an unknown period is very expensive. Return flights to Yemen, required when the temporary visa expires, are expensive. Due to the temporary nature of the short-term resident visa, employment is difficult, if not impossible to find. Many families are forced to sell their all their possessions in order to afford to even apply for a US visa in a neighbouring country.
The very nature of the lives of migrant Yemeni women makes their situation highly unstable. The Yemenis are entering the host countries on temporary visas and not as refugees. Therefore, they are not being afforded any of the services associated with seeking asylum. Yemeni women are preoccupied with caring for children and supporting their family and have a hard time integrating and adapting to their new, temporary home. And many do not have permanent homes or even rudimentary shelters.
“There are hundreds of families of Yemeni who are not asylum seekers living in Djibouti, Egypt, Malaysia, and Jordan. They are simply stuck,” says Ibrahim al-Qatabi, a Yemeni-American activist who works to support Yemeni communities affected by the Travel Ban. “I’ve seen women sleeping on roofs of houses with no food.”
The Women4Yemen Network is calling for:
- The US government to streamline the application process and lift the travel ban. Yemen is currently the world’s worst humanitarian crisis with millions of people at risk of starvation; the US should fast-track visa applications for Yemeni women and their families.
- The Yemeni government to help women who are living in the host countries while applying for US visas. The Yemeni government should work with the host counties to provide assistance in accordance with conventions and treaties concerning women and children. The Yemeni government should work with the US government to lift the ban.
- Host governments to amend their visa requirements, provide humanitarian assistance to Yemeni women and their families, and help facilitate visa applications to the US.
- Civil society organizations and international agencies based in host countries to provide humanitarian assistance to the Yemeni women affected by the ban.
Already coping with the trauma of the war, dealing with the stress of caring for their families and facing an uncertain future, the travel ban has made Yemeni women more vulnerable.
“The problem with the Yemeni women affected by the travel ban is that they are neither treated as possible American citizens, nor as refugees coming from a war zone country seeking temporary refuge," says Kawkab al-Thaibani, the Executive Director of Women4Yemen Network. “They need immediate assistance and the Travel Ban must be lifted. A life cannot be lived in limbo. The stories of Yemeni women must no longer be overlooked.”
Kawkab al-Thaibani - Main researcher
Wadha Abdo - Main researcher
Widad al-Halik - Legal Advisor
Patricia Leidl- Content contributor
Stephanie Sinclair—Photos courtesy