'Baba, when are you coming?' For immigrant families in limbo, the waiting becomes indefinite

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Maryam shows her father missing teeth.
Seven-year-old Maryam shows her father her missing teeth, via video chat, from the Coon Rapids, Minn., apartment she shares with her mother and sister. Maryam's father is stuck in Iraq during a 90-day travel ban set by the U.S. government. They keep in touch by phone.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Every time 7-year-old Maryam asks her dad, "When are you coming?" he gets quiet. They're looking at each other through a telephone screen, but he'd hoped they'd be together, in person, by now.

Hasanain Mohammed was set to arrive in Minnesota on Monday, two days after President Donald Trump signed an order temporarily banning travelers from seven countries, including Iraq, from entering the United States. Hasanain said he was stopped at the Baghdad airport by security guards who checked his ticket. When they saw his final destination was the United States, they told him he couldn't get on the plane.

So now he's back home in Karbala, talking to his family over the phone.

Immigrants, refugees and their families in Minnesota and abroad have been scrambling since last Friday's order to navigate the deep uncertainty that has taken hold in their lives.

While Maryam waits excitedly for her father from Minnesota, another father — Mahamed Iye — is trying to figure out exactly what to tell his own family, stuck in Kenya. Theirs are a microcosm of stories playing out across the state and around the country, as families desperate to reunite sort through the questions and the chaos.

'Mommy, I love America. I'm from here. Why did that happen?'

When Hasanain Mohammed calls his family in Minnesota, the conversations jump from what's new in their lives to how they'll be reunited again. They go from joking about Maryam's two missing front teeth to discussing the gifts he'll bring back to her from Iraq; from her latest drawings to their plans to visit the Mall of America.

One weekday evening after school, Maryam walks away from the phone to grab a spelling test she's eager to show her dad. That's when her parents' conversation takes on a serious tone.

"From the time she heard the news about you, she's been angry," Maryam's mom, Hind, tells her husband. "She hit her friend because she's jealous her dad lives with her. She says, 'How come her dad is here, and my dad isn't?'"

Fatima, Hasanain, Hind and Maryam.
Hind sits with her daughters Fatima, left, and Maryam while video chatting with her husband, Hasanain Mohammed.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Hasanain is a carpenter back in Iraq. His wife, Hind, lives in the Twin Cities and is studying to become a paralegal. MPR News has agreed not to share her last name because she is concerned for her family's safety.

The couple has been married for eight years — and they haven't seen each other for five of them. The last time Hasanain saw Maryam, she was a baby. Now the family is left wondering if they'll ever live together.

The process to bring Hasanain to the United States has been a long and complicated one: Applications and interviews have taken nearly two years. Hasanain finally got his visa on Jan. 20, the day President Trump took the oath of office.

And while it's the president's actions that are keeping her family apart, Hind, 38, a U.S. citizen, said she gets it.

"I can't blame him," she said. "He's defending America and the government and the people who are coming. I'm an American. I understand the fear. I understand the fear of terrorists who've bombed this country."

At school, somebody asked her what she thinks about immigration, and if the U.S. should open its doors to everybody.

It's good to vet people, she said, to keep everyone safe.

But the president banned everybody, she said, which surprised her. She knew during the presidential campaign that he was promising immigration reform, but she didn't realize a ban on travel from seven Muslim countries would come this fast. And there was no way she could've sped up the process to get her husband's visa.

And when Hasanain, valid visa in hand, was stopped from boarding that plane in Baghdad, Hind was shocked.

Hasanain video chats with his daughter.
Hasanain Mohammed video chats with his daughter, Maryam, from Iraq on Wednesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

She's one of many immigrants who have flooded the offices and phone lines of immigration attorneys and civil rights organizations, trying to understand what's happening. But the more information she gets, she said, the more confused she is: Hasanain has a valid visa, she said, so what's the problem?

At first, Hind had hope. She figured that, if a New York court order could keep other immigrants from being deported, then maybe Hasanain could try again?

She can't bring herself to think about what she'll do if the ban is extended beyond 90 days. They've waited long enough already, she said.

That makes it even harder to explain to her kids — Maryam and her older sister Fatima — why they won't get to see their dad any time soon.

"She always says, 'Mommy, I love America. I'm from here. Why did that happen?'" Hind said. "It's hard to explain to a child, 'OK, be patient.' I've been explaining to her for 15 months: Daddy is coming, he's going to get a visa. And when he got the visa, we were so happy. She was jumping up and down.

"I don't know what to say to these children."

Still, when Maryam Skypes with her dad, her face lights up. She smiles from ear to ear, flashing those new front teeth that are just beginning to peek through. And she asks him to bring her toys — a hoverboard, and a princess dress just like Cinderella's.

And then, again: The toughest question of all.

"Baba, where are you?"

'When are we going to be together?'

Mahamed Sheikhdon Iye receives the same kind of innocent inquiries from his young daughters, who are 4 and 2. He says that's the hardest part of living away from his children, who are still stuck in Nairobi.

Mahamed Iye smiles as he speaks to his wife in Nairobi on his cell phone.
Mahamed Iye smiles as he speaks to his wife on his cell phone from his attorney's office. "Before this order came I was very happy," Iye said, but he was shocked when he heard about President Trump's travel ban.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

"It's the age when they're talking, asking me questions: 'When are we going to be together? When are you going to come? Or when are we going to come to you?'" he said.

Until recently, Iye's answer was simple and full of hope: Sunday, Feb. 5. Iye's wife, Saido Ahmed Abdille, had plane tickets to fly herself and their girls to Minnesota this weekend.

Iye is a U.S. citizen, and so are the couple's children. But his wife, Abdille, is a Somali national — and even though she has a visa, she's barred from entering the United States for at least the next 90 days.

"The effort we put in for five years, at the last minute, it feels like something stopped that effort," Iye said through an interpreter. "I feel like I've worked so hard, but I haven't gotten the fruit of my labor."

For those five years, Iye and his wife have worked through the immigration process to bring Abdille and the girls to Minnesota. The last year has been particularly rough, after the application got hung up in an administrative processing logjam that required Abdille to re-submit medical records and other documents.

But just two weeks ago, on Jan. 18, he learned that his wife's visa had finally been granted. Triumphant, Iye marched into his attorneys' office and asked them to make him a copy. He's kept that folded-up, black-and-white copy of his wife's visa in his jacket's chest pocket ever since.

Keeping it beside his heart, always, makes him feel that "my wife is here with me," he said. "It's kind of keeping her close."

Mahamed Iye stands in front of the apartment complex where he lives.
Mahamed Iye stands in front of the apartment complex where he lives in a three-bedroom apartment. Over the past two weeks, he's been preparing his home for his wife and two daughters to join him -- but now they're stuck in Nairobi, subject to a 90-day ban on traveling to the United States announced last week.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Iye hasn't canceled his family's plane tickets yet. The beds for his wife and children are made and ready, waiting to be slept in. The girls' car seats are latched in, too. Iye has made a mental list of all the parks and playgrounds he wants to show his girls.

But the U.S embassy in Nairobi has warned travelers from the seven affected countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — not to travel to the United States, even if they have visas. Iye's attorneys are saying the same, and his wife was told by airline officials she won't be allowed to board the plane Saturday.

But Iye isn't ready to give up. His older daughter is disabled, and her life could vastly improve if she could get adequate care in the United States, he said.

Iye, 66, wears a constant smile that belies the losses he's suffered over the course of his life. He owned a tailor shop in Somalia, but had to abandon everything in 1991 after civil war broke out. Two of his teenage daughters from a previous marriage were gunned down in the warfare.

"They ran outside and the bullets caught them," he said.

President Trump has said the travel restrictions are needed to improve the vetting of immigrants and refugees and keep the nation safe. And many Minnesotans who voted for Trump support halting the flow of newcomers.

But Iye said he wants those supporters "to realize we are parents, just as they are parents," and that his kids have the same needs as theirs.

As much as Iye yearns to see his family, he understands that this weekend won't be the one he's dreamed of for years.

"It feels like there's a big wall that's between us," he said. "I will try to get around it, however long it takes me to get there."