At Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp in northeast Kenya near the Somali border, they were the lucky ones. They had tickets to American destinations like St Louis, Missouri; Buffalo, New York; Fargo, North Dakota, and others.
But all the euphoria and preparations died at the stroke of a pen when U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order temporarily halting settlement of refugees from seven mostly-Muslim countries.
A year later, hundreds of Somali refugees are still in Dadaab waiting to grab a chance to live in the U.S. For some, it is a matter of life and death.
Five-year-old Nimo Mohamed Nur Salan is nursing an old wound from surgery to remove her kidney two years ago.
“When she is walking outside and sees other kids she says, ‘Mum what if they stumble on me? What if they touch me? Push me and hurt my stomach?'” says Timiro Hassan Baraki, Salan’s mother.
Not only is Salan suffering from kidney problems, she faces a far more serious challenge; she has been diagnosed with Nephroblastoma or Wilms tumor, a type of cancer. The cancer is treatable. Her former doctor Aden Hassan says Salan had one cycle of chemotherapy but she needs more extensive medical treatment.
Dr. Hassan says treatment in Kenya is too expensive which is why the child was referred for resettlement. “If untreated, she won’t make it, her system will shut down,” he told VOA Somali. His interview and the others in this story were conducted by telephone.
Baraki’s worry permeates her face. “She will die, I don’t know what to say.”
Relying on Allah
Salan is the youngest of nine siblings. She and her family were looking forward to living in Fargo. The family was only waiting for a flight; they had gone through a full screening process that started years ago. That dream has now been revoked.
Refugees were stripped from the travel ban in October and became the subject of their own presidential order, which imposed additional screening requirements on 11 countries. The countries were not specified, but are thought to include Somalia.
“What am I going to tell Trump, he is not listening to other big countries, some of his compatriots appealed to him, and if he resisted to listen to them he is not going to listen to me,” Baraki laments.
“If I just add my appeal, I would tell him that we have been refugees here for almost 30 years, we have been waiting our luck for resettlement for a long time, which you [U.S.] have offered to us. We didn’t know even what resettlement mean, you said you will take us to your country, and now you are blocking that. This has been painful to us and shocking what the president is doing. You have extended the carpet now you are folding it.”
Baraki falls back on her faith. “Nimo was brought to this world by Allah; her health and fate is up to Allah.”
If the door closes…
Salan is not alone in desperately needing health care. Dr. Hassan says at the top of the list are children with congenital heart disease that requires open heart surgery, most of them under five years of age. He knows of a three-year-old boy, who died while waiting to go to the U.S.
“Literally their heart is not working normally, and the more they stay in the camp, the higher the chance of heart failure and the three-year-old is just a case of heart disease that was waiting for resettlement,” he told VOA Somali.
Ahmed Noor Hussein, 6, also has serious health problems. He is suffering from nephrotic syndrome, causing his kidneys to fail. Diagnosed with the disease when he was only 18 months old, Hussein has been evacuated to Nairobi’s Kenyatta Hospital for medical emergencies more than 12 times; the last time he spent 65 days in the hospital.
Referred for emergency resettlement, Hussein’s case was submitted to the U.S. government in October 2015 for consideration. In September 2017, the family was interviewed at the Refugee Support Center, which comes under the State Department’s Refugee Admissions Program, and is a first stop for applicants.
Four months later, he still has not heard. His father, Noor Hussein, believes the case has dragged on because of the new restrictions.
“It’s very clear it’s stagnant because of the Trump decision, it affected everything, including people like me, other countries that were accepting these cases were influenced by Trump’s decision,” Hussein said.
“The doctors said if he gets treatment in one of the developed countries, it’s a possibility he could live. If not, he is likely to die,” Hussein says.
Baraki is unsure if her daughter will get the opportunity again. “If the man closes the door to you, you knock the door and he does not open, you get around and still can’t get in, then you accept it and go back,” she said.
So close, yet so far
On January 23, 2017, Liban Aden Omar arrived in Nairobi to prepare for his flight to the U.S., scheduled for six days later. His itinerary shows a flight via London Heathrow and Newark, New Jersey where he would catch a plane to Buffalo, New York.
This was the break he was looking for. He was being resettled because he was an orphan. In the U.S., he would be able to help his grandmother who raised him from a young age. But then, two days before his flight, came the travel ban.
‘I was sent back to Dadaab, but just two days later we heard a judge blocked the ban, and we came back to Nairobi for a flight on February 12,” says Omar.
Then his situation took a disastrous turn. Omar says he was called up by doctors at the International Organization of Migration before the flight.
“They said, ‘We’ll take you to the hospital for a checkup again. (You) will have to miss the flight on February 12 and will be put on another flight on February 21.”
Omar says he was taken to a hospital and X-rayed. He was told he would have to have back surgery, as they had diagnosed an injury to his spine.
“I went into surgery, and the next thing I know my legs are paralyzed,” he said.
Doctors told him he would need physical therapy; he was put a Nairobi hospital and then moved to a second hospital, but did not regain his walking ability. Last week, almost a year later, he was returned to Dadaab, with his American dream in tatters and worse, his life turned upside down.
“Imagine leaving your friends healthy and to come back like this, unable to walk,” he said. He had a wheelchair to move around in hospital, but that did not come with him to Dadaab. “I was carried from a car and then thrown on to a mat.”
Omar says he was told many times he would be resettled to the U.S. He was also told by refugee representatives who visited him in the hospital that they would also try other countries, to no avail.
“I need care all the time; I have none,” he said. His aged grandma is blind, unable to care for another person. He says a trip to the U.S. on January 29 last year would have made his life completely different.
Even now with his spinal injury, he can’t understand why he was not resettled, a gesture he says would have benefited him.
VOA Somali spoke to IOM doctors in Nairobi, and they refused to discuss his case.
A ‘need to resettle’
“There is a need to resettle these people.” says Mohamed Abdi Affey, the special envoy of the UNHCR High Commissioner for Somali Refugees. “We have identified them as cases that deserve resettlement, and we hope that the quota or the number that essentially have been allocated to Somalia comes back, because as special envoy I believe that the Somali refugee situation is not out of the woods.”
Affey told VOA that the U.N.’s refugee resettlement agency has processed the cases of about 20,000 refugees in the Horn of Africa for resettlement, of which more than 15,000 are in Kenya.
He says U.S. resettled about 2,000 Somalis last year compared to nearly 10,000 in 2016 and just over 7,000 the year before.
Even the larger numbers are a small drop in the refugee population. Affey says resettlement cases, the most vulnerable, generally account for less than 1 percent of the overall refugee population.
“They have gone through security background checks, including processes that U.S. has put in place in order to ensure that anybody who is coming into the country is well screened,” he said.
Affey urges the U.S. government to reverse the travel decision. “The U.S. …is a country that has been known and it continues to be known as a champion of refugee protection, and we hope that that spirit, we hope that fantastic name is maintained and maintained for the protection of humanity,” Affey said.