When America Decides it Doesn’t Want You

The video I received on my phone was disturbing. An emaciated child hooked up to a ventilator and struggling to breathe. It was sent to me by his father, a Syrian refugee in Turkey, who had been cleared to come to the U.S. but no longer could. I got in touch with Abdul Ghani Abdul Jawad, 30, a few days after Donald Trump signed an executive order banning citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from coming into the U.S.

Abdul Ghani, a 30-year-old Syrian refugee living in Turkey, with his 2-year-old son, Abdul Jawad and 4-year-old daughter Aiysha

Speaking to Abdul Ghani via Whatsapp, I heard pain, desperation and urgency in his voice. He told me his family of five had been cleared to be resettled to the U.S. and were supposed to come in December, but couldn’t because at that point, his youngest child, Abdul Jawad, 2, was too sick to fly. He said the trip was later pushed back to Feb. 1 and cancelled because of the ban. I would later find out that the circumstances were a little more complicated than that, but it was clear his situation was urgent. He told me that his two sons, aged 6 and 2, were hospitalized because they had a rare genetic disorder, and that he wanted to bring them to the U.S. for medical treatment as soon as possible. After we hung up, he began sending me videos, including one of his older son, Yahya, in intensive care. “I’m suffering so much,” he told me. “I’m crying for my kids.”

Soon after our call, I was on a plane to Istanbul, on my way to meet correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Director of Photography Victor Tadashi Suarez. When we met Abdul Ghani and his wife and children at a small hospital in Istanbul, we understood why he was in such a rush to come to the U.S. According to his children’s medical records, both boys had been diagnosed with a severe immunodeficiency called Omenn Syndrome. It’s also known as the “bubble boy” disease because those who suffer from it are very vulnerable to infectious diseases and need to be kept in immaculately clean conditions. It can be cured with a bone marrow transplant, a costly and risky operation that is not easily available to Syrians in Turkey, let alone refugees with few means. The small hospital the children were staying in was not very clean. We saw bloodstained pillowcases and sheets, and their small, stuffy room reeked of bodily fluids. It was also ill-equipped to deal with children. There was no pediatrics unit and Yahya was the only child being treated in an ICU for adults.

As he sat on a hospital bed with two of his children on his lap, Abdul Ghani told us that the family had a short window of time in January to make it over to the U.S. while both children were well enough to travel. But then their trip was cancelled. Days later, he says, his older son, Yahya’s health took a turn for the worse. For the family, it became a race against time. Their only hope now was for Yahya’s health to improve enough so he could fly to the U.S. for treatment.

To Abdul Ghani, the Trump administration’s justification that the ban is necessary for national security, a claim that was dismissed in at least two leaked Department of Homeland Security reports, doesn’t make any sense. “Those kids have nothing to do with terrorism,” he said. “Are they terrorists? Look at them. If [my son] doesn’t go to America or a European country for medical treatment, his life will be destroyed. He will die.”

One of the videos Abdul Ghani sent me was of his two sons on an indoor kiddie ride, a colorful car that swayed back and forth under dull fluorescent lights. The video was taken during a healthier time. A smiling Yahya is seen twisting a wheel with one hand, while his other arm rested around his brother’s neck. The video was eerily similar to one I had taken of my two young sons at an indoor amusement park in Istanbul a year before, bringing tears to my eyes. I was overcome with a feeling familiar to many parents, that the universal love we have for our children transcends citizenship. And borders. And religion.

Our Fault Lines film, “The Ban,” tells the story of the Abdul Jawad family, along with others affected by the executive order. It makes it clear that for some, the consequences of the Trump administration’s policy to temporarily ban entire nations from entering the country, are a matter of life and death.