Abdinasir Kahin, 46, Mohamed Haji, 46, and Ahmed Elmi, 30, are all naturalized U.S. citizens who left their native country of Somalia more than 15 years ago, amidst a civil war that continues to this day. When the travel ban was issued, both Haji and Elmi were in the final stages of reuniting their families in America.
Two of you are waiting to bring your wives into the country. What is that process like right now?
Elmi: She is coming on a spousal visa, as I married her when I got my U.S. citizenship. I have two kids, they are 14 months and five and a half years old, who are already citizens. We were waiting for my wife to get her visa to come. She finally got it on January 20, but I was waiting a long time, about eight years. My wife was supposed to come [January 31]. I booked the ticket [January 27, the day of the ban]. My wife was so sad. My kids have been waiting so long to come with her to the U.S.
Friday, Saturday, Sunday I didn’t work. I was supposed to but I couldn’t bring myself to leave my apartment. I stayed inside all day watching the television. President Trump changed my dream, you know? I am very confused and I don’t know what to do. He says, 120 days. Her visa will be expired by then.
Haji: My wife is in Nairobi. She has been a refugee in Kenya since 2006. She passed the interview [to get a spousal visa] in July. Normally it goes then to administrative processing, but it is taking more than 60 days already. This executive order came up so it worries me that it will take even longer
I was ready to have her here. I rented a house, I signed a contract for an apartment that starts on February 1. I cannot break the contract and I have to pay $1,200 a month now for the rent. If I knew that this was going to happen, I would not have rented an apartment.
Elmi: It cost me $5,000 or $6,000, because I hired a lawyer. Right now, it looks like it is over. If she goes to immigration to tell them she has a U.S. visa, they will do an exit visa for her in Kenya. If her flight is turned around, she will not be able to re-enter Kenya. Where will she go then? Somalia?
I am even worried to visit my kids. I have heard now that Homeland Security asks you more questions and if they don’t like you, they will turn you back. My lawyers sent me an email suggesting that I don’t leave the country, even though I am a US citizen. I have friends who live here and they told me they were stuck for a few hours in Amsterdam in transit to come here. They asked them to take off shoes, pants, underwear, everything. I worried that my kids won’t be able to join me here. I haven’t seen my kids in almost 2 and a half years. They are citizens with an American passport, but I am worried for my wife. I don’t know what will happen if I leave. I’m afraid they won’t let me back in.
Do you know of any Somalis held in airports in the weekend after the ban?
Kahin: It was actually in the news. [A Somali mother and her two U.S. citizen children were detained in Dulles airport.] There were others at JFK who drive cars in Chicago who were on green cards, and they went to Africa this winter and now they believe they cannot return. Believe me, this has touched the core of the community. We have so many people who have canceled plans to see their families.
Most of us left family behind in neighboring countries. Somalia is still not safe, so many of us have family members in neighboring states like Kenya, Ethiopia. It is common for Somalis go to see their family members in Kenya, which has the largest refugee camp in the world for Somalis.
When and how did you come to the U.S.?
Elmi: I’ve been here 15 years. I came here when I was 15 years old. I ran away from the civil war in Somalia. I have family here, but my wife and two kids live in Nairobi, Kenya.
Haji: [I also came because of the] war. I was 16 years old. I feared for my life, especially my dad and other siblings. We were all afraid. I lost my little sister who was 10 years old because of this tribalism.
Kahin: We came here because we escaped civil war. Everyone knows that America is the greatest country in the world because anybody can come here and live and pursue your dreams. But that’s not the case anymore. I came from chaos and now I’m living in limbo: maybe I will go back, maybe I will go to jail, maybe I will be on a registry, maybe they will create a camp for Islamic people. Young, old, men, women—everybody is worried.
How did you become a citizen?
Haji: I was eligible on June 2, 2005. That’s when I passed my citizenship interview. It wasn’t until 2010 that I didn’t take part in my ceremony. They said it was because of my security screen. I almost gave up hope that I would never get citizenship. It took more than 5 years. Usually it takes about a year, but maybe [the delay] happened because of my name, Mohamed Haji. I waited and waited.
Describe the Somali community in Chicago.
Kahin: We are a small community. Maybe around 5,000. Most Somalis live in Albany Park or Rogers Park. We have a Somali restaurant, and this restaurant [Bismillahi, 213 W. Walton St.] is a hub. We have three—this one and two on the north side. Most Somalis in Chicago work in factories or drive cabs, so this is where we meet to eat and pray. We have a prayer room in the back.
How is the Somali community feeling about Donald Trump?
Kahin: It started for us during his campaign. In Maine he called out the Somali communities, vilifying us even though we are law-abiding communities. The vast majority of us are U.S. citizens or here legally with green cards. But even dual citizens are in a state of panic now. It is chaos. Whatever the president signed isn’t clear. We have been calling Islamic organizations for guidance on what to do. Out of fear, everyone has canceled their trips.
Even after the White House issued a clarification that the travel ban shouldn’t be applied to green card holders, people are still afraid to travel?
Kahin: Of course we still feel uncomfortable. This executive order eroded trust. People are not sure if they will be able to come back or not. We feel we are targeted by the government because of our national origin and by religion.
We do understand and appreciate the government to implement laws; we aren’t against that. No one will ever lecture Somalis on what lawlessness is because that is what brought down our country and that is why we left our country. We support the government to protect its citizens, including us. The underlying issue is that we fled a country that collapsed in civil war. No one wants to go back there. Will they get, killed? Hijacked? I mean what kind of life will they live there?
If you could say anything to U.S. government officials about this travel ban, what would you say?
Haji: I would say, my legal status is that I am a U.S. citizen. I have been living in this country for 18 years, and for me to face this atrocity and being not welcomed in this country is not something that I was expecting. It is disappointing and hurting that I cannot bring my wife here when he [President Trump] himself had a wife here on a visa. She comes from Slovenia. If you can petition for your wife, then I can petition for my wife as well. Citizens are supposed to have the same rights here, even if he is the president.
Elmi: I would tell them, this is not fair what you are doing to this country. I am an American citizen. My kids are American citizens. If I go outside the country and I am not allowed to come back, what does that mean for American citizens? Before, I felt that this is my country. But when they tell me, when you go out you cannot come back because you are Somali or you are Muslim, this is very bad. I am really worried for this country.
How do you feel about the airport protests after Trump issued his executive order?
Haji: They are doing a fantastic job. We support them fully. They are speaking on behalf of us. See, there are always a lot of good people. I would never say there are a lot of bad Americans; most Americans are good people who care. It is a country of immigrants, where anyone can start a life here. For me to face these issues, it’s unbelievable. It’s unbelievable.
Elmi: It was very good. They saved some people and got them inside the country. If they didn’t protest, maybe those people would have been sent back. What they did was very nice, I like it.
What’s the first thing you’ll do when you see your wife and your kids in Chicago?
Elmi: I will say to America people, I feel like I am one of you. I’m going to feel happy if I can just see my children in the airport. You know, I work hard. I send my kids every month one thousand dollars. If they come here, I will do everything to provide for them with my own hands.
Editor’s note: After 11 days of waiting and $1,250 spent on plane tickets, Elmi’s family was able to board a plane from Nairobi to arrive in O’Hare on February 8. “After the courts blocked Trump’s visa travel ban, I was able to finally see my family again. My son was crying when he saw me because he hadn’t seen me in two years,” he says.
This interview was conducted on January 30 and has been edited for length and clarity. See interviews with Chicagoans from each of seven countries listed in President Trump’s travel ban here.