After eight years of a rigorous resettlement process at Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, Dahabo Hashi and her five children were due to travel to South Dakota on 10 March. Civil war in Somalia had forced them to flee to Dadaab. But their plans to start a new life in the US are now on hold, after President Donald Trump last week signed a new executive order banning travel from six Muslim-majority countries.
This is the second time that Hashi’s family has been hit by the US president’s travel ban. On 27 January, as their flight was being booked, they were told that all travel arrangements had been cancelled.
When US federal courts blocked Trump’s executive order in February, Hashi was among hundreds of Somali refugees in Kenya who were cleared for travel. But the new revised order means that their case is again on hold – at least for 120 days while the US refugee resettlement programme is suspended.
“This is painful. I cannot believe this is happening to us again. Our hopes and dreams are being shattered,” Hashi said.
“There is nowhere else to turn. We have been enduring a very tough and long process for years, hoping one day to escape the harsh life of the refugee camp, only to be told we cannot move at the last minute. It is devastating.”
Hashi arrived in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, in 1991 following the civil war in Somalia. She was among the lucky few who received the opportunity for resettlement from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in 2009.
Although the US is a favourite destination for refugees, it has a very tough and lengthy screening process, involving extensive background checks by multiple federal security agencies.
According to the US state department, “Refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks for any category of traveller to the United States.”
That is why it takes years for refugees to be resettled in the US, with some even deciding to withdraw their applications as the wait drags on.
Omar Jelle, a father of four, was in the final stages of a resettlement process that had started in 2007. He had thought about withdrawing several times but the travel ban made up his mind.
“I was already fed up and was in a dilemma when I heard about the travel ban, and that cemented my decision. It was difficult to explain to my wife as you can imagine,” said Jelle. “But I am a father and have to provide for my children rather than just sit and wait for something that is never coming.”
He was eight when he first arrived in Dadaab from Somalia more than two decades ago. Now, 33, he has been in the camp ever since, going to school and getting married there.
“I was a young high school graduate when I did my first resettlement interview with the UNHCR. I never thought I would marry in the camp and stay that long,” he said.
“During the process, I got married, had my first child and then the second child, the third and the fourth. I sacrificed a lot of opportunities, including several job offers in Somalia, in the hope of getting a better future for my children once resettled in the US. Enough is enough – I have now lost hope,” he said.
His only option was to return voluntarily to Somalia, to hunt for job opportunities he had turned down in the past. Last month, he left his family behind in Kenya and returned to Mogadishu for the first time in 25 years.
He has been welcomed by old friends from Dadaab who have already settled in the city, working for charities and non-profit organisations. “I had to take the risk of going back to Somalia and I don’t regret it, because I need to move on and, of course, I have a duty to help rebuild my country as well. I plan to bring my wife and children here when the security situation gets a little better.”
Four-year-old Nimo Mohamed has cancer and her application for resettlement is being processed urgently because the treatment she needs is not available at Dadaab.
“I am very worried about what will happen to her. We are trapped here and no one knows of our situation,” said Mohamed Noor, her father.
There has been a question mark over the fate of refugees at Dadaab as Kenyan authorities have been pushing to close the entire camp.
Hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees who live at the camp fear being forced to return to Somalia, a country that is currently on the brink of famine and where al-Shabaab Islamic militants are fighting to overthrow the government.
In the Eastleigh area of Nairobi, Mohamed Osman, 28, had his resettlement interview cancelled last week. He was hoping to join his wife, who lives in the US.
“My case had been active before the order was announced but when I checked onlinelast week, I was disappointed to find that my status update was changed to ‘on hold’. I am stuck in Nairobi where I live in constant fear of police harassment. My wife cannot come to me because she has a green card and is afraid to be denied re-entry to the US if she leaves,” he said.
Osman had lived in Dadaab since 1991 before moving to Nairobi a couple of years ago. He is contemplating taking a dangerous journey to try to reach his wife if his application is not successful.
“As a man, I have to find plan B. There should be some way out even if it means giving my life to smugglers in order to escape this life and meet my wife,” he said.
Commenting on the executive order, the UN high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, said: “The imperative remains to provide protection for people fleeing deadly violence, and we are concerned that this decision, though temporary, may compound the anguish for those it affects.”