Omar and Niran dressed nicely
Omar and Niran have been apart for four years and were set to reunite in the Bay Area on Feb. 6, but President Trump’s immigrant ban barred her entry. This picture is from their engagement party.

Local agencies helping refugees ensnared in immigrant ban

Omar refurnished his Santa Clara apartment and eagerly counted the days to Feb. 6 and a long-awaited reunion with his wife, Niran. Then came President Donald Trump’s executive order barring refugees from entering the U.S., leaving Niran stranded in Baghdad, and Omar’s life in limbo.

Their case of government-enforced separation is one of many being handled by Jewish Family Services of Silicon Valley, where officials were scrambling this week to help reunite refugees with their families while the Trump order was temporarily blocked by a judge’s ruling.

Omar, who asked that his last name not be used, immigrated to the Bay Area nearly five years ago. He obtained a Special Immigrant Visa by working for a construction company that helped the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. His wife — a biotechnology professor at Baghdad University who did postgraduate work in California in 2013 — is a refugee.

“She is upset and she is afraid,” Omar said on Feb. 3, hours before a Seattle judge upended Trump’s executive order. “Because after four years of getting very close to getting together, we have this hope and dream disappear.”

The executive order banned all refugees from the U.S. for 120 days and closed the nation’s borders to people from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Iraq. Administration officials defended it as necessary to protect national security.

Two days after U.S. District Judge James Robart in Seattle halted enforcement of the order nationwide, a federal appeals court in San Francisco refused to lift the suspension while the case continues through the legal process.

“I am doing well here, I didn’t break any rules,” said Omar, 46, who works as a field inspection engineer in Milpitas and is studying computer information technology at De Anza College in Cupertino. “My wife has a Ph.D. She is finding medicines for cancer treatment. We are very straight people.”

Mindy Berkowitz smiling
Mindy Berkowitz

Mindy Berkowitz, executive director of JFS, said her agency is representing about 100 people — Baha’is and other religious minorities — who were blocked from leaving Iran by the executive order. Another 52 refugees, including Niran, hold visas but have been blocked from immigrating to the U.S.

All of them went through months, or years, of careful vetting by the U.S. government, Berkowitz said.

“They are under far more scrutiny than we are,” she said. “These are not the people we need to be worried about at all.”

Among the Jewish refugees stuck in Moscow with visas is 76-year-old Bella, who has been waiting nearly three years to join her son in San Jose. (Jews from the former Soviet Union must have family members in the United States to obtain entry visas.)

Bella was scheduled to arrive in California on Feb. 14, but on Jan. 31, JFS found out that her flight had been canceled.

“Yesterday we learned that it might be reinstated, but we won’t know for certain until she gets off the plane,” said Berkowitz. “She has heart disease and severe hypertension. If she doesn’t get on that plane, she will have nowhere to live — she will lose her apartment in Moscow. And she’s alone.”

Watching a group of people having the door slammed in their face because of their religion is tragically familiar to us.
— Avi Rose, JFCS East Bay

Others holding visas who are barred from entering the U.S. include a Jewish family of five in Russia and a Jewish family of four in Ukraine; both have been waiting for two years to come to the Bay Area, Berkowitz said, and are now stuck because of Trump’s order.

“You only hear about the ‘seven countries,’ but because of the ban, no refugees of any kind can enter the country,” said Berkowitz. “Every story sounds like this. It’s heartbreaking.”

Other Bay Area Jewish service agencies that serve refugees are facing similar challenges, leading Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay to join in a suit against the executive order.

Avi Rose, executive director of JFCS East Bay, said his group joined the American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit “for three main reasons — our clients, our values and our history.”

“Our clients are subject to extraordinarily discriminatory treatment due to the executive order. People are traumatized, people are afraid to travel, people are afraid their visas will be summarily revoked with terrible repercussions for their lives,” Rose said.

“In addition to that, we have our foundational values about welcoming the stranger and caring for the vulnerable and fostering a diverse and inclusive community.

“And our history is something that makes this very familiar to us. As Jews, watching a group of people having the door slammed in their face because of their religion is tragically familiar to us, and we are determined not to sit here and watch it happen.”

Omar and Niran, 34, are Muslim. They were married in Baghdad two weeks before he left for the U.S. in 2012, and then married again in California when she was studying here.

“We planned to be together here, but we preferred for me to come first so I could apply for her,” said Omar, who began the process in February 2013 and was ecstatic when she got her visa and flight set for Feb. 6. “I was prepared for everything, but was shocked by the new decision of the government, of Donald Trump.”

On Feb. 7, Omar heard that Niran might arrive this weekend. But that could change, depending on the outcome of the battle between Trump and the courts.

In addition to the disappointment of not reuniting with his wife, Omar said he is facing pressure from his in-laws. Niran lives in Baghdad with her parents, who have told her to seek a divorce because Arabic tradition frowns on a wife being apart from her husband for such a long period.

“Her parents, they think I don’t do anything for her. They suspect that I am enjoying my life here alone,” Omar said. “My marriage is at risk.”

Editor Sue Fishkoff contributed to this report.

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.