Apart for two years, Syrian couple wonder if they'll ever be a family again
In the midst of his tightly structured days filled by raising three sons and working as a bank teller, Marwan Saffaf constantly watches for developments on President Donald Trump's travel and refugee ban.
"Have you seen the news? Was there any change today?" he asks on a recent evening in the small kitchen of his Des Plaines apartment as he slides a tray of Syrian beef, tomato and onion stew into the oven. He hopes the boys will eat his cooking tonight. Sometimes, it's a struggle.
His wife, Lama, and oldest child, 15-year-old Maria, are staying in the United Arab Emirates, where they are waiting on "administrative processing" for entry to the U.S. and on a federal court ruling on Trump's executive order banning travelers from seven countries, including Syria.
Saffaf was granted political asylum by the United States in March 2015, a few months after he came to the country. He said his family fled to the United Arab Emirates in 2013 after witnessing increasing violence in their hometown of Hama, about 85 miles from Aleppo. Saffaf said they knew they had to go after he was kidnapped once by members of the opposition party who mistakenly identified him as a government official because of the car he was driving. A description of that event is included in his asylum documents, said Saffaf's lawyer, Lauren McClure.
Saffaf says he was taken to a rural area of the country and held for three days in a small room before being released.
After Saffaf received asylum, he quickly applied for Lama and their four children -- Maria, 14-year-old Homan, 11-year-old Fares and 7-year-old Eylas -- to join him in Des Plaines.
The three boys were granted immigrant visas and allowed to travel to the United States last August. But Saffaf's wife and his daughter, who is legally considered an adult in immigration court proceedings, remain in limbo, despite inquiries by McClure and by staff from the offices of Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Springfield, former Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk of Highland Park and Democratic U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Evanston.
"If the ban moves forward, his family would be banned for an additional 90 days at least, but ultimately for an unknown period of time given the already lengthy 'administrative processing' that has taken place in this case," McClure says.
While they wait, Lama's and Maria's residency permits in the United Arab Emirates have expired, so they probably would face fines upon leaving the country, McClure says.
"We are frustrated," Saffaf said of the executive order. "My case is getting worse. I am worried about the future. I want my family to be whole again."
In his first week in office, Trump signed an executive order barring citizens of seven countries -- Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen -- from entering the U.S. for 90 days. It halted the entire U.S. refugee program for four months and banned Syrians from the U.S. indefinitely. A judge in Washington issued an order putting the ban on hold, which is now before a federal appellate panel.
Trump on Wednesday warned on Twitter that if he loses the case, the country "can never have the security and safety to which we are entitled."
Saffaf last saw his wife and daughter more than two years ago. From Des Plaines, he speaks to them every few days by phone or video chat.
In the meantime, he and the boys have done their best to adapt to American life.
Homan, a freshman at Maine West High School in Des Plaines, ended his first semester at school with a 3.63 grade-point average and hopes to play on the school soccer team next fall. Fares, too, is an honor student at Chippewa Middle School in Des Plaines.
Eylas, a first grader, was honored by Central Elementary School for his acts of kindness -- leaving small gifts and school supplies on his classmates' desks to cheer them up, a practice other students soon began to copy.
The Arlington Heights-based Viatorians and Sisters of the Living Word are together sponsoring the family for a year.
"We located an apartment and offered some upfront financial support," the Rev. Corey Brost says. "But more importantly, we are involved as mentors, tutors, friends, activity planners for the boys and guides to all things American."
Brost took the boys to their first American movie -- a "Star Wars" film -- and the Viatorians were on hand when Eylas celebrated his 7th birthday last month.
"I do have support, but I am looking after the kids. I am washing the clothing, I am cooking for them. I have to manage between my job and their schools. I feel like I am working like a dad and a mom," Saffaf says. "At the same time, I am here physically but I am thinking about my wife and daughter, how many miles apart they are and waiting for me."