Of Note: HIAS Helps Reunite Darfuri Family; Combats Legal Limbo Confronting Children of Refugees
Posted by Gideon Aronoff on Mon, Jun 22, 2009 at 10:09 am
The Talmud instructs us that To Save One Life is to Save the Entire World. At HIAS, the international migration agency of the American Jewish community, we witnessed a powerful example of this eternal Jewish teaching earlier this week when a year-long HIAS advocacy campaign to reunite a four-year-old Darfuri girl with her parents came to a joyful conclusion. This young child, Wesal Adam, was separated from her mother and father for much of her life because of a tragic gap in U.S. law.
A connection made through the HIAS Young Leaders educational activities on Darfuri refugees brought to light a profound miscarriage of justice in our current immigration law, and began HIAS' intense involvement with the family of Motasim, Wejdan, and Wesal Adam. This work, along with our trauma counseling and social service programs for Darfuri refugees in Chad, is part of HIAS’ global effort to help repair the world and our contribution to the Jewish community’s priority campaign to Save Darfur.
Motasim Adam, a Darfuri political activist, was granted asylum in 2002 and later returned to Chad to visit his wife Wejdan who was living in a refugee camp. Arrangements to reunite the family faltered when the Department of Homeland Security ruled that Wejdan could join her husband but that Wesal, who had not been conceived at the time her father received asylum, was barred by law from accompanying her mother to the United States.
Because of the grave dangers facing women in Darfur, where Wejdan ultimately had returned, the family made the gut-wrenching decision to proceed with her immigration and leave Wesal with family friends in a Darfuri Internally Displaced Persons Camp. They believed that this would only be a brief separation.
A HIAS Young Leaders volunteer – who is an attorney at Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman – took on this case pro-bono with his firm, representing Motasim Adam in his quest to free his daughter. The attorney, who got to know Mr. Adam when seeking to do outreach to the local Darfuri community with the HIAS Young Leaders group, learned of the appeals, delays, and lack of movement from the Department of Homeland Security and began to assist the Adams. After researching the gap in the law, the attorneys determined that lobbying for the girl's entry would provide the most expedient solution and approached HIAS for assistance. Working together, HIAS and the Kasowitz, Benson attorneys advocated tirelessly to the government to grant humanitarian parole to Wesal and allow her to join her parents. Through this advocacy, HIAS learned that government officials shared our distress but believed that their hands were tied by the legal requirements. Notwithstanding this, on May 12th HIAS finally received word that DHS had agreed to grant humanitarian parole and that little Wesal would be allowed to come to the United States.
Last Monday, HIAS joined in a tearful reunion at JFK Airport where Wesal was reunited with her mother after more than two years apart. For us, this happy occasion brought back memories of the countless reunions we had witnessed of Soviet Jews joining family in the United States after years in refusal. The following NY Times story, along with video footage of the reunion, depict some of the emotion of this event.
While HIAS struggled to assist the Adam family, we also have highlighted Wesal Adam’s plight as exhibit number one on why the law must be changed. I’m pleased to report that a legislative fix passed the House of Representatives last week and that HIAS is working with the Senate so that no more children are forced to suffer the separation from their parents that Wesal experienced.
Sudanese Family Reunites in Brooklyn
Wejdan Adam with her daughter, Wesal, at Kennedy International Airport after the girl and her father arrived from Darfur.
By DOMINICK TAO
Published: June 15, 2009
Growing up among strangers in a refugee camp in the Darfur region of Sudan, 4-year-old Wesal Adam knew her parents mostly as faces in photographs and voices on the phone.
She knew that her father, Motasim Adam, and her mother, Wejdan Adam, lived in Brooklyn and that Mr. Adam drove a cab. But she did not know what they felt like or smelled like or how much they loved her — if at all.
Wesal did not know why she had been separated by deserts and oceans from her parents, but once she learned to talk she knew that her lack of certain papers was keeping her from them.
But on Monday morning at John F. Kennedy International Airport, Wesal and her father walked off a plane, reuniting the family and bringing a joyful end to a struggle that lasted more than two years.
Unlike many families splintered by the long-running violence in Darfur, the Adam family’s separation was not caused directly by the conflict, but by United States immigration law.
The family’s troubles started before Wesal was born: Mr. Adam, while in the United States as part of an educational program for Sudanese professionals, sought asylum. He had been jailed five times, Mr. Adam said, by the Sudanese government for speaking out against its treatment of civilians in war-torn Darfur. He was given asylum in 2002, and two years later Mrs. Adam was also granted asylum because she was Mr. Adam’s wife.
But their daughter was conceived after Mr. Adam was granted asylum, and outside the United States, in Chad, where his wife had been living in a refugee camp.
A 1998 amendment to immigration regulations required that the relationship between applicants for asylum and their children must exist at the time an asylum application is approved. Wesal did not qualify.
“It’s unbelievable that a child like mine, who was a year old, did not get approval from the United States,” Mr. Adam said. “I did not understand. You cannot take a child that is 2 or 3 from her parents. Sometimes, the law is guilty.”
The rule was meant, in part, to combat fraud, some immigration advocates said. “There have been pretty serious issues with fraud in the refugee program in Africa, and there are always problems with people trying to get visas for people who are not family members,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy study at the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that supports strict controls on immigration.
Mrs. Adam faced a painful choice: remain in Darfur, where she had returned with Wesal to be closer to family, and risk her life because of her husband’s political activities, or leave for the United States, hoping it would not take long until she could send for her daughter.
She left Wesal with family friends in 2006. Looking back, Mr. Adam said, “I felt it was selfish on my part to help my wife come here. I thought it was better to lose one of them than both of them.”
The Adams suffered several legal setbacks and ran into what seemed like an impenetrable wall of red tape as they sought to bring their daughter to the United States. The one possible option, it seemed, was that Wesal could be granted a humanitarian parole.
Their first request was denied. “Although the situation as it relates to the family is indeed unfortunate, it was determined a grant of parole should not be authorized in this case,” said a letter to the family dated Sept. 18, 2007, from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
After that, the Adams’ cause was taken up by a lawyer, Alan Lungen, on a pro bono basis, and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a nonprofit group in New York. Mr. Adam spoke about Darfur at an event about a year ago that was sponsored by the group and was eventually introduced to Mr. Lungen, a lawyer with Kasowitz Benson Torres & Friedman.
Mr. Lungen and workers at the aid society were successful in winning Wesal a humanitarian parole in May. “The law wasn’t there for it,” Mr. Lungen said. “You’re relying on the discretion” of immigration officials.
A proposal in Congress would eliminate the rule that kept Wesal separated from her family, a regulation that immigration advocates say affects a fairly small number of people. The proposal, which was passed by the House this month, would entitle the children of anyone granted asylum to stay with their parents.
“We’ve spent years agitating against their interpretation that keeps families like this apart,” said Mark Hetfield, a lawyer with the aid society.
As the Adams settle into their two-bedroom apartment in Parkville, Brooklyn, they know it will take time for their daughter to adjust. “She’s never seen this before,” Mrs. Adam said at the airport. “She’s in shock.”
Despite the years that have been lost, the Adams are eager to start over. “It’s almost like something impossible happened,” Mr. Adam said.