How do you tell a 4-year-old girl that she will no longer be able to see her mother, whom she hasn’t seen in three years? Standing at an airport in Kampala, Uganda, last week Sheikha Ali, a RefugePoint board member who oversees the International Organization for Migration, was faced with that very dilemma. President Donald Trump’s immigration ban had just gone into effect and Ali was forced to explain to little Mushkaad Abdi that she would not be allowed to board a plane to the United States where she was due, finally, to be reunited with her mother, Samira Dahir, in Minnesota. Mushkaad, dressed up in a white dress with her hair done specially for the occasion, responded “are you going to undo my hair now that I’m not going?”
Mushkaad wasn’t born when her mother was approved for resettlement in the United States, and so when the time came for the family to relocate from Somalia she was told Mushkaad, then 1 year old, would not be permitted to join them — she was not part of the initial “family composition” and there would have to be a delay in bringing her over, she was told. So while her mother and two sisters moved to Minnesota, Mushkaad was left in the hands of a close family friend awaiting the finalization of paperwork that would eventually allow their family to be reunited.
Like so many families impacted by Trump’s travel ban, which affected an estimated 90,000 individual visas, Mushkaad’s future was thrown into uncertainty. But she was lucky. She had the support of the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental organization that works to promote humane migration. When Mushkaad was barred from boarding her plane RefugePoint board member, Sheikha Ali, quickly contacted the U.S. refugee coordinator who relayed the information to the State Department. At the same time Minnesota Senators Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, who were familiar with the family’s case, contacted the new Department of Homeland Security, John Kelly, as soon they heard Mushkaad had been barred from traveling.
When Mushkaad finally received clearance to travel, Ali didn’t waste a moment — she knew the uncertainty of the situation. “I didn’t even have time to pack or prepare, I just went and got Mushkaad and brought her to the airport and we both got on the plane.” Worried that they, like so many others who had been turned away at U.S. borders, might be stopped as they changed flights in Abu Dhabi, Ali prepared for a fight.
To her surprise it was at the immigration desk that she found hope in the chaos of the situation. When they nervously stepped up to the desk to explain Mushkaad’s story to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer on Friday, rather than turning them away, the officer apologized for what was going on and said that knowing this little girl would be reunited with her mother had made his day. He unpinned the U.S. flag he wore on his uniform and asked if he could give it to Mushkaad. For Ali, the officer reaffirmed her faith “in America and in humanity,” she said in a statement to Women in the World.
RefugePoint has worked for more than a decade to help the U.S. resettlement program work as robustly as possible, helping to ensure that mothers, daughters and their families are able to find safety here and elsewhere. Thanks in part to their efforts, Mushkaad was one of thousands of refugees who were ready to travel as soon as the travel ban was suspended. She was finally reunited with her mother and two sisters last week.