Last week, a big, beautiful Congolese family arrived in Northwest Arkansas. Their co-sponsors met them at the airport and brought them back to their cozy, furnished apartment. They showed them the meal they had prepared, the toys they had gathered and the chocolates they had left on their pillows. The family smiled and thanked them. They were really happy to be here, they said-- but they were clearly troubled. "Our brother, John, he was left behind in Africa," they told the co-sponsors.
"Our family is incomplete."
We aren't sure what happened to prevent John from traveling with his family. We are looking for answers, but it seems like there may have been some sort of clerical error that delayed the purchase of his ticket. The family was told that it should be easily solvable, that he should be able to join them within a week. This was, of course, still deeply troubling to the family, but they decided to go on without him. John is 22 years old, and while he has never lived on his own or provided for himself, they knew he could take care of himself for a week. So they came to Northwest Arkansas. Since they've arrived, they've been to the movies and played in creeks, they've ridden their bikes on our trails and they've enjoyed exploring the excesses of our grocery stores. But they've never stopped talking about their son. When we ask them how they are doing, they say: "We are incomplete."
But it should be OK, the error should be corrected and he should be here any day-- or so they thought.
Today, President Trump's refugee travel ban finally takes effect.
Starting today, no more refugees will be permitted to travel to the US unless they can prove that they have a "bona fide relationship" here. This has been interpreted to mean that those with parents, siblings, spouses, fiances or grandparents can still travel-- but cousins, nephews and nieces do not count. This distinction might seem fair, but for this family, it is devastating.
You see, John is a nephew/cousin by blood. He was adopted into this family at a very young age and has been raised in this family-- but legal adoptions are not customary in the rural area where they lived, so they have no formal documentation to claim him as a son. So on paper, he is a nephew, a cousin. Not "bona fide." Not eligible to travel. Banned.
"Our family is incomplete."
When we tried to explain this to the family, they were distraught. We had to tell them that their son was not a real son in the eyes of the government, that he was considered a possible threat to our country, that he was temporarily banned. His brother cried. His father looked down at his feet. "Why?" they asked. We didn't know what to say.
We tried to encourage them. "It's just 120 days. That's not so bad." But they shook their heads. "No, no," they said. "He does not have anyone to care for him. He is alone. How can he stay alone for 4 months?" As they thought about it, they grew more concerned. "His medical clearance is about to expire," his brother told us. "If it expires, he will have to get a new one before he can come." This family knows just how long you have to wait to get in for a medical exam-- months. Sometimes the better part of a year.
This is why this travel ban is so harmful. It tears apart families. It abandons sons-who-don't-count to fend for themselves in refugee camps. It leaves boys without their brothers.
This is not who we are as a country. We don't tear families apart-- we build them up, and they in turn, build us up. We tried to convince the family of this. "America is so glad you are here," we told them. "And we will be very glad to have John when he comes." They nodded, but the brother still had tears in his eyes, the father still looked at his feet.
"We are grateful to be here," the brother said slowly. "We are grateful for all that has been done for us. But we are incomplete. I don't think we can truly be happy here until we are complete again."