Rabi Mohamed (left), a 35-year-old Somali refugee and truck driver in St. Cloud, has lived apart from his wife and three kids for more than seven years. His request to sponsor his family's immigration was recently approved after he sued the federal government for putting his request on hold. Credit: Courtesy of Rabi Mohamed

The federal government has approved a St. Cloud man’s request to move his family from a refugee camp in Ethiopia to Minnesota, clearing the first step in a lengthy family reunification process.

“I can’t even begin to describe my relief and happiness,” said Rabi Mohamed. “All they ever wanted was for me to be with them, and for so long they had no hope. They are excited about joining me now.”

Rabi, a 35-year-old Somali refugee and truck driver in St. Cloud, has lived apart from his wife and three kids for more than seven years. He filed a lawsuit in federal court in April, suing the United States government for putting his request to sponsor his family’s immigration, also known as a petition, on hold. 

Federal immigration services approved his request a few weeks later in May, but Rabi’s attorney, Alexandra Zaretsky, says he will likely have to wait years before his family comes to Minnesota.

“It’s a positive development, but it’s not the end of the story by any means,” said Zaretsky, an attorney for the International Refugee Assistance Project, a refugee advocacy group in New York. “Rabi’s right is to have his family here, not to have a petition approved on paper that could be revoked at any time.”

Rabi immigrated from an Ethiopian refugee camp to Minnesota in 2015 under paperwork his parents had filed for him when he was a minor. His family ended up in the camp after fleeing civil war in their native Somalia. 

The paperwork didn’t apply to his wife, whom he met in the camp, or their children, but Rabi thought he could assist their immigration from U.S. soil. 

Rabi has only been able to visit his wife, Sahra Abdulahi, and two of their three sons—Hudayfi, 10, and Hamza, 7—once, from December 2018 to March 2019. Sahra became pregnant with their third son during Rabi’s visit, meaning he has never met the 4-year-old boy, Kalid.

Rabi’s family continues to wait

Rabi’s lawsuit from April asked a judge to find that the federal government violated his constitutional right to due process when it delayed issuing a final decision on his request to sponsor his family’s immigration. It also asked a judge to declare that Rabi does not have to submit DNA evidence to prove his relationship to his family, and to compel U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to issue a decision on Rabi’s request, among other demands. 

Rabi filed a petition for family reunification in 2016, and made several attempts in the intervening years to get his request approved.

“I had not received any news or updates about my case,” Rabi said in a recent interview with Sahan Journal. “Nothing! I had no idea what to say to my wife and children who were waiting for me. I had no idea what to say to appease their frustration.”

Rabi kept in touch with his family through phone calls, but worried about the harsh conditions in their refugee camp: their food rations were cut, and there are few employment opportunities.

He credited the sudden shift in his case to the lawsuit and subsequent media attention.

“I was wrapped up in this for seven years, and for so long, I didn’t hear anything,” he said. “I received no updates or news. Without journalists reporting on my story, or the help from lawyers and the lawsuit, I don’t think I would have gotten any kind of response.”

With the latest development, paperwork for Rabi’s family will have to undergo processing at the U.S. embassy in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Family reunification requests for people scattered across the globe are mostly stuck at this stage, Zaretsky said, because there’s a growing backlog of such cases. 

It’s difficult to predict how long that processing will take. In the best case scenario, Zaretsky said, Rabi’s family could arrive in six months to a year. 

“It would be hard to imagine it being faster than that, but it is almost certainly going to be slower,” she said. 

Once a petition for family reunification is approved, Zaretsky said, a paper version of the file gets submitted to the U.S. State Department. The file is then mailed to the embassy abroad where it has to get processed through customs. 

Once the embassy in Addis Ababa receives the file, they will schedule an interview with Rabi’s wife. Their children will also have to appear, but they won’t be interviewed because they’re under 14. 

The embassy then collects biometric information, runs a security check, and if all goes well, each member of the family is cleared to undergo a medical exam. Once the exams are conducted and the results are approved, the family will be allowed to travel to the United States. 

“But until they actually travel, at any point they could be forced to go back and repeat steps,” Zaretsky said. 

Medical exam results are only valid for six months, so if a family has to wait too long for the results to be approved by government officials, they will have to undergo another exam. 

Covid-related closures at embassies and heightened vetting requirements have led to a growing backlog of family reunification cases, Zaretsky said.

“There are many families in this position,” she said. “We had to file a lawsuit to get attention on this case—but it just shows how long these cases can languish when no one is paying attention.”

As of March, there are approximately 20,000 refugee family reunification applications pending initial approval, according to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. More than 25,000 refugee family reunification applications are awaiting interviews and additional processing abroad. 

The agency also reported that the median processing time for cases like Rabi’s was just under eight months in 2017. By 2022, the median increased to 28 months. 

“It all depends on the way the government works, “ Rabi said. “They have the power to bring them today, or to delay their arrival.”

In the meantime, he said he’s looking forward to his family’s arrival and has already begun to prepare. 

“I’ve never felt this joy before,” Rabi said. “I’m planning on what to do when they get here: How I will pick them up from the airport and buy flowers on the way, and prepare our home to make them feel comfortable.”

Hibah Ansari is a reporter for Sahan Journal covering immigration and politics. She was named the 2022 Young Journalist of the Year by the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists. She’s a graduate...

Aala Abdullahi is the innovation editor at Sahan Journal, where she leads the newsroom's community engagement efforts. An Al Jazeera and CBC alum, her passion lies most in using concrete data and audience...