TRIPOLI, Lebanon — Tired and aching with arthritis, Dahouk al-Omar lugs a purse stuffed with all her personal documents to the catering kitchen where she works 12 hours a day. As an unregistered refugee in Lebanon, the 68-year old says she never knows when she may need them to prove her identity or in case she gets stopped by the police.
Al-Omar spends half her salary on rent for the cramped apartment she shares with her son and two cats, an arrangement that she once hoped would be temporary. Her other son was resettled in Chicago, and was looking into ways of bringing her there to join him.
But then came the election of President Donald Trump, and the travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries enacted days after his inauguration. The move ignited a monthslong legal battle that plunged countless Syrian refugees into uncertainty and put plans to reunify far-flung families on hold.
When the Supreme Court upheld the ban last week, the family feared al-Omar may never make it through the fog of confusion: who gets a waiver, how family members can be reunited, at what cost and how long it may take.
A backlog of cases built up as the Trump administration worked its way through different versions of the ban, the first of which barred Syrian refugees until further notice. Trump also reduced the global number of refugees the U.S. is willing to absorb in 2017 from 110,000 to 50,000.
“I hope I can see her before something happens to her or to me,” said Fadi Omarin, al-Omar’s 48-year-old son, speaking from Chicago, where he resettled in 2015. He has not seen his mother since 2012, when he first fled Syria. “I am going crazy,” he said.
The travel ban has thrown yet another obstacle in the way of Syrian refugees whose status in neighboring countries is already uncertain.
Al-Omar was never registered as a refugee when she arrived in Lebanon in 2016. The tiny country of 5 million, which is hosting more than 1 million Syrian refugees, asked the U.N. to stop registering refugees in 2015, hoping to deter new arrivals. Still, there are an estimated 500,000 unregistered Syrians in Lebanon.
U.N. officials say al-Omar’s unregistered status should not prevent her from qualifying for reunification, but even experts express confusion about the ban.
“We don’t know what could pass, what couldn’t. Before there was clarity. Now we don’t know what to do,” said Suzanne Sahloul, of the Chicago-based Syrian Community Network, which helped Omarin and his family resettle. “We have to knock on all doors.”
Stuck in limbo, al-Omar relies on her catering job and the kindness of others. Her youngest son’s friends donated kitchen appliances and mattresses, and Fadi wired money from Chicago so she could buy a bed and some chairs.
“I have to work to be able to survive…Thanks to God, who is giving me the strength,” she said. She breaks into tears when she recalls the help they received. “God bless him. He takes care of us, even when he is far. If he was close, he would never have left us in these conditions.”
Omarin was the first family member to flee the war, when the government launched an offensive in their hometown of Baba Amr, in central Syria. His wife’s brother and father were killed, and their home was destroyed. He lived in hiding in the capital, Damascus, for several weeks before fleeing to Lebanon, where he registered with the U.N. and was eventually picked for resettlement in the United States. Another of al-Omar’s sons resettled in Switzerland, a daughter lives in Sudan, and another is in Jordan.
Omarin says he is happy in Chicago, and grateful that his children are growing up in a place that offers comforts and freedom. He wishes his mother could join them.
“I want (Trump) to imagine if the same thing happened to him and there were problems and war in his country, and his son was in one place and his wife in another. What would he be thinking? Will he be happy that they are not reunited?”
Al-Omar’s life was never easy. As a newlywed, she moved to Lebanon only to have to flee the civil war there with her husband and children in 1975. Her husband was abusive, and for a time she left him, though she returned to care for him in the months before he died. Syria’s civil war has scattered her family and fueled disputes among them. She is no longer on speaking terms with one of her sons.
After Omarin left in 2012, al-Omar’s youngest son, Mohammed, stayed with her in Syria, where he endured an even more harrowing ordeal.
After being conscripted and serving a year and a half, mostly guarding a military installation, he was trained by an elite unit. Fearing that he would be sent to the front lines, he smashed his knee against a wall in order to give himself a permanent disability.
“I didn’t want to be part of the bloodbath,” he said, massaging a loose bone on his left knee.
By that time his mother had already made the difficult journey across the war-torn country. She crossed over the rugged Lebanese border, traveling alone with her documents and a few family pictures, paying hundreds of dollars to smugglers. He joined her a month later.
“I came to Lebanon on Monday April 18. On Tuesday I was in Tripoli,” she wrote in her diary, adding in red the year “2016.”
As she made her way to work on Saturday, al-Omar finally broke into a smile. Her first name Dahouk means the smiley one.
“I laugh sometimes,” she said. “But I have seen a lot. I have moved a lot. And now I am very tired.”