Till Travel Ban Do Us Part: One Couple’s Story From Across
“We’re just in this weird limbo,” said Diamond DeDual while driving her infant son, Arrow, to his babysitter’s house on an unusually warm February morning. The 27-year-old moved back to Cuba, Missouri from Koya, a town in Iraqi Kurdistan, in June 2016 while seven months pregnant; her husband, Mariwan Hama, 31, was supposed to follow soon after. His visa had been approved — but that was before President Donald Trump issued the executive order that would ban immigrants entering the Unites States from Iraq, and six other predominantly Muslim nations. “We’re literally done with everything,” DeDual said. “Just waiting to receive the passport back in the mail.”
On January 27, President Trump signed the order that would stall the already tedious process that, for this family, began about a year ago. Now, the gears may start turning again: The AP reported Wednesday that Iraq would be removed from the list. Meanwhile, DeDual is in Missouri, and Hama is in Iraq, and they are caught living their first months of parenthood separated by the Trump Administration’s web of red tape.
Hama embarked on his application process to return to the States last February, shortly after learning that DeDual was pregnant. She had wanted to give birth back home, and he — like so many would-be immigrants — saw America as a land of great opportunity for his young family. His interview went well in December; he was given a green card number and had been expecting his passport to be returned from the embassy shortly thereafter. Hama sold most of their belongings in anticipation of his trip back to them.
It’s been three months now. “He’s still living in our apartment,” said DeDual. “He’s literally got a space heater, his clothes, and a teapot. That’s all.” DeDual was forced to move back to the home she grew up in, with her retired stepfather, who is 80, and her 23-year-old brother who’s in between jobs. Between the lawyers and paperwork, Hama’s visa process has cost the family thousands of dollars, and DeDual says it’s almost impossible for her husband to send her money from Iraq. As long as she’s in the states, she’s supporting their son on her salary alone. She works Tuesday through Friday at a hair salon, but had to forego lucrative Saturday shifts because the babysitter isn’t available on weekends.
It isn’t unusual for it to take years for men in this position to make it to the United States. It’s too soon to know how Trump’s ban will impact that timeline, but this family won’t wait to find out. DeDual says she’ll take her son to Kurdistan if she has to, so she can have her husband, and Arrow his father. If Hama is able to join her in Missouri soon, they’ll get a house together. For now, child care eats up enough of her earnings that this isn’t possible. It’s as if she’s a single mother and also a newlywed, all at once.
The couple met in 2013 and chatted online for a month or so, before Hama came into the salon where DeDual worked to get a haircut. Their first date was at Steak ’n Shake; they wore fake mustaches purchased for a quarter each, the beginning of a romance built on affection and a shared sense of humor. In September 2015, the two married in Hama’s home country. She volunteered, and he worked as a translator, for Global Hope, an American Christian NGO, which is now finding Hama a furnished place to live. They spent less than a year together before DeDual came back to the States to give birth. “Eventually we are going to have a life together,” she said. “Just right now, it’s kind of…separate.” In many ways, they are living worlds apart.
“National Anthem Noon” plays on the local radio in Crawford County, Missouri, which, like the state, went red in the presidential election. The town of Cuba, where DeDual lives with baby Arrow, has a population just north of 3,300 — 94% of which is white. Rolla, the nearby city where she works, has a population of roughly 20,000 and is 83% white. You could say the community isn’t that understanding of this family’s particular struggle. You could say much worse.
“Everybody thinks that if you’re marrying a Muslim man, you’re going to become some sex slave in a dungeon,” said DeDual, who is white. At least the people who know her personally tell her they hope for her husband’s return.
Her regulars — the women whose hair she dyes, whose nails she carefully paints — often ask about Hama’s status. DeDual’s colleagues in the shop dote on Arrow, when she sometimes brings him into work. The atmosphere is warm and inviting, despite the political climate just outside its doors. “We just want our man home,” said Larry Murphy, who owns the salon. “We want our family whole.”
But distance is just a part of their life. Hama first proposed to DeDual across the continental divide — the words “Will you marry me?” scrawled on a whiteboard behind him, via FaceTime. Ahead, see how the couple handles love and parenting, together, while they are stuck, in limbo, so far apart.
Photography and reporting in Missouri produced with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a journalism nonprofit covering economic inequality in America.
Hama watched his son’s birth via FaceTime. "I cried. I felt happy because Arrow and Diamond were safe and healthy,” he said. “And I was sad because I wasn't there to hold them. I need them and I know they need me too.” DeDual, of course, says she does. "Being essentially like a single mom, it doesn’t matter how much help you have, some of the things are so intimate that I can’t have my dad or my brother do them. You need your partner, your husband…to be with you in the middle of the night when you’re breast-feeding."
"You need a village to raise a child,” DeDual said, “and I have an amazing support group: [all of] my clients, my family is really big… And of course Mariwan — even if it is by phone, that moral support is so necessary, because sometimes when the baby’s screaming all night long, mentally your brain is complete noodles. To have him be like, ‘It is okay, you’ve absolutely got this,’ is super important." He’s nine hours ahead in Kurdistan, and Hama says he adjusts his schedule as necessary to talk to his family: "When they call, it doesn't matter what I'm doing, I answer."
"My bond with Arrow is very, very strong, and I think that’s going to make it harder for Mariwan…when it comes down to it, they’re strangers. They know each other on the phone, but they’re strangers for each other,” DeDual said. She flew to Iraq with baby Arrow when he was only two months old, so he could meet his father. They stayed for one month before separating again. “Holding my son…I wasn’t there when he was born,” said Hama. “I knew we received a gift from God, but when I got to hold him, it was so good. It was amazing.”
"Before I proposed, we made a trip to Turkey. I wanted her to learn about the culture in the region… I wanted her to feel what it was like to be part of the culture here before choosing to marry me," Hama said. DeDual was more than game; for a while she wanted to move there, whether they had to or not: “I wanted to know his culture. I wanted to know how to make his favorite food and I wanted to know his parents — I knew that they’d never get [to come] here."
"Where in the world I will be in 20 years doesn't matter to me," Hama said. "I am adaptable. The most important thing is to be with my wife and my son, and to have the ability to provide for them. I have two good jobs here in Iraq, and I will work hard in the U.S., too. We know Arrow will have better educational opportunities in the U.S. Some people think that life in the U.S. is easy, but I know everywhere you go, you have to work hard."
Looking ahead, the couple is able to hold on to some optimism, imagining the home they will someday live in as a family — whether it’s in her home country or his. "I love her. I love everything about her. We are married. No matter the difficulties, we will make it work,” Hama said. “It's like a mountain road: up and down. The important thing is to keep going."