2004 was a special year for Ghassan bin Hammam. He had just been accepted into a Ph.D. program in robotics at The Ohio State University, paving the way for his dream of becoming a professor. He flew to the United States that same year, intent on turning his dream into reality. Little did he know that over a decade later, his life in his new home would be changed forever.
Bin Hammam was born in 1978 and grew up in Aden, a city in the south of Yemen. At the time, Yemen was split into northern and southern states, which fought each other in 1994 to unify the country. Yet, the intensity of this conflict did not diminish bin Hammam’s determination to continue his education. He recalls, “I decided that I would like to teach at the university level in my country. To do that, you have to have a Ph.D. So, I told myself, ‘Okay, I’ll get a Ph.D.’”
Bin Hammam began doctoral work at Ohio State in 2004, but Yemen remained close to his heart. “Before I left for the U.S., I got engaged,” he says. “In July 2006, I returned to Yemen for our wedding. There were three days of celebration in our city, with over 250 guests!”
Bin Hammam and his wife, Fatin, settled in Columbus, Ohio, while he was completing his Ph.D. His family grew quickly over the next few years, welcoming his daughter, Faiza, and his son, Muhammad. However, Muhammad began displaying autistic behaviors around age three, and a doctor’s diagnosis confirmed his condition.
“Muhammad’s diagnosis changed our plan,” bin Hammam explains. “Now we knew that we needed to stay in the U.S. so he could get the support he needed. So, I needed to get a job in the U.S.”
After finishing his Ph.D. in 2014, bin Hammam found a job at Intel and relocated his family to Beaverton. Life was good in Oregon: bin Hammam’s job paid well, and his son was getting the educational and social support he needed. Intel also sponsored him for an H-1 visa, which allowed him to work in the U.S. without being a citizen. But, bin Hammam missed Yemen dearly; he hadn’t been back home in six years.
“I hadn’t seen my extended family, my sisters, or my brothers,” he remembers. “So, I said, ‘Okay, by the end of this year, 2014, I am going to take a vacation.’”
Bin Hammam flew to Yemen on New Year’s Day, 2015, excited to see his family. However, he was returning home at a time of great unrest. A civil war had broken out the previous year between the Houthis, an Islamist militant faction, and the Yemeni government, with the Houthis taking control of Sana’a, the nation’s capital.
“Civil war had already started in Yemen in 2014, but my city, Sana’a, was calm when I arrived on January 1st,” bin Hammam says. “I bought a return ticket, planning to come back in January 2015. I had only three weeks of vacation from my job.”
Although bin Hammam only planned to stay in his homeland for three weeks, he had to contend with a frustrating aspect of American immigration policy.
“For Yemenis with H-1 visas, every time you travel outside of the U.S., you have to apply for an H-1 reentry visa, again, stamped in your passport,” he explains.
Without a reentry visa, bin Hammam knew he would not be able to see his family in the U.S. So, he started an application at the U.S. embassy in Sana’a and had an interview with an official there.
“The interview was very smooth. In fact, it was excellent,” bin Hammam remembers. “The official asked me about my credentials, and I said that I had a Ph.D. in robotics. He said, ‘Okay, I think you should be fine. It might take one to two weeks to do some kind of background check.’ I said, ‘Yeah, no problem.’”
Ghassan tells his story to a live audience in Portland, Oregon in April 2023.
Weeks passed, and by February, bin Hammam’s application was still unapproved. He checked the application’s status page every day, only to find the letters “A.P.: Under Administrative Processing.” Then, on the night of February 17, 2015, he received the terrible news that all of the personal documents inside the U.S. embassy in Sana’a had been burned, including his H-1 visa application and Yemeni passport.
“I was sitting with a friend of mine. He told me that his friend, who worked in the U.S. embassy, told him that the embassy had closed and that they had destroyed all documents and left,” bin Hammam says. “No one sent me an email, no one sent me any notification, no one called me to pick up my passport, nothing.”
Bin Hammam was in a desperate situation. Not only were his visa application and passport destroyed, but he was also put on leave without pay by Intel for exceeding his three-week vacation. Yet, he was determined to see his family again.
“Faith played a big role here,” bin Hammam explains. “I said, ‘Oh Lord, you know what my situation is, guide me to the best way and show me the right path.’”
Using a network of connections in Sana’a, bin Hammam received another passport and flew to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. He began another application for an H-1 reentry visa at the U.S. embassy there before flying back to Yemen.
A short time after bin Hammam returned to Sana’a in March 2015, the war reached the capital. A Saudi-led coalition began bombing Houthi positions in the city, including the airport.
“I lived two miles from the airport. It was crazy,” bin Hammam remembers. “We had some shock at the beginning of the first week because it was continuous bombing every day, every hour. We didn’t have shelters, so we stayed in our homes waiting for our deaths.”
Throughout this chaos, the status of bin Hammam’s visa application remained unchanged. He checked his status online every hour of every day except on weekends. The dreaded initials “A.P.” appeared whenever he looked. Days turned into months, and months into years. It was only in December 2016, nearly two years after he had traveled to Yemen from the United States, that he received a welcome surprise.
“On December 7th, at 9 am, Friday, 2016, I found a change in the date. The status was still the same, but the date changed, which meant that someone had updated the case,” bin Hammam explains. “Right away, I sent an email, ‘What happened?’ They sent back, ‘Finally, your case has cleared.’ I had a sense of joy and shock, shock and surprise, but in total, I saw my way back. Everything could be fixed.”
On January 2, 2017, after being stranded in Yemen for two years, bin Hammam received his visa to return to the U.S. He flew to San Francisco and then traveled to Beaverton, overjoyed to see his wife and children. Instead, when he entered his house, he faced the bitter passage of time.
“When I walked in the door of our home, my kids stared. They hardly knew me. They hardly knew their father,” bin Hammam says. “My daughter was seven when I left. She was now nine. My son was five. Now, at seven, he hardly remembered how he and I used to play together and wrestle on the floor. I was in a daze, not even happy. Just exhausted.”
Since returning to the U.S., bin Hammam has reconnected with his children, resumed his job at Intel, and lives a relatively normal life. Yet, the years of separation from his family, caused by one arbitrary law in an already arbitrary immigration system, have been difficult to forget.
“Those two years of living in limbo left scars, deep scars, in each of us,” bin Hammam says. “My wife faced life as a single parent in a foreign country. My kids were growing up without me. There is no way to get those precious years back.”