Abdalla hears his English teacher’s voice beaming across the room like a ray of sunshine.
“What… is… the… matter?”
The teacher sounds out each syllable, pausing as photos of injuries flash on a projection screen. If you go to the doctor, she says, these are words you’ll need to know.
In this Atlanta classroom, dozens of refugees who just arrived in the United States take notes.
Like them, Abdalla wants to learn. But he finds it hard to focus on the lesson.
He’s thinking of his daughter, Batulo.
She’s the one who soaks her feet in cold water to keep from dozing off while she studies.
She’s the one who taught him the basics of speaking and writing in English.
She’s the one who makes her brothers and sisters do their homework.
She’s the one who should be here.
Abdalla is a tailor who barely had a chance to study in their native Somalia. Batulo is a bright student who loved to share lessons she learned at school.
She’s 22 and dreams of becoming a doctor.
Only days ago, Abdalla thought America would give his daughter a chance to continue her studies and follow that path.
Instead, she’s stuck in a refugee camp nearly 8,000 miles away, and he’s not sure if she’ll ever make it.
“I feel,” Abdalla says, “like someone cut off my arm.”
A new life
The day her family learned they’d be coming to the United States, Batulo was the one who opened the letter.
“Dad, we passed!” she shouted into the phone.
Abdalla was so overjoyed he wanted to run naked through the streets. The years of screenings and interviews were worth it. Finally, after suffering an unspeakable tragedy and spending years on the run, his family would be safe.
But for Batulo, the joy was short-lived. Because of her age, she’s not considered a dependent minor. Officials separated her case and told her she’d travel on her own later.
Abdalla tried to reassure his daughter. They’d just be apart for a matter of days, he told her. Then they’d begin a new life together.
That all changed on January 27.
The search for safety
Donald Trump was days away from taking the oath of office when Abdalla Ramadhan Munye and Habibo Mohamed landed in the United States. The Somali refugees had seven children in tow — two daughters, three sons and a niece and nephew they’d been raising for a decade.
The family was just settling into their new apartment in the Atlanta suburb of Clarkston when Trump went to the Pentagon and signed an executive order titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States.”
His order blocked refugee arrivals for four months and banned travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Somalia, for at least 90 days. Those were necessary steps, Trump said, to keep the US safe.
Batulo called her parents in tears from Kakuma, the Kenyan refugee camp she thought she was about to leave. Her trip had been canceled.
The stroke of a president’s pen that day rewrote the first chapter of this Somali refugee family’s life in the United States.
Their fresh start became a frantic search for help.
Batulo was weaving through the market stalls in Kakuma when she got the call. She had been searching for new shoes for her journey.
The official on the other end of the line told her not to bother.
“You are not able to go,” he said. “There is no journey taking place.”
Her flight had been canceled because of the new presidential order.
She began to cry.
Batulo had already given away most of her clothes and books to friends who needed them more. She’d moved in with a family who said she could stay with them while she waited.
She thought her flight was just days away.
Now, however, a devastating reality is starting to set in: Her life of the past few days — cooking and cleaning in a home that is not her own, relying on the kindness of a family that is not hers — might be the only life she has left.
With her family gone, the joy has faded away from the world around her. In Kakuma, where she’s lived for seven years, she watches the children playing outside, the chickens and goats ambling down the dry dirt roads, the occasional motorcycle rumbling by, sending dust into the air.
But that isn’t what she sees.
“I just see Kakuma, I just see it, I’m just inside the hole,” she says. “They are … burying me while I’m alive.”
A presidential plea
Tears well up in Habibo’s eyes as she faces a room full of cameras.
She chokes up as she tells reporters about the last conversation she had with her daughter: “I’m afraid she feels I abandoned her.”
Abdalla sits beside his wife, searching for the right words.
Speaking through an interpreter, Abdalla says he’s afraid something will happen to the daughter they left behind in Kakuma. He begs the US government for help.
There’s one person in particular he hopes will hear his plea: first lady Melania Trump.
“She’s a mother and she knows the love of a child,” Abdalla says. “I would like her to do her best to convince the president to change his mind.”
An exodus begins
Abdalla is terrified of losing another daughter. He already lost one.
The horrific details of that day in 2004 are still sharp in his mind.
How he and his oldest son, Ramadhan, went out to grind corn — past the mango groves and the river where they’d hide sometimes when violence came to the Somali countryside.
How they headed back home and suddenly heard screams.
How they realized the screams were coming from inside their house.
How he found Habibo crying in a corner and their daughter, Famo, on the ground, covered in blood.
How Habibo told him men had stormed into their home, wearing masks and shouting in Somali.
How their 11-year-old had been raped and shot between the eyes.
How he tried to save her, pulling her in a cart toward the hospital.
How people warned him it was too late and told him she was gone.
How they were right.
How he buried her.
How he knew that day that they had to leave Somalia.
Keeping his family safe — and together — has been Abdalla’s mission ever since.
‘We are sorry’
Around the English classroom at the International Rescue Committee’s Atlanta office, students practice reciting the ailments they’ve just learned.
On the walls, colorful posters spell out the the days of the week, the seasons of the year and the names of US presidents.
While her students study, teacher Erin Harwood keys up a different presentation on the projector.
The screen shows a picture of Trump at a desk beside a photo of protesters waving signs.
“The president passed a refugee ban for 120 days. … This word, ban, means stop,” she tells them. “Do you know why?”
A student in the middle of the classroom offers an answer: “Because he didn’t know the refugees.”
“He is a little afraid. He is afraid about terrorism,” she says. “But there are many people who think this is not a good idea. We want you to come here. We are sorry for the danger that he has put you in. And we are sorry for your families.”
She pauses, choking up.
“I am sorry for your families.”
A map flashes across the screen with seven countries highlighted in red. Several people in the classroom cheer when they see their homelands, unaware of why they’ve become the subject of this latest lesson.
“Number One Syria!” yells one man.
“Number One Iraq!” another counters.
But the mood quickly darkens as Harwood explains more about the travel ban. She tells her class that it will be harder — maybe even impossible — for refugees to ever come again from those seven countries.
Several women begin to cry. Harwood tries to reassure them.
“You are here legally. You should not be worried,” she says. “The problem is for your families who want to come.”
The teacher passes out flyers advertising a community meeting where experts will answer refugees’ questions about the executive order.
Abdalla writes down the address so he won’t forget.
The voice of a child singing the ABCs echoes from a toy as 11-year-old Mana plays on the dining room floor. A cell phone video game blares in the living room as 7-year-old Ibrahim races a motorcycle down a track. Plates clank in the kitchen as 20-year-old Asha does the dishes.
There’s a stack of shoes outside their front door, with a playground and a pond nearby. Happy families walk hand in hand as they take their children to school.
To the outside eye, this three-bedroom apartment in a placid neighborhood is a hive of a activity.
But Abdalla sees what isn’t there.
His phone rings. It’s Batulo.
Abdalla hands the phone to his youngest son, Ibrahim.
When the 7-year-old learned last week that his sister wasn’t coming, he bolted out of the apartment and fell on his face. He still has a scrape above his lip.
Batulo reminds him to study and go to school. He smiles.
The family passes the phone around the room. Each of them lights up when they hear her voice.
Batulo tells her mother she doesn’t have enough money to buy textbooks for school.
Then suddenly, the connection goes dark.
Everyone in the apartment freezes, like parts of a machine that halt when a gear stops turning.
The distant sounds of car horns and children laughing filter through the open front door.
But inside the apartment, quiet sniffles are the only sounds.
Habibo knows the signal is often spotty in the refugee camp. But any time a call gets disconnected, she’s terrified.
She uses her bright yellow hijab to wipe away her tears, curls up on the couch and waits for her daughter to call back.
Looking for help
Batulo uses a plate to fan the flames beneath a pot on the dirt floor. The kitchen is hot and quickly fills with smoke.
She’s cooking fava beans and bread for dinner.
Living on her own, she might not have enough food. So she’s staying with this family of about a dozen people to share when resources are scarce.
“I don’t have a job. I don’t have anyone helping me,” she says. “I just come here to look for help.”
Batulo sleeps on a mattress with two other people, swatting away mosquitoes at night.
Thorny shrubs line the maze of paths between homes in this massive camp, where about 160,000 refugees live.
Calls to prayer waft through the air, which is thick with the smell of hot dust and burning trash.
Houses are made of mud, tin metal sheeting or wood layered with found items like tires or — in the case of Batulo’s current home — cut and flattened tin cans.
The toilet is a hole in the ground lined with corrugated tin metal sheeting.
Her 24-year-old brother, Ramadhan, also lives in Kakuma and digs toilets for a living. He’s also applied for refugee resettlement in the United States. But he’s waiting for immigration officials to give him the green light to travel.
For now, whenever he earns anything extra, he gives Batulo money to call their parents.
Batulo pleads for their help convincing authorities to let her join them. She’s heartbroken, but not hopeless.
In her spare time, she pores over the two books she has left: a copy of the Quran and an English textbook called “New Horizons.”
The phone rings.
Abdalla looks up. Is it Batulo?
He doesn’t recognize the number.
At night, he has trouble sleeping, thinking that the phone might ring.
When it does, his heart jumps. Could it be good news, or something unthinkable?
Whenever Batulo calls, he only talks with her briefly. He passes the phone quickly to others in the family because it’s too heartbreaking to hear the pain in her voice and not know how to help.
But this time, the voice on the other end of the line is speaking in English, not in Somali or the Bantu language they often speak at home.
“I was calling about the Ford Explorer you listed for sale on Craigslist.”
Abdalla and his son, Juma, look at each other quizzically. They don’t understand what the man is saying. They try to tell him why.
“Wrong number. Wrong number,” Juma says.
The man on the phone won’t take no for an answer.
“I’m calling about the Craigslist ad,” he says in a Southern twang.
Abdalla takes the phone and gives it a try.
“No English. Speak Somali,” he repeats.
The man on the other end seems puzzled, too.
“I don’t speak Somali,” he says. “I’m an American. This is America.”
On the run
In Kenya, they were known as wakimbizi.
The Swahili word has come to mean refugee. But literally translated, it can also have another meaning: “people on the run.”
For more than a decade, Abdalla and his family have been trying to stop running.
After Famo’s death, they fled their village for the Somali capital of Mogadishu, where Abdalla says he worked in construction and his children sold charcoal for a year so they could make enough money to flee the country.
From there, they made their way to Kenya, trekking on foot for days until they reached their destination.
They started out in Dadaab, a sprawling refugee camp near the Somali border. But the threat of violence still haunted them there as the population skyrocketed and assaults, kidnappings and killings grew with it.
Fueled by fears for their family’s safety, they moved across Kenya to Kakuma in 2009.
In 2012, they asked the UN for asylum, hoping an agency would help resettle them in a far-off land away from the dangers and uncertainties of life in refugee camps.
It took them years of applications, screenings and interviews to make it to the United States.
This was supposed to be the last stop in their search for peace.
But when a stranger knocks on the door of their Clarkston apartment, they are still too scared to answer.
A little escape
The family crowds into the living room, huddling around a cell phone that’s sitting atop a plug less than a foot above the floor.
The tiny Samsung screen is smaller than an index card, but it still pops out against the blank white wall.
After he gets a job, Abdalla hopes to save enough money to buy a TV for his family. But for now, this cell phone is one of their few escapes.
A dubbed Somali version of the 2007 movie “Shoot ‘Em Up” is playing.
The film stars Paul Giamatti and Clive Owen. The family got it about six months ago in Kenya. They’ve watched it almost every day since.
It’s the best movie they have, Abdalla says. In it, a drifter on the run saves an innocent child.
An unanswered question
Abdalla and his family sit alone in the last row of folding chairs in an empty auditorium.
They’ve arrived at the Clarkston Community Center an hour and a half early for a refugee advocacy meeting. They weren’t sure how long it would take to get here from their apartment, and they didn’t want to be late.
They’ve been waiting for more than a week to come to this meeting, ever since their English teacher told them about it in class. They hope they’ll have a chance to meet with officials who can help bring their family back together.
Abdalla smiles and nervously checks his phone. He’s waiting for another message from Batulo.
Two days ago, his daughter called with news they’d been praying for. The International Organization for Migration scheduled a new flight for her to come to the United States. Her arrival could be days away.
But to Abdalla and Habibo, it still seems like a dream that could disappear.
Before long, the room is packed with refugees searching for answers about the executive order.
A local resettlement official takes the stage to share a rundown of the latest developments. Federal courts have temporarily blocked the travel ban, she says.
“Right now refugees are still arriving, and they will still arrive as long as the courts decide that the president can’t stop refugee resettlement,” Frances McBrayer of Catholic Charities of Atlanta tells them.
It’s been days since the judges’ decision. But this is the first Abdalla and Habibo have heard of it.
A feeling of relief washes over Habibo. The courts have given her hope.
But no one can answer her most pressing question: Is Batulo really on the way, or could another decree leave her stuck in Kenya?
‘A younger man’
Abdalla holds his phone out in front of him and walks toward the window of the apartment, letting the afternoon sun hit his face.
He’s using an app on his phone to video chat with Batulo, who’s at a transit center in Nairobi waiting to begin her journey.
It’s been almost a month since the last time they talked face to face.
Batulo is more than 8,000 miles away now. But this is the closest she’s been in weeks.
She can close her eyes and picture her life in the United States.
She imagines sitting on a couch with her brothers and sisters, watching a movie.
She imagines finding a job and earning enough money to help her family.
She imagines the beautiful home where they will live.
But looking at her cell phone screen, Batulo is shocked. Her father is wearing a suit coat — something she never saw him do in the refugee camp. It changes the way she sees him.
“You look like a younger man,” she says.
The suit coat was a donation Abdalla picked up recently at the IRC. And it’s come in handy as he learns to handle winter weather.
“You’ll see,” he tells his daughter. “It’s so cold here, even you will wear a jacket.”
Lights in the sky
Abdalla clutches his cell phone as the van hurtles down the highway.
It’s been nearly 24 hours since the last message from his daughter flashed across the screen.
Batulo told him she was on a plane at the Nairobi airport. He hasn’t heard from her since.
Questions are racing through his mind.
Is she on the way? What if she gets lost? Is the nightmare they’ve been living really about to end?
Abdalla stares out the front windshield of the van shuttling him and his family to the Atlanta airport. He doesn’t look at the billboards or the exit signs or the other cars zooming past.
His eyes are focused on the night sky.
The white and red lights on passing planes swoop like twinkling birds overhead.
He hopes Batulo is inside one of them, looking down and watching him, too.
Racing to reunite
For minutes that feel like hours, Abdalla and his family stand like statues in a line, their eyes laser focused on the set of escalators at Atlanta’s airport where waves of arriving passengers emerge.
Businessmen with briefcases, pilots in uniforms and families wearing winter coats come into view.
But so far, there’s no sign of Batulo.
Suddenly, Abdalla yells and bolts across the waiting area, past a bright red security line on the floor that says “DO NOT CROSS.”
Guards shout. He doesn’t hear them. To Abdalla, only one thing matters now. He sees his daughter’s face and sprints toward the light.
He sweeps Batulo into his arms and carries her like a running back toward a wall on the other side of the lobby. The rest of the family follows, like a trail behind a comet as it speeds through the sky.
Batulo is still wearing a plastic pouch around her neck, stuffed with a plane ticket and an ID card from the International Organization for Migration.
“I am a refugee from SOMALIA,” the card says. “I may not speak English and need help to find my next flight.”
Batulo flew more than 10,000 miles to get here, from Kakuma to Nairobi to Dubai to New York to Atlanta. American Airlines Flight 1687 brought her to a strange city, yet she is home.
Abdalla and his family sit on the airport floor, pressed together like puzzle pieces. They cling to each other, sobbing.
A new home
Batulo beams as she sips a can of Sprite through a straw.
Her sisters tug at her arms, pulling her from room to room as they show her their new home.
The living room floor is covered with plates stacked high with food that the family cooked together for hours as they awaited her arrival.
They sit in a circle, devouring baked chicken, fried fish, french fries and ugali, a cornmeal dish they prepared especially for Batulo.
Abdalla sends a voice message to Ramadhan, his oldest son, who’s still living in Kakuma. Batulo made it safely, he says.
Ramadhan replies that he’s relieved. “God willing,” he says, “someday I will make it, too.”
As they eat, Batulo’s family peppers her with questions.
Is there a still a mango hanging from the tree outside the transit center in Nairobi?
How many countries did you fly through to get here?
When we left, you didn’t look like this. Why are you so thin?
Ibrahim brings out some of his favorite new toys. Together, they sing the ABCs. He falls asleep, curled up on the floor beside his sister.
Abdalla yawns, then quickly gulps down a cup of coffee.
Exhaustion is starting to set in, but this is a moment he doesn’t want to miss. He leans back against the couch and listens to his daughters’ voices.
The only sound he hears is laughter.