A Life in Limbo, Kept Buoyant by Hope
Sami Souriel with Mervat Wahba at CIANA after receiving news about Wahba's green card. Astoria, NY. Photo: Henry Cornejo
When it came time to wait for her green card, Mervat Wahba could deal with her life being on hold, as difficult as that was. The worst part of it all was that her daughter was afraid.
The Egyptian immigrant and her nine year old daughter, Miriam, had joined her husband, a religious asylee, in 2015 after four years of separation. Wahba immediately applied for a green card, but one year of waiting turned to three and Miriam worried about what would happen if the family had to return to Egypt.
Back home, friends and family spoke of continued persecutions against Christians.
“Miriam was afraid of even going to church that somebody might stop her, beat her up, because in Egypt, as a Christian, that could happen,” Wahba says. “Here we feel we can go to church and we can be free.”
Her fears were not unfounded. Persecution of Christians in Egypt is at an unprecedented high, with several attacks on churches in the past year. A week after the end of Ramadan, despite a speech by Egyptian President Abdul Fatah al-Sisi encouraging tolerance toward Christians, a mob destroyed cars and property in the town of Samalot during the celebration of a Coptic Christian woman’s conversion to Islam, and in an unrelated incident in the village of Ishnien Al Nasara three Coptic homes were destroyed due to rumors on Facebook that Copts had “insulted religion.”
These attacks are nothing new, says Sara Salama, president of Coptic Voice. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring in 2011, the country has seen increased violence against Christians, despite hopes that the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak would lead to a society where they would be seen as equal citizens.
In the U.S., Wahba and her family wanted to find a way to stay in the country. When nothing was happening with her papers, Wahba called on CIANA to help. Lawyers and case managers from the organization accompanied her to visits to former Congressman Joe Crowley to see if there was a way forward. When that failed to produce a result, the staff at CIANA continued to translate and interpret documents from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) –as well as field countless calls to help Wahba put together a new packet for the agency when her documents had to be resubmitted.
In fall 2018, facing an increased cost of living in New York and having to survive on one income, as Wahba could not legally work, the family wanted to move to Virginia. They were held up because Wahba’s and her daughter’s green cards were still in progress, and under the increasingly hostile climate under the Trump administration, Wahba feared being deported.
Emira Habiby Browne, CIANA’s founder and CEO, says she has never seen a case go on for so long. Habiby Browne has been working with immigrants for over 25 years and founded CIANA in 2006 in response to increased persecution against the Arab and South Asian communities after 9/11.
“At some point we thought USCIS had lost the file,” she says. “It was just very strange, long, complicated… no one really understood the issue.”
Dinneen Cato, CIANA’s staff lawyer, also says that there was no reason for the processing to take so long, except perhaps lost files.
“I’ve heard many stories about USCIS losing files and it’s not uncommon for them to do so,” Cato says. “It’s kind of understandable. USCIS is a massive government organization with a large workload. With the current administration’s increased demands and new obstacles in the immigration process as a whole, the agency is stretched, which causes applications to get lost and increases processing times.”
According to a policy brief from the American Immigration Lawyers Association, USCIS processing times have reached “crisis levels” under the current administration, with overall average case processing time up by 46 percent from fiscal year 2017 to 2019 and by 91 percent since fiscal year 2014. The agency has a net backlog of over 2.3 million cases since the end of fiscal year 2017. Meanwhile the agency says it has increased its workforce by 38%.
Case manager Kimberly Iboy (L) and case management intern Nima Omar (far R), helped Wahba through the case. Astoria, NY. Photo: Henry Cornejo
In May 2019, after a visit to Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s offices with CIANA case manager Kimberly Iboy, Wahba and her daughter finally received their long-awaited green cards. She and her husband, Sami Souriel, thank CIANA for the success.
“CIANA kept calling and pushing,” Souriel says, “and if it hadn’t been for that, we’d probably still be nowhere.”
Wahba says that CIANA made sure that they knew what was happening every step of the way and helped them even beyond the green card process with help with medical paperwork and more.
“I can’t find enough words to thank everyone at CIANA,” she says. “I didn’t know the language, so they made extra effort to explain everything and keep me informed. For me, this was wonderful because I didn’t have to go through as much trouble.”
The couple hopes that when their daughter is old enough to understand everything CIANA did for them that she will give back by helping the organization.