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A family was set to be reunited after nearly four years apart. Then coronavirus struck.

Tuesday June 9, 2020

Nimco, who is 3 years old, has been separated from her family since infancy.

(CNN)More than three years ago, Deman Aman Abshir, a Somali national, faced an impossible choice: leave behind her newborn daughter to come to the United States or watch as her husband's health worsened.

Abshir and her husband, fleeing deteriorating conditions in Somalia, worried that any delay in leaving could hinder their chances to resettle in the US and get medical treatment, she said. So they left.

Finally, after years of waiting, her 3-year-old daughter, Nimco, was prepared to come to the US, after clearing most screenings, in March, but her flight had not been booked yet. Then came the coronavirus pandemic.

"First, I was super excited. I can't wait to see her and meet my little girl. When the pandemic broke out, there's nothing else I could do," Abshir said in an interview with CNN. "I had to be patient."

Abshir's family is one of many families who continue to stay separated, with no date on when refugee admissions to the US will resume, after the coronavirus pandemic halted refugee resettlement around the world.

As a result, the United States is on pace to admit the lowest number of refugees on record this fiscal year since the program was conceived in 1980 -- likely hovering around 8,000 refugee arrivals, compared to 30,000 admissions last year and tens of thousands more in previous years.

Refugee arrivals to the US were suspended as of March 19, with the exception of certain emergency cases, a State Department spokesperson told CNN.

No date has been provided on when admissions will resume. The spokesperson said State "will seek to resume refugee arrivals when it is safe and logistically feasible to do so, subject to any travel restrictions in place at that time."

But refugee admissions to the US had already been on the decline before the virus paralyzed the world. Nimco's case had been complicated by some of the Trump administration's policies, like the travel ban, according to the attorney managing the case, Angie Plummer.

Despite recently being approved to come to the US, Nimco has had to wait in a refugee camp in Ethiopia with relatives, leaving the family to wrestle with the coronavirus pandemic countries apart.

'I didn't know her health and situation'

In 2011, amid an ongoing civil war in the country, Abshir decided to leave Somalia and fled to a refugee camp in Ethiopia.

"Life was hard and there was a lot of struggle," she said.

Over the years, the health of Abshir's husband, Mohamed Hussen Ibrahim, who was being treated for a neurologic condition that prevented him from walking and doing other daily activities, started to worsen. In late 2016, more than a year after their case had been approved, the couple was ready to depart to the United States.

"Three different situations happened at the same time: my husband's situation got worse; we had our newborn; we had the process approved," Abshir recalled. "It was 2016 so Trump was getting elected, so we knew if we had to delay, the opportunity would never come so we had to choose sacrifice to be with our child or leave for the US with my husband to get better treatment."

Abshir's four-month-old daughter had not been part of the original case, therefore adding her would delay their departure and postpone obtaining medical treatment for her husband. Abshir called the decision to leave Nimco behind "painful," recounting the difficulty she had in keeping jobs in the US because she was overwhelmed with emotions.

Since then, Plummer has tried to get Nimco's case approved to reunite with the family. The nearly four-year uphill battle appeared to be reaching a conclusion when the coronavirus pandemic shut down arrivals.

Abshir said she has been able to communicate with her daughter in Ethiopia by phone, but knowing the extent of the situation at the camp amid the pandemic has been difficult. "It was hard. They were struggling there, I was struggling here. I didn't know her health and situation," Abshir said.

Abshir, whose husband also lost his job because of the pandemic, has remained hopeful, but extended separations often weigh on families.

"I see these cases and it's joyful when a child reunites with a parent and it's all wonderful superficially but you can't get that time back. The child doesn't know their parents ... just the psychological impact to the family for as long as the delay continues," Plummer said.

Refugee admissions reach record lows under Trump

In March, the International Organization for Migration, which is in charge of booking refugees on their travel, and the UN refugee agency announced a temporary suspension of resettlement travel. The agencies shared concerns in a statement, saying international travel "could increase the exposure of refugees to the virus."

Arrivals to the US were already off to a slow start when the pandemic put a pin in admissions around the world.

The President ultimately decides how many refugees can be admitted in a fiscal year and over the course of Trump's presidency, the administration has set consistently low refugee ceilings.

Historically, the number of admissions has fluctuated according to world events, though they've generally been high. From fiscal years 1990 to 1995, for example, many refugees arriving to the US were from the former Soviet Union, according to the Pew Research Center. After 9/11, admissions briefly dropped off to around 27,100 in 2002.

But in the last few years of the Obama presidency, the administration moved toward increasingly high caps, up to 110,000 in fiscal year 2017 amid the Syrian crisis.

In comparison, Trump set a ceiling of 18,000 for the 2020 fiscal year, down from 30,000 the previous year. So far this fiscal year, which starts in October, 7,544 refugees have been admitted to the United States as of May 31, according to the Refugee Processing Center.

Low admissions to the US since Trump took office shouldn't solely be attributed to the moratorium, said Barbara Strack, former Chief of the Refugee Affairs Division at US Citizenship and Immigration Services, noting the year-by-year decline of the refugee cap.

"The refugee numbers are low this year by purpose and design. Certainly that's been exacerbated by Covid. This administration is hostile to refugee admissions," she said.

"The US abdicating its leadership role in the world ... of being a beacon of hope in the world. We basically wadded it up in a ball and threw it in the trash. From a refugee perspective and from a US leadership and values perspective, the retreat is incalculable," Strack added.

Danielle Grigsby, interim director of Refugee Council USA, a coalition of 29 nongovernmental agencies focused on refugee protection, discussions are ongoing among organizations to try to chart a path forward.

"The broader community is engaging with public health experts and disease specialists to figure out a way to continue resettlement, to uphold our commitment to protection in the midst of a pandemic and do it in a way that keeps people safe," she said.

In the meantime, families, like Abshir's will have to continue to wait for the arrival of loved ones.

"I pray, god willing, that no one goes through this struggle, that everyone unites with their loved one," Abshir said.


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