He traveled to Turkey to bring his wife home. Then the US government went silent on them

Holed up in an Airbnb in Turkey with expired visas, an Oakland man and his wife long for the United States to tell them when, at last, they can come home.

Saleh Khalaf, 28, and Fatimah al-Adhmawee, 23, of southern Iraq, have waited since 2019 for the US State Department to process the wife’s visa application so she can join her husband in California. The couple’s attorney said immigration officials gave them the impression last summer that their wait was over, provided they could travel to the US Embassy in the massive Turkish capital of Ankara.

They arrived four months ago and were told in September that al-Adhmawee would be imminently approved for an immigrant visa granting her permanent residency, but US officials then inexplicably went silent, documents and correspondence shared with The Chronicle show.

The husband, whose story inspired many when as a boy he survived catastrophic injuries from an explosion during the Iraq War, has lived in Oakland since 2003 when a local hospital helped save him. His wife wants to help take care of him as he lives with lingering health troubles. In Turkey, Khalaf doesn’t have access to badly needed medications and fears he could have a devastating seizure or a stroke.

“I just came to get my wife so we can start our life,” Khalaf said in a phone interview Monday, worrying aloud about what would happen if he fell ill. “I don’t know where I would go.”

Saleh Khalaf, 28, and Fatima Al-Adhmawee, 23, have been married since 2017 — and are trying to close the distance between them.  Khalaf lives in Oakland and has experienced extreme delays while trying to get his wife, who lives in Iraq, a visa.  They're now stuck in limbo in Turkey, waiting for an overdue response from the US

Saleh Khalaf, 28, and Fatima Al-Adhmawee, 23, have been married since 2017 — and are trying to close the distance between them. Khalaf lives in Oakland and has experienced extreme delays while trying to get his wife, who lives in Iraq, a visa. They’re now stuck in limbo in Turkey, waiting for an overdue response from the US

Courtesy Saleh Khalaf

The couple’s plight shows the lengths to which even married couples must go to be together while struggling to navigate the US’s notoriously clogged immigration pipelines.

Backlogs have only grown worse amid a worldwide bottleneck of visa applications that accumulated after the US halted most visa processing in March 2020 as COVID took hold in the country. Iraqis face another hurdle: They must travel to Turkey for visa appointments as the US embassy in Baghdad has been closed since a Dec. 31, 2019, attack.

Khalaf and his wife are sharing an AirBnb in Ankara, but the expiration of their Turkish visas are causing the couple to fear they could be deported any day — him to the US, her to Iraq.

The State Department didn’t respond to a message seeking comment.

The stalled progress in al-Adhmawee’s case is another challenge in their relationship, which has always been complicated by distance. It’s also another trial in a long line of them for the husband.

Survival and love

In 2003, 9-year-old Saleh missed months of school because Sunni militarism were holed up in his school. Allied forces drove them out after seven months. US military swept the area for explosives before assuring Iraqis it was safe to return.

Walking home from the first day of resumed classes, the boy, who loved Legos and drawing, spied a small tan ball in a trench and reached for it. It was a piece of a cluster bomb.

The sphere exploded in Salah’s hands, blowing off the left and nearly all of the right while tearing his stomach apart.

His father Raheem, summoned by screaming, found Saleh in the dirt. Blood poured from his eyes. A piece of shrapnel had ripped through the boy’s left eye and lodged in his brain.

A US Air Force doctor helped get Saleh airlifted to the Bay Area where his story of survival — and the 20 surgeries it took — was told in a 2004 series in The Chronicle and garnered attention from around the world.

His parents and most of his siblings ended up in Oakland with him. They stayed and made a life, which only improved when, around the time he graduated from Oakland International High School in 2015, he met al-Adhmawee.

They first heard about one another through family friends. Khalaf’s mother, Hadia, told him about the young woman in Iraq. He said he liked the idea of ​​getting to know a woman from Iraq — one from his hometown of Shatrah no less — because it seemed like she’d have an easier time understanding him.

He was right. They fell in love in long text message threads and video chats.

After two years, in 2017, Khalaf traveled with his mother to meet al-Adhmawee in person.

He was nervous.

“For me talking to her on the phone was exciting enough,” he remembered. Being together felt even better than talking about being together.

When Khalaf left Iraq, he was a married man. He had to leave without his wife.

Years waiting, then nothing

After years, the couple received good news in August 2021, their lawyer said: The State Department agreed to expedite al-Adhmawee’s case, because his wife is needed in California to help take care of him.

But embassy officials declined to schedule an immigration appointment until she arrived in Turkey, according to the couple’s attorney, Amria Ahmed of San Francisco’s Arab Resource and Organizing Center. It took months of false starts and trips to bureaucratic offices before she finally obtained a Turkish visa and arrived there this June. Khalaf arrived the same month.

In Ankara, the couple learned the next available appointment was three months away. Meanwhile, they took walks and worried. They felt like outcasts because they didn’t speak Turkish.

Khalaf ran out of one medicine, then another. He imagined a stroke or seizure striking him in his sleep. It’s happened before. He said his doctors still aren’t sure what causes the strokes or seizures, which makes them more terrifying.

Al-Adhmawee’s visa interview on Sept. 13 gave the couple hope. But they’ve heard nothing since, and a government website shows the application status as “refused.”

Ahmed said she’s seen “refused” used in both cases that were refused and in cases where more documentation is required. She said repeated attempts to get clarity from US officials have failed.

Her emails receive automated replies.

So far the only ears the couple have been able to bend are those of Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the Oakland Democrat. Ahmed said she reached out to Lee’s office and has been told a staffer is looking into the situation.

The couple fears they’re running out of time.

If the wife is deported back to Iraq, the husband to the US, when might they finally be together?

“It’s driving me crazy. When is it going to be finished?” the husband said.

They’ve retreated into their Airbnb in Ankara where they hope the next knock at the door won’t tear them apart again.

Joshua Sharpe is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @joshuawsharpe

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