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Editor's note: This story was first published on Feb. 1, 2017 and updated on April 10, 2017. Mahmoud is home!
Read to the bottom for the latest update.
After going through two years of legal process for her Syrian-born husband to reunite with his son, one American mom fears that recent immigration restrictions will keep their family apart even longer.
When Tori Morris and Mahmoud Sloum met in Ghana, West Africa, in December 2013, the couple quickly fell in love. Morris, an American, and Sloum, a Syrian, married three months later, and made a life for themselves in Accra, Ghana’s capital.
The newlyweds passed their days working — Morris was in Ghana helping a non-profit organization called Global Mamas and Sloum was working as a chef — entertaining friends, watching movies together and going to the beach.
“We were like the mom and dad of our group,” Morris recalled. “It’s our nature to be the home that our friends come to.”
When Morris learned she was pregnant in September 2014, they started making arrangements to move back to the U.S. — to Morris’ home state of Kentucky.
“With our son on the way, there were several reasons we wanted to leave Ghana — one being health care, one being education, one being overall stability — so we needed to be somewhere else,” Morris told TODAY Parents.
Morris returned to the U.S. in April 2015, immediately contacting an immigration lawyer and filing paperwork for Sloum’s spousal visa. Today — nearly two years later — the couple is still not together, and Sloum, who remains in Ghana, has a 19-month-old son, Aiden, whom he has never met.
“I had no idea this was the process. I was completely naive as to what would happen,” said Morris. “I think you always assume, especially in the case of a husband and wife, that you get married and they come, too.”
Morris says they initially were told within six to nine months, Sloum would be reunited with her and their son. Instead, they have spent months trying to get Sloum into the U.S., sending in documents ranging from birth certificates to text message transcripts, completing all necessary paperwork and waiting.
And now, with President Donald Trump's executive order, which bans the immigration of people from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Syria, to the U.S. for 90 days, the couple feels they have again hit a wall.
“I didn't know any country will keep a man from his family,” Sloum told TODAY in an email. “Whenever I see my wife is hurting I wish I can take it for myself. The moment your child is born is one of the best gifts from God. I can never get that moment back. I have this beautiful gift — our son — but I can't hold him in my arms.”
Morris says she and her husband applied for a visitor’s visa, so he could be present for Aiden’s birth. Their request was denied (during President Obama's term in office).
“He was told ‘no,’ and that basically because he’s married to a U.S. citizen — he would never be granted a visitor’s visa, even though we made it clear he only wanted to come for the birth of his child,” said Morris, explaining that they were told by government employees that spouses granted a visitor’s visa often remain in the country illegally.
Morris’ parents were with her at her son’s birth in June 2015. The Kentucky mom says while their support helped her greatly, it wasn’t the same as having her husband by her side.
“It was scary for both of us,” Morris told TODAY through tears. “I wanted him there to hold my hand.”
“To be married, and have your husband that is so excited to become a father, and to know that a piece of paper is why he can’t be there to experience the birth of his child — that’s really hard,” Morris continued.
Morris and Sloum are among many families impacted by the halt in immigration. One pregnant Missouri woman is facing being without her Iraqi husband who was set to travel to the U.S. for their baby's birth. Iraq is one of the countries from which the president’s order suspends arrivals. In another case, an Iranian green card holder who married an American and has lived in Chicago for 10 years is currently in Iran with the couple's young daughter, an American citizen. They had been there visiting family and are now unable to return due to the ban.
Kim Anderson is president of American Families United (AFU,) an organization that helps U.S. citizens who marry immigrants navigate immigration law.
“U.S. citizens who marry immigrants often find themselves caught by the confusions and contradictions of immigration law,” said Anderson, who calls U.S. citizen spouses “the forgotten constituency” in the immigration debate.
Paul Donnelly is a consultant for AFU and says the U.S. census counts 4.1 million Americans who are married to immigrants.
“Nobody counts how many have had problems with immigration law, but our best count is at least 300,000 citizens are married to people who have some problem with immigration law that causes them to face the choice of being exiled, or outlawed — not unlike Tori Morris,” said Donnelly.
Donnelly explains that spouses, kids and parents of U.S. citizens are what's known as "immediate relatives" and they are the highest priority for legal immigration to the U.S.
“People think (immigrants) aren’t vetted — they are,” said Morris. “Your entire life is just opened up on the table for strangers to see. We’ve had to give details of our marriage and tell about when we got pregnant — it’s these intimate details of your life and your marriage that you just have to tell people. You have to prove that this person you chose as your husband is good enough.”
Still, with an uncertain future and invasive measures, Morris says she and Sloum, who Aiden calls "Baba," will not give up hope, because of their son.
“It’s hard. From the time Aiden was little, he’s always known his Baba’s voice because we Skype daily,” said Morris. “Sometimes we’ll be Skyping and he’ll reach his arms out and want Baba to hold him. He doesn’t understand why he can see his face, but can’t touch him.”
“I hope he knows I am far from him because I love him so much,” said Sloum. “I want him to know I do this so he has an easier life than mine… we are just people trying to make a good life for our family.”
“We just want our son to live a happy, safe life,” Morris agreed. “What I hope everyone would remember about my family — especially if they’re a parent — is that every decision you make as a parent is for your children… to give your child safety and full health care and an education. That’s all that we’re trying to do.”
After hearing their story, Anderson of American Families United hopes to help Morris and Sloum.
“AFU is ready to go with Tori Morris to speak with her Senators — Rand Paul and especially Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — to fix this god-awful, un-American mess,” Anderson told TODAY.
Morris says she dreams of the day when she and her son meet Sloum at the airport to welcome him home, and imagines what life will be like when they sit down to dinner together every night as a family.
“I’ll finally have my life back. I feel like when I left him in Ghana, someone just hit pause,” Morris explained. “Since that day, we’re still living — and we have this beautiful little boy and we’re so thankful — but so much of our life has just stopped because how do you move on? How do you create a life without your spouse? It’s like we’re all just holding on until we can hit play again.”
And now, with an immigration ban leaving the future uncertain, Morris wonders when she will be able to carry on with her life.
“I hope that seeing our family’s story makes this entire situation more relatable to people — that’s my goal,” said Morris. “As much as we miss each other, as much as our hearts are broken — if I took my son to Ghana to live and anything happened to him, I could never forgive myself because I had another option — as a U.S. citizen I had that privilege.”
Update: On April 4, 2017, two years after his wife left their home in Ghana to return to the U.S. and to months after TODAY.com first reported on their plight, Syrian-born Sloum arrived in Kentucky, where he was reunited with his wife and met his nearly 2-year-old son, Aiden, for the first time.
Morris says Sloum was able to renew his passport after a month of weekly appointments to review paperwork, then submitted further documentation to the U.S. embassy in Ghana.
"We were so discouraged even then," said Morris. "We thought it would be months before we heard anything."
Surprisingly, Sloum received a call days later saying he could come in and pick up his visa.
"We aren't sure exactly what happened, but we are very grateful," said Morris. "He picked it up and we got him on the first flight out of Ghana."
Sloum arrived in the U.S. last week, where he had a tearful reunion with his wife and son.
Morris says she and her husband are focused on enjoying their newfound time together as a family. Sloum plans to pursue his career as a chef, and the couple have dreams of opening a food truck in the future.
"When I saw him come down the escalator at the airport, I was in complete disbelief," said Morris. "I don't think there are words to describe what we felt, but I finally felt at peace. The weight of the past two years just left me."