Along with his important documents, Babikir Harane, 28, keeps a handful of 4-by-6-inch glossy photos in his trusty backpack. He treasures them. One depicts his wife, Maimouna, 24. Harane had to leave her behind in a refugee camp in the African nation of Chad in 2015 when he, his five siblings and their mother resettled in the United States.
Another photo shows Maimouna holding Moubarak, the couple’s 10-month-old son. Harane has never met his little boy. The child was born in March, six months after Harane landed in Roanoke. Harane clings to a hope that one day they’ll be together.
“These are the important pictures,” Harane explained, fanning them across a table. “Sometimes when I miss them, I get them out.”
Harane and I met Monday night in a fast-food restaurant along Hershberger Road shortly after he finished his English as a second language class at William Fleming High School.
Until Saturday, when President Donald Trump banned all immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority nations, Harane expected to see Maimouna and Moubarak soon. In January, she began the final series of interviews in a years-long process toward resettlement.
But like Harane, she’s a citizen of Sudan, one of the countries covered by the ban. Under that edict, no Sudanese refugees may be admitted to America for at least the next 120 days. Who knows what will happen thereafter?
And that’s created the dark cloud of uncertainty Harane lives with now. Will he ever meet his son? Will he ever hold his wife in his arms again? At this point they don’t have answers to those questions.
“I called her [Sunday],” Harane said. “She said this news is very sad for her.”
Harane’s story is one few Americans could imagine. Though his English is far from perfect, he outlined the nightmarish tale as best he could. You could almost sum it up with a handful of terms.
One is “Darfur,” the crisis-torn western Sudanese region where Harane grew up on a livestock farm in a rural village. Another is “genocide.” Armed and marauding raiders practiced that atrocity against Harane’s community and others.
The United Nations estimates that more than 300,000 Sudanese have died in the conflict, which began in 2003. Another 1.8 million have fled. In Harane’s village, the raiders showed up in 2004.
“They have horses, and guns, and they attacked our areas and killed the people,” he told me. “They will attack in the morning, in the evening — you don’t know when.” It’s still happening, he added. As he explained it, the root of the conflict is ethnic: Sudan has Arabs and Africans — and the Arabs want to rid the country of Africans.
A third term is “flee.” That’s what Harane, then 15, and his family did when the raiders came and began firing their guns that day in 2004. He, his five siblings and their mother ran and hid in nearby woods. Eventually, they made it across the border to Chad. The family never heard from Harane’s father again. They believe he’s dead.
A fourth term is “refugee camp.” That’s where the family landed, in a shantytown of 29,000. They lived there for 11 years on meager rations of food and water doled out by the United Nations. It’s one of a dozen refugee camps in Chad in which at least 262,000 Sudanese survive. It’s where Harane graduated from high school and became a youth leader and teacher.
The fifth term is “case number.” Getting one means you’ll be leaving the camp soon. Harane’s family finally got a case number in May 2015 after first applying for resettlement in 2010. In the time between were five long years of grueling interviews conducted by an array of international and American organizations and agencies.
Those include the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; the International Organization for Migration; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; and Commonwealth Catholic Charities, which helps with many resettlements in Virginia.
Harane and Maimouna met in the refugee camp as children and grew up together. More than a year before his family got its case number, the couple’s romance blossomed and Harane proposed. They became engaged early in 2014, and married in the camp’s mosque in June 2015, just a month after his family learned they would be leaving.
Maimouna lives with her mother, brother, grandfather and an aunt, who has three children. Maimouna’s family was far behind Harane’s in the resettlement process. She became pregnant soon after their wedding. That made it even harder for Harane to leave the camp when the time came. But Maimouna insisted he go.
“I got married in June, then I traveled in September,” he said. “We had only three months.”
When the travel-day arrived, Harane, his mother, three brothers and a sister rode in cars to the nearest city in Chad, where they began a 12-hour bus ride to N’Djamena, the nation’s capital. There, they boarded a plane and flew to Istanbul, Turkey, then to New York City, where they changed planes and flew to Roanoke.
When they arrived Sept. 30, 2015, a caseworker for Commonwealth Catholic Charities met them at Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport and drove them to their apartment in northwest Roanoke. (Harane’s eldest brother and his family, a wife and child, were already here.)
The family since has worked to cover their resettlement costs. Those funds were advanced; now they write monthly checks to repay the loans. Harane and three of his brothers work full time in a furniture factory, assembling sofas. The fourth brother works another job. And Harane spends five hours a week in night classes, honing his English.
Deidre Hand of Blacksburg was one of his ESL teachers.
“He and his brothers brought such energy and positivity to our class, which [until they showed up] was kind of quiet,” she said. At each class, “they would walk in and smile so big and greet everyone, shake their hands. They’re very warm people.”
Harane, Hand added, “is hardworking and persistent.” He never missed one of her twice-weekly classes.
“You can tell he’s really intelligent. He’s already learned so much,” Hand said. “It’s a long road, where he wants to go, to get into a university. You’re back to square one when you arrive in the U.S.”
Until recently, Harane was the family’s only driver. He’s still its best English speaker, and those qualities have made him the family’s de facto leader. “He feels responsible for all these people — his family here, and his family [back in Chad],” Hand told me.
“He and his family have been through so much. And there’s so many just like them in Africa,” Hand said. Only about 1 percent of refugees end up getting approved for resettlement, she said.
Harane told me he’s not angry about the immigration ban or at Trump for implementing it.
“Every leader has his job,” he said. It’s perfectly understandable the president would work to keep a nation safe.
But if there’s a danger to America from the Sudanese, he said, it’s posed by the same people who drove Harane’s and Maimouna’s families out of their homeland. The danger isn’t from the refugees, Harane said.
“I’m sure if the president visited the Chad camps and saw the life there, how we were living, how we were eating, how we were surviving,” he would understand, Harane said.
And he dearly wishes the ban hadn’t been enacted only days after Maimouna’s family received their resettlement case number. That had sent his hopes soaring for an impending reunification. The ban has dashed them.
“I love America,” Harane said. “I’m glad to be in the United States. But I’m still so sad, because my wife is over there. I feel like I’m alone sometimes, because I want to see my wife and son and share our life together.”