Junction woman speaks out about trials in trying to bring her Syrian husband into the country to be with his son

“Home is where the heart is.”

For Mahmoud Al Saloum, home is in Junction City, Kentucky, in a two-story yellow house on the corner, just before the railroad tracks.

Saloum has never been to Junction City, but this is where his wife, Tori Morris, lives. He’s never even been to Kentucky, but this is where his 19-month-old son, Aiden, was born — a son he wasn’t able to hold after birth. Saloum has a son he visits with daily via Skype, but has never been able to touch.

Saloum was born in Syria. Although he hasn’t lived there in many years, because he was born there he may never be able to get into the U.S. 

“I haven’t been very public about this, only friends and family knew … until someone urged me to go public on Facebook after the executive order was signed last week,” Morris says as she sits in her kitchen at a small breakfast table under a window, her coffee mug clutched in both hands and held against her chest. She loves coffee; it’s how she knew she was pregnant in 2015 — her beloved coffee made her sick. 

The executive order she refers to, of course, is what President Donald Trump signed just after getting into office, creating a temporary ban on travel to the U.S. for people from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Although Saloum is not currently living in any of the countries on the banned list (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia), because he is Syrian, there is even a greater chance he will never get to enter, even though he’s completed the round of intense vetting immigrants must go through — twice. 

Now, his process is starting over a third time — as if it never began.

   

Morris was raised in Junction City and Danville. A graduate of Boyle County, she went to college at Centre, planning for a degree in education. She ended up working for a quilt company in Danville. Then, through a friend, she met someone running a nonprofit in Ghana focusing on children’s literacy in rural villages. It was right up her alley.

She moved to Ghana and dove into the work and culture head-first. She helped the nonprofit host college groups who came to study and work, including a group from Centre.

Although the project didn’t head in the direction she thought it would, she knew she wanted to continue working for a cause. Soon, she ended up in the Ghana capital city of Accra in a position with Global Mamas, an international volunteer program that assists women in Africa on growing their businesses and becoming self-sufficient. Most of the women created handmade items they sold, so even her quilting talents were utilized.

“The night I met Mahmoud, I’d had a bad day,” Tori says and snickers. He was the new shawarma chef in a restaurant her friend managed. They met soon again and hit it off instantly. After going out once, they were together every day. They met in December 2013 and were married by March of ‘14.

Photo submitted Mahmoud Al Saloum, left, and Tori Morris are seen in a photo from their wedding day.

Photo submitted
Mahmoud Al Saloum, left, and Tori Morris are seen in a photo from their wedding day.

On a Monday, they decided to get married a week later.

“It was very last minute. We knew this is what we wanted to do,” Morris says, so a pub-owning friend let them have the nuptuals there. She wore a white cotton dress, they served cupcakes and friends came as witnesses. 

“When we got married, we had no intentions of leaving Ghana.”

Morris says they knew they’d want to come to the U.S. to visit her family, but she had been in that country for four years and Saloum for even longer — he’d been out of Syria a total of seven years. 

“We were both content to live outside of our countries (of origin) — of course him, for more obvious reasons,” she says of war-torn Syria. It would be dangerous at this point for him to even try to return home. 

Saloum had gotten to Ghana through several restaurant jobs — a lifelong passion for him. He grew up in them, working since he was 9. “He’s been a chef forever,” she says, looking up from her coffee mug with smiling eyes. 

It’s easy to tell Morris is smitten. 

“He’s an unbelievable chef.”

He’s been recruited several times into different countries to cook for various restaurants. 

Although living in Ghana wasn’t easy — Morris says we just don’t know how good we have it here in the states — it was still better than when Saloum worked in the Congo. There, he had to be escorted home from work by security guards. 

Bobbie Curd/bobbie.curd@amnews.com A photo of Morris and Saloum while the two were together in Ghana sits in Morris’ home.

Bobbie Curd/bobbie.curd@amnews.com
A photo of Morris and Saloum while the two were together in Ghana sits in Morris’ home.

It was after he returned to Ghana from the Congo that the Syrian war began. He knew he would probably never be able to return to his home country. Reports say anywhere from 300,000 to just under 500,000 have been killed in the war, so far. 

To make matters worse, “After the war started, people started treating him differently. Things are way different in Ghana — there’s no real recourse for anyone without money or power. They knew he couldn’t return home. They started paying him less, sometimes late, sometimes not at all,” Morris says.

Saloum worked several jobs at the same time, along with Morris’ job, to keep them afloat, but they were making it — just barely. Then she became pregnant, and that changed everything.

   

After we found out we were pregnant, we knew it wasn’t stable enough to raise a child there. We were eating rice every day. I knew if I had to have a C-section, it would be scary. We heard issues about getting U.S. citizenship for children born there. So we knew we wanted to come to the U.S.” 

The school where she worked in Ghana — she pauses when explaining how the kids lived — required a mile’s walk to a dirty pond just to get water. The country is still developing and she feels fortunate for the experience, but this wasn’t a place they wanted to raise a child. 

Morris was able to return home in April of 2015, when she was seven months pregnant. Instead of Saloum applying for permanent immigrant status, Morris wanted to him to apply for a visitor’s visa because they were supposed to be “easier” to get — the most important thing on her mind at this time was having the father of her child be there for the birth, then they could deal with the rest later. 

Weeks after Morris left, Saloum had his interview for a temporary visa in May. She says he was told by a consulate at the U.S. Embassy in Ghana he would never be approved. 

“They told him because he’s married, they didn’t think he would follow the law and return when the visa was up.”

Saloum was accompanied by a friend of Morris’ from Global Mamas, just in case — even though he speaks English, as well as Arabic and French, she wanted a safeguard and a witness to what he was told. 

“In Ghana, you pay two years advance on rent, so we explained to them that we had investments there and he definitely would return and start the process for his immigrant status. But he was still denied.” 

All Morris could do was forge on. She had baby Aiden without his father present. They instead focused on working through an attorney to file paperwork and obtain an immigrant visa. 

They provided all documentation that was requested, except a few original items they could only get copies of — the courts where those things were filed in Syria are gone, destroyed by war, and for his family to try and retrieve them could have put their lives in danger. But after much work and research, all of the documents were approved, and they thought they were on their way to being reunited. 

“The reason I want people to know our story — part of the argument is that we don’t do enough vetting. It’s not easy, not at all. There’s a lot of hurry up and then waiting that happens,” Morris says. “The refugee process is way harder. And we could’ve applied for refugee status, but why would we? They’ve saved those spots for people’s lives who are in danger. Mahmoud is not in danger in Ghana. He is just without us.”

Saloum filed in June of 2015, and his paperwork didn’t go through until April of 2016. They had to fill out documents proving everywhere they’d been, everywhere they’d worked, their employers’ phone numbers and addresses, family members’ information, their parents’ birth certificates … the list goes on and on. Literally hundreds of pages of documents and countless hours of research and requesting information, transcripts of text messages between them, of Skype records showing how often they connected … 

“The officer who interviewed him asked him questions mostly about his family.” She says nothing was found in any of the documents she was personally able to see that linked anyone in Saloum’s family to any questionable activity. 

“They told him he had to have a medical report, which included a physical, blood tests, immunizations. We got to that point, so we really thought, ‘this is going to happen.’ They told us the case would be going through to ‘the administrative processing’ and they would call us.” 

However, the medical reports and police background checks are only valid for six months. It was extensive, somewhat excruciating, and not cheap — costing several hundreds of dollars on top of an attorney’s fee. 

“We just waited and waited. And his Syrian passport was going to expire in January of this year, so we knew we were in a time crunch,” Morris says, explaining that the person filing for status must have a passport that’s valid 60 days after the date of travel if approved. 

“The last day he could have traveled was in Nov. of ’16.” 

Throughout this course, Saloum and Morris were both sending letters to the U.S. Embassy to make sure it understood why the timeline mattered so much. 

“We were caught up in what others explained to us is referred to as the ‘black coal’ of administrative processing. I was so naive. We had absolutely no communication from their side, other than ‘it’s still in processing.’ The Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, every imaginable agency was checking him out and vetting him, for eight months.” 

Saloum was finally called and told to bring in his medical and police reports on Dec. 7, which were now expired by two months due to their wait time and had to be started over again, and paid for again. 

“He told them about his passport,” Morris says, and it was on record that they’d asked several times to try and get in sooner due to the situation in Syria. “She told him to bring his passport in. So, that’s where we are now. Still waiting.” 

Then, the executive order was signed.

   

Morris has an incredibly upbeat disposition, even when talking about serious, painful things. But now, her eyes become pink and glassy with tears. 

“We’re not the exception; we’re the norm. I want people to know that. We’re not the only good family out there — we’re the rule. People want what’s best for their family. Every decision you make in your life, after you have a child, is to give them a better life — that’s all. We’re all the same no matter what country we come from. We just want our family together and to be safe.” 

Morris says in the current political climate, in the midst of all this divisiveness, she invites people to ask her questions. 

“If you’re afraid of my husband because of where he’s from, because of where God chose for him to be born, then ask me. We’re not going to come to any understanding as a nation — or as a world — unless we can sit down with each other and ask the hard questions. Absolutely no good will come of all of this in the long run if we continue the same rhetoric.” 

When Morris is down, when she reads comments on social medial from people saying angry, awful, hurtful things, she reminds herself: It’s much easier to be afraid of things you don’t know about. 

“If my family can be that face to these policies, if someone can listen, if how hard and long and heartbreaking it’s been for us will open someone’s eyes to how it’s not easy at all to get into this country, then maybe it can help.” 

She chokes a little, her voice wavering. 

“But make no mistake: This has been devastating. Truly devastating. My son has never met his father. And he’s starting to realize — he’ll reach for him and want to hold him when we’re Skyping. He starts crying sometimes when he sees his picture. He calls him Baba, kisses his picture. We just want to be a family and to be together.” 

Morris stops for a second, reaches under her glasses and wipes her eyes. 

Sure, she could return to Ghana to live with Aiden, she says. But the medical care there — it would just be irresponsible of them. She tells of a story of a friend’s 3-year-old who died in Ghana. He got sick, they took him to the hospital, and they gave him a shot — their answer to everything there, she says. He died the next day. So many people have the luxury of not knowing what that’s like, she says. 

“No child should have to be without their parent because of a piece of paper.”

   

Former state representative, now state auditor, Mike Harmon says although it may not be the current administration that fully caused what’s going on, recent events “just heighten the awareness.” 

Harmon is Morris’ stepfather, but calls her “my daughter.” 

“Trump has only been president for what, 12, 13 days. It’s more of a systemic problem than a problem for the presidency. The thing a lot of people don’t know, especially in Tori’s situation, a lot of people mesh these things in together with the refugee situation. Her situation is simply going through the normal immigrant procedures to come here. He’s not a refugee, so it’s a little bit different.” 

A former Republican state representative for 13 years before becoming auditor, Harmon says he has a line he uses: “The line I’ve had is if they vet the refugees as much as they’ve vetted ‘Ma’ —  Tori’s husband—  I think we’ll be OK.” 

Harmon says people who are not clued-in to the vetting process for immigrants have a certain reaction when he tells them all his step-daughter has been through. 

“I see it time and time again amongst my colleagues and friends. People’s jaws drop when I tell them my daughter is married to this person, has a baby with him and they can’t get him over here. People think that if you’re married to someone in America, they get a free pass. That’s simply not how it happens,” Harmon says. “Initial research that I did indicated that it was going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible because of where he’s from. Tori wanted him desperately to be here for the birth of their child, and I don’t blame her, so we went through that process for the visitor’s visa. Not quite as in-depth, but the other process was more so on every single level.” 

Bobbie Curd/bobbie.curd@amnews.com

Bobbie Curd/bobbie.curd@amnews.com

Harmon recounts what he calls the sad details of what happened to Saloum in Ghana, going through tests and procedures and background searches twice, and how now — with the most recent events — he will have to start completely over.  

“We assisted in helping him obtain those, and it was very expensive over there. But we were wanting to help her out and get him here. They drug their feet in Ghana with that process so long that everything expired. It’s heartbreaking. It’s basically my grandchild, growing up without his dad. My heart breaks for Tori, too.” 

As far as his thoughts on immigration, he says he’s not sure this experience has “changed his viewpoint.” 

“I’ve always been one of those individuals to listen to all the facts, each issue is more complex than what you see. Sad thing is you have one side that is maybe — well, I won’t say ‘overly concerned,’ but they take it to one extreme, and the other side takes it to the other extreme. I think it’s important to defend our country and our citizens, but a lot of people have misconceptions of the actual process. From that standpoint, yes — it enlightened me on exactly just how hard it is to get into this country. I mean, we are a country of immigrants. I have no qualms with it. I tell people, I’m an American mutt — I have everything from Irish to German to Cherokee in me.”

   

Donna Fegenbush, 66, of Danville, is a close family friend with Morris and her folks. Fegenbush taught high school at Mercer County, and her retired husband was a lifelong pastor who came to Junction City First Baptist in 2001, when she became friends with Morris’ brood. 

“Because of my interest in missions for a long time — we’ve been involved in several missions to other countries and helping — this situation has been very close to my heart,” she says. “Every time I see that sweet little boy, I just want to hug him and his mamma so tight, it’d probably make them both gasp for air.” 

Fegenbush says she already had her own thoughts on the vetting process before she became an emotional support system for Morris and her family. 

“Before all these new immigration issues happened, I was already distressed that we weren’t going to let in these cultures because of fear. I have a hard time as a Christian with church experiences, we pray for those missionaries all of the time, they serve in countries where we can’t even publish their names because of danger. I have a hard time, if you’re willing to pray for them, but yet you don’t want one to live next door to you,” Fegenbush says. “It really didn’t change my mind any when this happened to Tori and her family, because I was already there.” 

With so much to give, so much fortune to share in the U.S., Fegenbush says she can’t wrap her head around the new immigration policy. 

“I just don’t understand it. What I’m trying to say is that I already know how extensive the vetting process is. I personally know people who it took six or seven years to even get them here. I’m not sure how no one else understood this before, and why they thought we needed a ban. I guess the educator in me feels like I failed. People make so many assumptions. And I hope her situation is not used in any political way. My husband and I, we are Christians, but we believe in separation of church and state, we vote on the issues, not the party. I don’t want this turned political because our country is already so divided.” 

Fegenbush talks of others she knows who’ve spent all of their money — money they didn’t have to begin with — to get here. “And now they won’t. Like Tori’s husband, or anyone who leaves Syria at a certain age, before they are forced to be in the army, then not only can you not go back home now due to the war, but just because you were born in Syria — no matter how far into the vetting process you’ve gotten, it puts them all back to square one, as if they’d never started. And if you did go back home, you’d have a target on your back.”

Fegenbush says she’s proud of Morris for telling her story, and she knows it’s been rough on her and her family. 

“It’s nice to have a local face attached to an issue like this — an issue that we, as a nation, are dealing with. It really makes all the difference in the world when someone you know is affected by a global problem.”