Istanbul, Turkey – American Kathryn Balleh sang the country classic Jolene at a rooftop bar in Istanbul, while her Syrian husband Bashar Balleh strummed the guitar.
She closed her eyes as she hummed the tune about a woman worried that Jolene may steal the man she cares for.
The song transferred Kathryn to another place.
“I’m begging you, please don’t take my man,” she sang, a hint of melancholy in her voice.
Although Kathryn wasn’t worried about another person swooping and stealing Bashar’s heart, the song resonated in a different way.
The ban put Kathryn and Bashar’s plans for moving to the US on hold, instantly thrusting them into the process of navigating the US immigration system, in hopes of obtaining a waiver for Bashar. But according to immigration lawyers and other advocates, the process remains long, unclear and uncertain.
‘No one wants to hire me because I’m Syrian’
Kathryn and Bashar met at a jam session two months before the election of US President Donald Trump.
Bashar, a self-taught musician, joined the band, Country for Syria, which Kathryn’s roommate started. Their love was nearly instant.
Their relationship moved relatively quickly, partially because they knew that without a legal commitment they may be separated.
“I thought maybe Kathryn would have to leave,” he added.
Nearly two years later, Istanbul remains a temporary sanctuary for the Ballehs, as well as the band, albeit one fraught with political instability and a challenging environment for Syrians.
Turkey is home to nearly 3.5 million registered Syrian refugees, most of whom are granted temporary protection status. On paper, it means access to housing, healthcare and the labour market. However the reality for many Syrians, even the select few who are legal residents in Turkey like Bashar, is quite different.
“I’m applying, applying, applying [for jobs]. Nobody is getting back to me because I’m Syrian,” Bashar said.
According to the 26-year-old, the jobs Syrians can get are low-paying and require 12 hours of work a day. He has a heart condition so physical labour jobs are not an option.
Bashar arrived in Istanbul in December 2014, leaving his family behind in the Syrian port city of Latakia. He started work as a musician at a restaurant for a boss who relished tormenting him being Syrian. “He would turn on the TV, the news. He would say, ‘Look, Bashar al-Assad is killing them. They all deserve to die, haha.’ And I can’t say anything,” he recalls.
Bashar eventually quit. After months of not being able to find work, he made two attempts to go to Europe.
During his first attempt, the boat Bashar was travelling in was attacked by individuals he assumes were pirates. The boat was rescued by the Turkish coastguard. On his second attempt, Bashar was kidnapped before the boat disembarked. When the police arrived, Bashar managed to escape from both the police and his kidnappers.
Despite his harrowing ordeal, Bashar and Kathryn remain optimistic. They recognise their situation is one of relative privilege, when compared with the thousands of Syrians who have no possible option of going to the US.
Unclear waiver process
Under the third and most current version of the travel ban, the US said it would allow for case-by-base waivers for those who meet certain requirements, including being a spouse of a US citizen.
Additionally, the presidential proclamation, lists a number of vague guidelines, including that an applicant must demonstrate that he or she does not pose a threat to public safety and national security, would be caused “undue hardship” if not allowed entry to the US and that his or her admittance is in the nation’s interest.
Bashar applied for a spousal visa in March 2017, hoping to receive a waiver. He has an interview with consulate officials at the US embassy in Istanbul this week.
According to a lawyer from the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), there is no established clear procedure for how people can provide evidence that they qualify for a waiver.
“We’re in the process of preparing what immigration attorneys are informally calling ‘waiver packets’ now,” said an IRAP lawyer, who spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the cases involved.
“Some embassies have allowed people to physically make a submission at the interview with a packet, some have accepted them by email … some have said they don’t accept any outside evidence … it has been really inconsistent at different locations.”
A major component of the Trump administration’s defence of the travel ban was that it offered a wide-ranging waiver process for individuals on a case-by-base basis. But the administration came under fire again in June after reports surfaced that just two percent of more than 27,000 visa applications of individuals from countries covered in the ban were granted waivers from December 8, 2017, through April 30 of this year. The reports added that 4,200 were still awaiting a determination on the waiver.
A spokesperson for the State Department told Al Jazeera that 1,428 applicants have been cleared for a waiver as of August 15, 2018.
The spokesperson emphasised that there is no separate application for the waiver, adding that individuals should apply for the visa and disclose during the interview any information that would fulfil the waiver’s requirements.
But David Leopold, an immigration lawyer who represents several Syrians navigating the US immigration system, said that the US government is failing to provide any clarity on the process for how waivers are granted, which could be by design.
“I think that it was done on purpose because they don’t really want to let these families come together,” says Leopold. “I don’t think this administration values folks from countries that are not white and European … I think there’s a huge racial component to this, a huge anti-Muslim component.”
In July, more than two dozen families, representing five countries affected by the ban, filed a lawsuit against the US government over its implementation of the ban and the process for obtaining waivers. According to the complaint, the plaintiffs have had their application denied or stalled despite meeting the criteria listed in the presidential proclamation.
For now, the potential of a waiver remains the Ballehs’ only hope of moving to the United States as a couple. If they are denied or the process takes too long, however, Kathryn said they will consider going to live with Bashar’s family in Syria.
“Yes, it’s in a war, and yes, the economy is not in a good position,” she says, “but what’s more important in this world than being around people you love.”