Chicago area residents stranded in Yemen during escalating humanitarian, COVID-19 crisis

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel and Ross Weidner WLS logo
Thursday, June 18, 2020
Chicago area residents stranded in Yemen during escalating COVID-19 crisis
Chicagoans who returned to Yemen to attend weddings, or visit family and friends and were stranded by the COVID-19 crisis may now get State Dept. help to get home.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Less than 24 hours after an I-Team investigation revealed that dozens of Chicago-area residents, including children, were stranded in a COVID-19 infested Yemen, they have been notified that the U.S. State Department is going to help them get home.

The government help will involve air travel clearance through Yemeni and Saudi officials because commercial air travel remains suspended on the Arabian Peninsula due to the pandemic.

According to a State Department email that Chicago families provided to the I-Team, those flights will leave Yemen and fly to Washington DC via Saudi Arabia on June 28th and July 1st.

Even before COVID-19 started ravaging Yemen, it was one of the most dangerous places in the world. Americans were warned not to travel there, but Chicagoans from Yemen returned to their family homeland anyway to attend weddings, visit relatives, or to see friends. Then the coronavirus hit in March, leaving them stranded.

"They're stuck in Yemen due to the pandemic. All the airports are closed, all the seaports are closed, they are unable to return back to their United States, which is their homeland, safely to be reunited with their families," said Naser Nasser, who has family and friends trapped in Yemen.

Nasser began building a list of people stranded in the nation on the Arabian Peninsula in March; it now lists 174 American citizens or permanent U.S. residents with green cards. Eighty-three from Chicago and the suburbs are among those confined there since COVID-19 shut down air travel. Twenty-seven children are also stranded.

Civil war had already been underway in Yemen for five years. Now people are sprayed down with disinfectant in the streets and hundreds of freshly dug graves are considered evidence of surging coronavirus deaths, even though government officials there have not acknowledged many deaths from COVID.

"The health care system there is completely broken, so there's a lot of worries, a lot of stressors," said Iman Nasser, whose father is stranded in Yemen. "That's happening with all Yemeni families here. When, when they're thinking about their parents and siblings and family abroad."

Iman Nasser's father, an 80-year old Chicagoan, went to Yemen last winter and now can't get home.

"All seven of his kids are in Chicago and he's far away from us, so having to deal with the reality that if he does get sick he might not be able to see us," he said. "So he is, I mean that was a very emotional conversation that I had with him last time."

The American Embassy in Sana'a was closed in early 2015, as were most other embassies in Yemen. For years the U.S. has warned against travel to the country because of terrorism, kidnap risk and landmines.

Nevertheless, with Americans stranded there their Chicago loved ones say the U.S. government needs to do something.

"They were planning to come back in March, they have already bought tickets. But, you know, they stopped traveling on the 17th of March," said Mogeeb Taher, whose daughter is stranded in Yemen. "She's pregnant there. Maybe it's gonna be too late for her, she's due very soon."

UN experts have said Yemen is facing the highest death rate in the world from COVID-19, something the advocates here say should send a message to American officials.

"I want to say to them to act ASAP, to evacuate their U.S. citizens and green card residents and reunite them with their families," Naser Nasser said.

Last Thursday night the ABC7 I-Team reported that State Department officials saw the situation for American citizens in Yemen as "extremely complex" and that the U.S. government had limited means to help. They did, however, leave the door open, saying they "continue to assess potential repatriation options for all U.S. citizens stranded in the region."

By Friday evening, less than a day after the I-Team report, the door had been fully opened. An e-mail from a State Department address had been received by those who were stranded in Yemen and their families in metro Chicago and read in part:

"Health Alert: Announcing Repatriation Flights From Yemen

Message for U.S. Citizens-June 19, 2020

Location: Yemen and Saudi Arabia

Event: The Department of State has arranged with Yemeni and Saudi authorities to offer limited repatriation flights from Yemen through Saudi Arabia to the United States during the period that regular commercial service is suspended to help contain the COVID-19 virus.

On June 28 and July 1, Yemenia flights will depart Aden (ADE) at 6:00 AM and arrive in Jeddah at 8:00 AM. Corresponding Saudia flights (number SV 35) will depart Jeddah (JED) at 12:30 PM and arrive at Washington-Dulles International Airport (IAD) at 6:50 PM the same days.

There are no additional flights scheduled at this time and no indication when regular commercial air service will be restored. The June 28 and July 1 flights are available to U.S. citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs) of the United States, as well as immediate family members who are documented with valid U.S. visas. All travelers must have valid passports to purchase tickets. U.S. citizens and LPRs who want to return to the United States should consider taking one of these flights or be prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite time period.

All travelers must have valid travel documents to purchase tickets. The U.S. Government has no consular presence in Yemen and cannot assist potential travelers with expired passports or visas.

Travelers will only be allowed to transit Jeddah; they will not be admitted to Saudi Arabia. Travel requires booking both legs ..."

The flights will cost a total of $1500 per passenger according to the e-mail. Officials say health screenings will be conducted prior to anyone being allowed on the flights and that those with flu-like symptoms or a fever will not be allowed to board.

The U.S. embassy and consulate in Saudi Arabia appear to be coordinating the repatriation efforts and air travel.

The government's effort falls short of what is needed, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations. In a statement late Friday, CAIR officials said that "many passports and travel documents of stranded Americans expired during the COVID-19 lockdown in Yemen and do not currently qualify under State Department ticketing guidelines to return home." CAIR states that "433 Yemeni Americans and LPRs (legal permanent residents) have contacted CAIR and CAIR Chapters nationwide because

they are stranded in Yemen without flights due to the COVID-19 crisis."

The organization's leaders are "calling on the U.S. government to immediately assist those Americans and LPRs stranded in Yemen without travel documents to ensure their safe return."