For Sudanese immigrants in Iowa City, visiting home is a long, expensive and all too rare privilege

Mohamed Mohamed poses for a portrait in the Center for Worker Justice headquarters on March 10, 2022, in Iowa City, Iowa. Mohamed is a Sudanese immigrant who is applying for U.S. citizenship. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

When Dalia Musa moved to the United States, her youngest child was in the second grade. Musa, a mother of three, emigrated from Sudan in 2013. By the time her family traveled back to Sudan, her children were high schoolers.

“They didn’t see their family since the elementary, and when they come back, they are already at this high school,” she said. “My family, you know, expected us to spend more time with them. ‘Hey, we miss you. We didn’t see you.’”

For many immigrants now living in Iowa City, the journey overseas is stressful, exhausting and expensive. Musa drives four hours to Chicago, takes a 20-hour flight to another country, waits for the layover and takes a connecting flight to Sudan. Luckily, her family lives in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. But others must drive hundreds of miles across to the country to see their family. Travel alone can take almost a week round-trip.

There’s never enough time, especially for Housing Choice Voucher recipients. Until recently, the Iowa City Housing Authority (ICHA) permitted absences for 30 consecutive days under Administrative Plan Section 2.3 (H). The ICHA would also approve longer absences for situations beyond the tenant’s control, like a death in the household, household member illness or prolonged hospitalization.

“It’s not enough for me because I have been away from my family [since] five years ago, and this is mainly due to, you know, financial,” Musa said. “I have three kids. I’m the only one taking care of them and working a full-time job.”

“You understand the confusion?” Navigating Section 8 red tape

Requests for extended absences aren’t always approved, even if they fall within ICHA’s guidelines, said Mazahir Salih, executive director of the Center for Worker Justice (CWJ) and former Iowa City mayor pro tem.

One person requested more time to see his mother and father, both sick and over the age of 80. He hasn’t seen them in over three years, and they live in the Dafur region, about 1,300 miles away from the airport in Khartoum, his application said. The ICHA sent a rejection letter the next day, citing the 30-day absence policy. He went to Salih to ask for help.

“They said, ‘We are really confused. We ask them for permission, they say you have to fill out the paper. We fill out the paper, they denied it,’” Salih said. “You understand the confusion? If I were them, I would be confused too because I was confused when I read it.”

Signs decorate the lobby at the Center for Worker Justice on March 10, 2022, in Iowa City, Iowa. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) permits “brief periods” of absences that extend no more that 180 consecutive calendar days in any circumstance and allows Public Housing Agencies (PHA) to define “brief.”

Iowa City’s policy, created around 20 years ago, drew the line at 30 days. HUD also permits PHAs to allow extended absences for vacation, but currently ICHA does not. There are 1,191 Housing Choice Vouchers available and 1,301 applications on a three-year waitlist. Speaking to Iowa City Council during its regular meeting on March 1, Housing Administrator Steven Rackis said the original policy “balanced the needs of people on the program and people on the waiting list.”

To meet their exigencies, the CWJ proposed that the housing authority extend the absence period from 30 to 60 days without prior authorization, or add “visiting immediate family outside the United States, once a year” as an acceptable reason for extended absences. The ICHA said if the policy is revised, then it would prefer the former option.

During its March 1 meeting, Iowa City Council unanimously voted in favor of extending the absence to 60 days.

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“I’m sure that over the years this kind of travel has probably become very expensive for these folks,” Councilmember Pauline Taylor said. “I’m thankful to have my family as close as just across town and can hardly even imagine having family thousands of miles away and rarely getting to see them.”

“I’m really mindful of how long the waitlist is, and how many people are waiting for their own homes. And that made this a difficult decision for me,” said Mayor Pro Tem Megan Alter. “I’m supporting 60 days as the new definition of brief, but I want to encourage us to keep thinking boldly about additional ways we can get more affordable housing to the community.”

Moving to America

Mohamed Mohamed, a Sudanese immigrant, spoke to city council in support of this revision during their regular meeting on Feb. 15. He has three children, one 6 years old, one 4 years old, and the youngest three months.

“We need to give our kids, to know about families and relatives. So, we need to share them the traditional things and the culture,” he told Little Village. “A lot of family stayed there for a long time. They didn’t see their grandfather or grandmother for a long time, and it’s hard.”

Mohamed moved to the U.S. in September 2018 after receiving a lottery visa. As he filed an application for permanent residency, his sponsor told him not to apply for public housing. In 2019, the Trump Administration expanded the “public charge” policy to deny permanent residency to immigrants who access safety net programs like Section 8. The Biden administration reversed this policy, but Mohamed plans to apply only after he gets his U.S. citizenship.

“I apply as a family to get better chance to my kids and for me also,” he said. “Here, we have a lot of opportunity, better than my country.”

Mohamed is an English as a Second Language (ESL) student, though he eventually wants to major in computer science. He plans to move to Texas, where the weather is warmer and there are more computer science jobs.

Mohamed last visited his mother, father and brothers in early 2021, but said traveling is difficult because of the cost and COVID-19. He started volunteering at CWJ, helping with IT issues, after an incident with his landlord.

“Because I’m immigrant, I don’t know the rules here in Iowa,” he said. “Under the landlord when I finish my lease, they get all my deposit without any reason. I told him, ‘Why you get my deposit?’ They say, ‘It because you destroyed the apartment.’ And I didn’t; that’s not happening.”

Before moving into the apartment, he videotaped and documented everything.

“They try to cheat me,” he said. “I came here, and Mazahir and our team, they helped me a lot. They told him, ‘If you go forward, you will be in trouble because they have evidence that they didn’t affect your apartment.’ So, they give me my deposit. After that, I like this place, so I volunteer here.”

‘They miss them’: To Sudan and back again

Musa also had a problem with her landlord trying to overcharge her.

“I told him even this month, it’s going to add to my bill so I don’t want any additional payment in my bill, so I can’t even afford it this month,” she said. “He just wanted me to pay.”

She came to CWJ for help, and through other community services, they recalculated the actual amount she owed. Afterwards, she began volunteering at CWJ, helping people fill out forms and applications for assistance programs and following its status.

Musa is a certified pharmacy technician. She works through every holiday — Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc. — and saves her vacation time, so she can take 45 days off for Sudan. The trip costs her over $6,000.

“If you spend $6,000 you wanna stay more, because you are not gonna go in the next year,” she said. “Not every year everyone can [be] able to go back home. For me, I went there last year, but I can’t go this year because it is expensive.”

Dalia Musa works at the Center for Worker Justice. — courtesy of Musa

The cost is worth it for Musa. Her kids need to see their family and learn about their culture. But thirty days isn’t enough time for them, she said.

“My kids, they’re growing here. They’re raised here. They didn’t see their family. So for us, it’s very important to spend the time with your cultures,” Musa said. “They also want at least a week with their dad, you know, their grandfather. They miss them.”

“By living with our cousins in Sudan, spend time with them, see how they are going to school, see how they are struggling with this school, and when they come back, they see how lucky they are,” she continued. “Something that can motivate them to be good at this community, like studying good, looking for something good for their educations, like working hard.”

But traveling back to the U.S. is always difficult. Besides returning to bills and rent, or starting work with travel fatigue, Musa can’t stop thinking about the people she left behind.

“We keep saying, ‘I don’t have enough time to spend. I need to go back.’ Just keep thinking about that, about your family. You left at home,” she said. “I come back so stressful. Like the first week, I just keep crying. Every day I woke up, ‘Why I come back? I need to go back.’”

Thirty days isn’t enough

Salih is also Sudanese immigrant. She and her husband try to return once a year using their tax returns, so her children can have a relationship with their grandmother and cousins, as well as know their language and culture.

“My kids are the first American generation, so they don’t have nobody here. No aunt, no cousin, first cousin,” she said. “They’re considered American, but their roots are not here, so they have to know them.”

Whenever they have time off, they visit Salih’s brother and sister in Virginia or her cousin in North Carolina. Overseas, they drive hours to see her family in northern Sudan and her husband’s family in eastern Sudan.

“Thirty days is really not going to be enough to interact with both sides of the family, like Dad, Mom, Mom’s side, Dad’s side,” Salih said. “You cannot punish people because they are poor.”

Musa also has a sister who lives in Virginia, but their mother remained in Sudan.

“Our mom knows that this is better for our kids, but at the same time, we left her,” she said. “My kids saw me, how I’m stressed for leaving my mom alone at this country … They feel my stress. They feel it, and they all the time appreciate what I’m doing for them. And that makes me happy.”