Fowziya Weheliye didn’t know whether her husband was dead or alive.

The two were separated in 2014 while trying to flee Kenya as the country was beginning to force out Somali refugees.

Weheliye and her children resettled in the U.S. in 2017. She finally heard from her husband, Bashir Ahmed Awale, after he had spent three years imprisoned in Libya, where he was forced to work, beaten and starved. Awale was freed in 2017 by the United Nations high commissioner for refugees and now lives at a refugee camp in Uganda.

She has been fighting to bring him to America for five years and last week filed a federal lawsuit against the director of the United States Citizen and Immigration Services and the assistant secretary of state for consular affairs alleging the agencies have failed to process her request in a reasonable amount of time.

Under the Refugee Act’s “follow-to-join” provision, Weheliye is legally entitled to reunification, so long as she proves they’re married and Awale is eligible under U.S. immigration laws.

Weheliye could not be reached Monday to talk about the lawsuit. Her attorney, Kate Chesney from the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, was not available.


USCIS Director Ur M. Jaddou and Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Rena Bitter are named as defendants. The State Department declined to comment and referred the Press Herald’s inquiries to USCIS, which oversees refugee applications. USCIS declined to answer queries about Weheliye’s complaint.


Weheliye and the couple’s four children made it to the United States in June 2017 and within a year, they started the reunification process to bring Awale to the U.S.

She submitted an I-730 petition along with evidence of their marriage in June 2018. But Citizen and Immigration Services has yet to issue a decision, according to Weheliye’s civil complaint.

With the petition still pending, federal officials are unable to launch the lengthier process of vetting Awale. Her lawsuit asks a federal judge to compel the agency to rule on her petition.

She has been separated from her husband for more than nine years now, according to the complaint. In that time she’s become a U.S. citizen, she found housing in Lewiston and got a part-time job so she can care for her family.


While all of their children struggle with asthma and allergies, their oldest daughter is routinely hospitalized. Weheliye often has to take extended time off to care for her daughter and is struggling to meet the financial burdens of raising a family alone.

Meanwhile, Awale is surrounded by deaths and violence, a situation so unsafe he is unable to work. The internet service in Uganda is poor and he’s having a hard time keeping in touch with his children, the youngest of whom he has yet to meet – Weheliye was still pregnant when the family was separated, according to the complaint.

“Ms. Weheliye’s children often cry and ask their mother when their father will be with them again, causing Ms. Weheliye significant emotional distress,” the complaint states. “After hearing their friends at school talk about their dads and families, Ms. Weheliye’s children have become depressed because it reminds them of the seemingly never ending separation from their father.”


Weheliye and Awale got married in 2006. They were living with his family in Somalia when, about three years later, a bombing destroyed their home and killed his parents and three sisters. The couple fled to a refugee camp in Kenya where they stayed for seven years and built a modest life, the complaint states.

Awale worked as an assistant to an oil truck driver and helped Weheliye care for the children. When their oldest daughter needed to go to the hospital for severe asthma, Awale would take her so Weheliye could stay home with their other children.


Now in Maine without her husband’s help, Weheliye often relies on the kindness of neighbors to look after her children during emergencies, but “she worries that this cannot last forever and knows that Mr. Awale’s financial support and physical presence would relieve her of this anxiety as it did when the family was last together in Kenya,” the complaint states.

Weheliye arrived in the U.S. as a refugee, meaning she escaped persecution, war or natural disaster in a different country. Refugees are legally entitled to have their spouses and any unmarried children follow them under the Refugee Act’s “follow-to-join” family reunification process.

Weheliye’s complaint describes a long and convoluted application process in which, after an I-730 is “conditionally approved,” the petition is then forwarded to the State Department, which ensures the family member’s admissibility. That could entail interviews with the family member, fingerprinting, background checks, security checks and medical exams. Once a family member is deemed admissible, USCIS offers final approval and they’re allowed to come to the United States.

Federal officials can pause the process at any point to ask for more evidence, request more processing, or send the petition back for a second look. They can also revoke prior approvals or cancel scheduled travel.

Weheliye’s petition to bring Awale to the United States hasn’t even made it that far, the complaint alleges, because she never heard back about her initial petition.

She did hear from USCIS once in May 2020, according to the complaint, when they asked her for more evidence that the couple is married. She complied, sending additional materials that August, which she argues was unnecessary because she had already sent enough material to prove her marriage.


The complaint also points to a policy manual for USCIS which warns that unnecessary delays can pose a cost to both the refugee and the government.

In May 2021, she got help from 2nd District Rep. Jared Golden’s office, which asked the agency to expedite the case, highlighting the children’s medical concerns, according to the complaint.

Golden’s office was told in June 2022 that the petition had been transferred to the Asylum Vetting Center in Atlanta, where it was deemed a “priority case” that “merited expedited processing,” the complaint states. It’s still pending more than a year later.

A representative for Golden’s office said they could not comment on Weheliye’s complaint or her petition, but that “staff are pleased to help to the best of their ability any constituent who needs assistance with that process.”

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