El-Fadel Arbab in a bedroom of the apartment in Portland he has prepared for his family. Arbab’s wife, Zienab Salih Abaker, and two sons escaped the violent conflict in Sudan but are stuck living in a hotel in Saudi Arabia while awaiting his wife’s visa. He said he isn’t sleeping in the room he has put together for him and his wife until she arrives. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

El-Fadel Arbab has waited more than three months to bring his wife and two young sons from Saudi Arabia to Maine, and the financial and emotional toll of their separation is mounting.

His family is stuck in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, where they fled after war broke out in their native Sudan in April. Arbab, who came to Maine in 2004 and works 85 hours a week at three jobs, has spent $2,500 per month to keep his wife and children in a hotel. They rarely go outside, he said, for fear they will be arrested and sent back to Sudan, where fighting has spread and intensified.

Arbab scrambled to prepare a home for his family in Portland, thinking they would arrive within a few weeks. By mid-May, he had rented a two-bedroom apartment and filled it with furniture and other household items, most of them donated. The beds he purchased with proceeds from a gofundme.com campaign that has raised nearly $26,000.

But Arbab won’t sleep in the bed he hopes to share one day soon with his wife, Zienab Salih Abaker. Instead, he sleeps on the carpeted floor beside the queen-size bed, or in one of the twin beds in the boys’ bedroom, or on a sofa in the living room.

“I sent her photos of the bedroom and she said it was perfect, so I don’t want to mess anything up,” said Arbab, 39. “I will wait until my wife comes and we will sleep in the bed together.”

When that might be is unclear.


Holly MacEwan looks at a photo of El-Fadel Arbab’s two sons, Ehad Arbab, 2, left, and Eyad Arbab, 6. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Arbab’s wife, 33, and sons, ages 6 and 2, were evacuated from Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, on May 2. They were among 300 people who were transported via high-speed Navy catamaran 180 miles across the Red Sea, from the Port of Sudan to the Port of Jeddah, according to U.S. military sources.

Like Arbab, his sons are U.S. citizens who have passports. His wife is not a U.S. citizen, so she needs a travel visa, which he applied for in July 2022. He expected it to be issued in May, but it was merely approved. Immigration officials have since told him repeatedly to “stand by,” he said.

That’s hard advice for a man who hasn’t seen his family since April 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war.

“Stand by, stand by, stand by,” Arbab said, showing rare annoyance. “It’s been more than a year since I applied. We rushed to get this apartment set up. What kind of process is this?”

El-Fadel Arbab touches the mobile he hung in his sons’ bedroom at his apartment in Portland on Tuesday. Arbab’s wife, Zienab Salih Abaker, and two sons escaped the violent conflict in Sudan but are stuck living in a hotel room in Saudi Arabia while awaiting his wife’s visa. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

An immigration official told him in May that his sons could come to the U.S. without their mother, but Arbab declined.

“I cannot separate the boys from their mother,” he said. “And I couldn’t take care of the boys here and work 85 hours a week to pay for a hotel room in Riyadh.”


As it is now, Arbab gets little sleep, taking naps between jobs, sometimes in his car.

Last week, Arbab saw a glimmer of progress when immigration officials approved his recent petition to move his wife’s case from Khartoum, where the U.S. Embassy is closed, to Riyadh. With each application he sends a pile of documents and a $500 check, he said. He’s frustrated but grateful for all the help he has received so far, including from Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District.

“The violence and human rights abuses against the Sudanese people are utterly heartbreaking,” Pingree said in a written statement. “My team has been diligently working with El-Fadel Arbab and federal agencies to expedite his family’s immigration applications.”


Arbab is one of about 2,000 Mainers with ties to Sudan who worry about loved ones caught in that country’s failed transition from dictatorship to democracy. The continuing conflict has killed more than 1,000 people, injured more than 12,000 and displaced more than 3.5 million, according to various news outlets.

Arbab has been striving to bring his family to Portland since 2020, he said. He came to Maine nearly 20 years ago as a survivor of the genocide in Darfur, the western region of Sudan where Arab militia members known as Janjaweed destroyed over 400 villages. More than 200,000 people died and 2 million were displaced.


He and his wife were wed overseas in 2014 in a marriage arranged by their families in Sudan. He returned in 2015 for the honeymoon. He works three jobs in Portland – two as a delivery driver and one in the kitchen at Bayside Bowl – to support his family overseas and eventually bring them to Maine.

El-Fadel Arbab, right, and his wife, Zienab Salih Abaker, who is stuck in Riyadh, Saudi Arabi, with their two sons until she receives her visa. Photo courtesy of El-Fadel Arbab

He also volunteers widely and has spoken in schools across the U.S., sharing his experience with the genocide. He explains how his family members scattered as they fled Darfur and he was left alone at age 12 to find shelter and survive. He describes his harrowing journey from a refugee camp in Egypt to Portland.

He has been recognized for his community involvement, winning awards from Peace Action Maine and other organizations. The plaques and certificates sit in totes, ready to hang on the walls of the apartment, along with artwork painted by students who were touched by his story.

“I will wait for my wife to do that,” Arbab said. “She is envisioning what she’s going to do with our home.”


When Arbab’s family fled Sudan, he was living with a friend and his family in Portland. He had to move quickly to prepare a home for his own family. He’s had plenty of help with that.


Holly MacEwan, who recently retired as the service learning coordinator in Falmouth public schools, met and became friends with Arbab through their shared community activism. She and Ryan Zamer, now a senior at Falmouth High School, set up a GoFundMe campaign that surpassed its $20,000 goal in a few days.

A Saco woman, who read about Arbab’s effort in the Portland Press Herald, donated several pieces of furniture, cookware and linens when she moved into an assisted-living facility.

“We went down there with a few students and filled a truck,” MacEwan said. “So many people wanted to help.”

Holly MacEwan was the community service coordinator at Falmouth High School and is one of several people who have been helping El-Fadel Arbab in his quest to get his family to Maine. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

MacEwan donated an antique blanket chest that has been passed down in her family for generations. It’s a token of affection for a man who has endeared himself to her family, befriending a late aunt who battled dementia and recently attending a goat yoga class with her mother.

“El-Fadel has become part of our family,” she said.

Zamer enlisted a couple classmates to help him assemble the beds and other new furniture.


“El-Fadel is a really nice guy and I wanted to help him out,” he said.


Arbab said he deeply appreciates all the help he has received, but he worries constantly about his wife and sons.

Ehab, 2, cannot sleep at night because he was traumatized by the nighttime fighting he experienced in Khartoum. He only falls asleep as the sun comes up and his older brother, Eyad, 6, starts his day.

Falmouth High School senior Ryan Zamer helped set up El-Fadel Arbab’s apartment in Portland and helped launch a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for his family. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

As a result, Arbab’s wife rarely sleeps, has contact with other adults, or leaves the hotel because she fears being stopped by Saudi police. A male family friend accompanies her to the supermarket a few times each week.

“If the police catch you or ask for identification and you don’t have it, they will arrest you and send you back to Sudan immediately,” Arbab said. “There is a lot of worry and fear. She is isolated. There is no one she can talk to. The situation she is in is very difficult and frustrating.”


When his wife’s visa is issued, Arbab plans to fly to Saudi Arabia and accompany his family to Maine because she speaks little English and is frightened to make the trip alone. He also plans to host a party in Portland to thank all the people who helped them.

But first, they must settle into their home – the first they will share since the couple married nine years ago. They are looking forward to being together and all sleeping peacefully for the first time in months, Arbab said.

He also hopes to work a little less and rest a little more in the bedroom he will finally share with his wife. It will be a new experience, he said, because it’s common in Sudan for several people to sleep in one room, on thin pallets they roll up and stow away during the day.

“We will have our own bedroom and a huge bed,” he said. “It will be an adventure.”

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