March was supposed to be an auspicious month for Abdelsalam Elshaikh and Israa Taha, a chance for them to pursue their long-awaited career aspirations and to begin their lives together as a family.
Elshaikh and Taha, who are married, have each dreamed of becoming physicians in the United States since growing up in Sudan. And next month, Elshaikh, who now lives in Minnesota, will find out whether he “matched” for a residency program.
By that time, Taha was supposed to have arrived in the United States herself. The couple was also planning their delayed honeymoon: a vacation to Florida to see family, with a detour to Disney World.
Or at least that was the plan.
Then came President Trump’s executive order on immigration. Taha remains in Sudan.
The plan now, she said, “is completely unknown. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“I did not expect the United States to go in this direction,” Elshaikh said. “I was thinking my five years of work and doing my board exams and waiting for residency, they were all for nothing. I told my wife, ‘To be with you is more important than achieving my dreams in the United States.’”
Elshaikh, 32, had finished medical school in Sudan and was in the middle of his training there in 2010 when he obtained a visa to come to the United States. In the years since, he has worked as a nursing aide and cardiac monitor technician at the Mayo Clinic while completing the necessary tests and certifications so that, as a graduate of a foreign medical school, he can enter a US residency program. He became a US citizen in January 2016.
Taha, 27, meanwhile, finished medical school in Sudan in 2013. The couple married last March and that month applied for a green card for her to join Elshaikh in the United States. Taha has already passed the first exam needed to enter a US residency program, and had intended to complete the certification process in the United States.
The couple expected the vetting process to take between nine months and a year. After turning in a petition and tax documents and other forms and fees, they were told in December that everything was set, they said. All that was left was for Taha to do an interview with the US Embassy.
She had been waiting for over a month for the interview to be scheduled when she and Elshaikh heard the news that Trump had suspended immigration for 90 days from seven majority-Muslim countries, including Sudan, on national security grounds. Now they’re not sure when — or if — Taha’s interview will be scheduled.
Over the past few days, Elshaikh has considered contingency plans. He had been working toward this moment in his career for years, but living here without Taha was unimaginable. Australia. Canada. Back to Sudan. They would find somewhere to be together.
But Taha has told him they should wait it out. Who knows what may happen after the 90-day period? Maybe she will be allowed in. And even through the uncertainty, the couple continues to hold out hope that they will be able to live together in the United States.
“The United States is the number one place to be a good doctor,” Taha said over Skype from Khartoum. “The facilities and the hospitals, everything is very different here in Sudan. I have always dreamed of doing medicine in such a place.”
She said she fell in love with biology as a child and never thought about any career outside of medicine. How the human body functions, and how diseases attack the body, fascinate her.
There’s another part about medicine she enjoys: “I like helping people.”
She acknowledged that if the ban on people from Sudan is extended, she and her husband will have to look somewhere else to start their family. Elshaikh said they are in a state of “watchful waiting” — a term that doctors use when they monitor a patient’s health for a bit of time before choosing to give a treatment or not.
“Hopefully March will be the good news that I match, and March will be the good news that her interview is scheduled,” he said.
For now, though, the couple has made one concrete change of plans. Elshaikh has time off of work in March, and instead of the trip to Florida, he is planning on temporarily returning to Sudan to see Taha. They may stay in Sudan or go on a trip to Egypt, but they still hope to be able to take a dream honeymoon.
“I promised that to her,” Elshaikh said. “I still have Florida in my mind to take her there some time.”