Without a state, Middle Eastern patient waits
CHICAGO (MCT) — For nearly a year, Wasef Ibrahim has been living at Rush University Medical Center — a man without a country that will claim him.
The undocumented immigrant says he wants to leave the U.S., and relatives in the Middle East say they want to welcome him home.
Instead the Palestinian man is stuck in a Chicago hospital, caught in the complexities of immigration policy and Middle East politics. As a result, Rush is left paying for his care at a cost of more than $300,000 so far, the hospital said.
Though he suffers dementia and needs supervision with basic tasks, the 64-year-old is healthy enough to leave the hospital, but Rush can’t release him without a custodian ready to help.
A daughter living in the southwest suburbs said she can’t care for her father, but relatives in the Middle East have said they will.
Hospital officials have tried for almost a year to reunite Ibrahim with his family abroad, but the process has been fruitless. To date, no country has issued him a passport.
“Mr. Ibrahim is caught up in some sort of political wrangle,” said Joe Gonzales, a consultant to Rush who has been working to obtain Ibrahim’s documents.
Because of his condition, it is unclear whether Ibrahim fully understands his circumstances, though his caretakers said he frequently asks about returning to his home overseas.
“My blood becomes refreshed,” Ibrahim said of returning to the Middle East one day.
Ibrahim immigrated to the U.S. from Atara, a mountainous village in the West Bank, more than 20 years ago on documents that have since been misplaced and expired, family said.
Ibrahim at one point had a temporary Jordanian passport, but that has been expired for decades. Over the years, the governments of Jordan, Israel and other Middle Eastern countries have supplied some Palestinians with travel documents, but in many cases no country offered citizenship. Many Palestinians are considered stateless.
Experts said no one formally tracks how many Palestinians are stuck in the U.S. Though Ibrahim has not been ordered deported, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement statistics obtained by the Chicago Tribune offer a glimpse into the larger problem of foreign nationals stuck in the U.S. From late 2008 through spring 2012, nearly 17,000 immigrants ordered deported have been released from detention because their purported countries of origin failed to issue travel documents, records show.
“If the U.S. government can’t even convince these various consulates to issue passports … it must be infinitely harder for private entities to get that done,” said Polly J. Price, a professor of immigration and citizenship law at Emory University in Atlanta.
Chicago attorney Reem Odeh said she has represented dozens of Palestinians caught in the bureaucracy of multiple governments.
“For millions of Palestinians there is just no way home,” said Odeh, an American-born Palestinian. “Most of them remain stateless or refugees.”
Ibrahim, who also uses the last name Abu Rejaleh in some legal documents, came to the U.S. in 1989 to see his oldest daughter get married, family said. He overstayed a temporary visa and made a living working in convenience stores on Chicago’s South Side, he said.
Nearly 10 years later, he married a customer he met while working at a store in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, but he never looked into becoming a legal resident, said his now ex-wife.
“I don’t think it was important to him,” said Gladys Jenkins, 34, who was married to Ibrahim for about five years until their 2003 divorce.
The lack of documents didn’t pose problems for Ibrahim until last year, when he was admitted to Holy Cross Hospital with weakness in his legs, according to court records.
He was transferred on May 6 to Rush, where doctors determined Ibrahim had dementia.
“I feel dumb because I’m sick,” Ibrahim said through a translator. “I am unable to depend on myself.”
He does not have insurance and does not qualify for Medicaid because he is not a U.S. citizen. If he were to get a bill for his care, it would total about $800,000, a hospital spokeswoman said. The actual cost to the hospital is closer to $300,000, which the hospital’s charity care fund will cover, she said.
“Yes, there are financial implications, but our commitment is as a healing place for Mr. Ibrahim,” said Sandy McFolling, system director for case management at the hospital.
Tagreed Thalji, 38, the daughter whose wedding Ibrahim came to attend in 1989, said financially and logistically she cannot care for her father at her Chicago Ridge apartment.
Another daughter, Ghada Wassef Ibrahim Abu Rzla, 33, who lives in Amman, Jordan, said she hasn’t seen her father since she was a girl but would care for him.
“He’s my dad. It’s that simple,” she said in a telephone interview. “No matter what happened, no matter how many years it has been, in the end we remain his kids. We will take care of him. That’s his right.”
One of four sons who lives in the West Bank told the Tribune they would like Ibrahim to return.
“All of us can help him here,” said Aouda Aburejaleh, 29.
In the meantime, a state guardian here has been appointed to help make important decisions for Ibrahim.
Ibrahim is not a citizen of Jordan, but Jordanian officials will assist him if he travels through their country to the West Bank, said Rami Al-Kharabsheh, the consul at the Jordanian Embassy.
The hospital also reached out to the General Delegation of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Washington. Officials there said Ibrahim could be issued a PLO passport that would allow him to travel into Jordan. But they cannot issue that document until the Israeli military gives Ibrahim a residency permit to enter the West Bank, said Hakam Takash, the delegation’s consular affairs officer.
Orli Gil, Israel’s consul general in Chicago, said Ibrahim does not need a permit from the Israeli government or military, but does need a residency permit from Palestinian authorities. Officials at the Israeli consulate determined Ibrahim is not an Israeli citizen.
While hospital officials try to sort out the bureaucratic tangle, Ibrahim lives in limbo at Rush’s geriatric psychiatry unit. He is one of up to 18 patients there, but unlike the others, who usually leave after a week or so, Ibrahim stays. He makes art projects, socializes in the common room and lights up when he sees staffers he recognizes. Despite his ability to fit in, caretakers know the hospital is not the right place for him.
“You get that sense from him that he’s missing something,” said Jeannie Dixon, the unit’s director.
“Any one of us, if we were in the hospital … and you’re healthy enough to leave, would rather be home,” McFolling said.
(Chicago Tribune reporter Duaa Eldeib contributed to this report.)