A teenage boy, separated from his parents and trapped in a one-bedroom apartment for four years.
It sounded terrible.
Yet that was what seemed to have happened to Muhamed Kamal, a 15-year-old boy who fled Iraq's violence only to be separated from his family in Jordan and then left behind.
Four years on, in another small apartment, in Anaheim, his mother Muayeda's eyes filled with tears of both guilt and frustration at the memory of the boy she left behind.
"Every day I open my eyes and ask God to help us," Muayeda said. "What happened to our son?"
Muhamed's story would show me how easy it is to get lost behind the protective wall the United States has built since September 11th.
The Kamals qualified for United States visas in neighboring Amman, Jordan just before the terrorist attacks of September 11th.
Then September 11th happened. Suddenly the U.S. government wanted to detain Muhamed – but not Muayeda or a younger child, Muayed – for an additional background check.
Muayeda couldn't wait. She and her youngest son had to travel to the United States within a certain time period or risk losing their visa altogether. She rented an apartment for Muhamed and told him to wait for the security clearance. It was only, she was told, a few weeks away.
The visa never came.
The Kamal family's story is not unusual. The United States imposed a strict moratorium on Iraqi immigrants following Sept. 11, 2001, a moratorium that is only now being gradually lifted. Immigration, never easy, became almost impossible. And family separations, according to human rights advocates, became surprisingly common.
"We have cases of husbands waiting five to six years while their wives were cleared in a few months," said Affad Shaikh, a civil rights coordinator for the Council on American Islamic Relations.
Still, a parent-child separation of four years?
"That is unusual," Shaikh said. "That's incredible." (MORE)