When Namrah Jalil found out that her 4-year-old son Aslan Tirmizi needed life-saving surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital in Massachusetts, she thought raising $280,000 would be her biggest hurdle.
Aslan suffers from heterotaxy, a rare congenital condition that largely affects the arrangement and formation of multiple internal organs. The costly surgery would repair the chambers of his heart.
Within weeks, however, through social media, people in the family’s hometown of Islamabad in Pakistan and across the world donated the money needed to save Aslan’s life – all $280,000 of it. The hospital soon scheduled his treatment to begin in Boston on September 1.
But then, their real struggle began: getting a visa to the United States.
Jalil and her family were initially denied non-immigrant tourist visas for Aslan’s medical treatment.
U.S. visas for medical treatment fall under the B-2 category or non-immigrant visitor visas. The embassy requires letters from physicians and proof of the applicant’s ability to cover the medical expenses. Typical waiting times for non-immigrant visas in Pakistan can take up to 350 days. However, in cases of emergency, applicants may request that their applications be expedited.
Since the pandemic took hold, the U.S. embassy in Pakistan has decreased the number of non-immigrant visas it issues to Pakistanis. It gave out 53 in May 2019 and 22 the following month, whereas it issued only 13 such visas in May 2021 and four in June. The embassy’s website said the consulate is also taking much fewer visa application appointments.
When the appointment for Aslan’s first visa application came up, the payment transfers to the Boston Children’s Hospital had not been completed yet, and so the application was denied.
After the hospital received the full payment on July 29, Jalil reapplied for an emergency visa. It was still denied.
“I don't know what the reason was. I started posting on social media about it, and then I reapplied for our emergency medical request,” Jalil told VICE World News.
She stormed Twitter and other platforms in the hope that her pleas would reach the people at the embassy.
“We got an automatic reply that said that our case was under administrative processing, and that we couldn’t inquire about it within 180 days,” said Jalil. “We were very upset. We freaked out because Aslan is pretty fragile.”
Eventually, the director-general of Pakistan’s foreign ministry reached out to the family and began to routinely follow up with the U.S. Embassy on Aslan’s case.
But time was running out for Aslan, and Jalil began to lose hope they would make it to the Boston hospital in time to save her son, as visa appointments usually take months to clear.
“You can use all the words in the dictionary that can state a parent’s condition in that situation, but it's still so hard to describe,” Jalil told VICE World News.
And then on August 23, the embassy contacted Jalil, asking for further documents to verify the details of Aslan’s case. The next day, they received the happy news that they had been granted U.S. visas.
“I was so happy and overwhelmed that I forgot to perform an ablution before praying to God to thank him,” said Jalil. “I couldn’t stop smiling while praying, and I also kept forgetting the words of my prayers.”
Patients with heterotaxy syndrome often have difficulty breathing and digesting food. The illness has impaired Aslan’s mobility and compromised his immune system, too. If left untreated, the disease could be fatal. The child’s doctors recommended surgery as soon as possible.
Jalil and her family are now rushing to prepare for Aslan’s journey to Massachusetts.
“I hope that when Aslan comes back, he’s healthier and he’s happier. I am taking a weak child with me, but I am hoping to bring back a very healthy child,” said Jalil.
Follow Rimal Farrukh on Twitter.