She’s Stranded in a COVID Nightmare—9,000 Miles From Her Kid
Payal Raj is stuck in India and might have to wait a year to get home to her 9-year-old in Tennessee.
Her 9-year-old daughter was home in Tennessee with a fever this week as a bureaucratic technicality kept Payal Raj 8,900 miles away in India, hoping, hoping, hoping it did not signal anything serious.
“Today I’m going out of my mind waiting to hear from my husband how her temperature is,” Raj told The Daily Beast.
Raj and her daughter, Saanvi, had flown from Tennessee to her native India on April 6. She saw no reason not to assume she would soon be back in Hendersonville.
“It’s my home, it’s there we own a house,” she later said.
The plan was for them to briefly see her family in Patna, an ancient city on the Ganges River in the state of Bihar. They would then meet her husband, Yogesh Kumar, when he flew into New Delhi on April 18. They had an April 20 appointment at the American Embassy for the ultimate purpose of their trip: the annual renewal of his H-1B visa for those with specialty occupations and the dependent visas for Raj and their daughter, Saanvi.
The embassy and the various American consulates in India had canceled all visa appointments when COVID caused them to lock down in March 2020. That had been followed by Donald Trump’s ban on renewals in June.
President Biden seemed to be living up to his promise of better days when renewal appointments resumed in February. Raj and her family were among the thousands of Indian visa holders in America who then planned a quick trip home to get a renewal stamp on their passports.
But even as Raj and Saanvi were in the air, COVID-19 was surging out of control in India. Raj and her daughter arrived just as everybody in the family began exhibiting symptoms of the virus.
“Within two days of landing, my whole family got infected,” Raj said. “My sister and her family and brother and our parents in the same house.”
Raj had made sure to get vaccinated before she left, partly as a precaution against being barred re-entry. But Saanvi had been too young for a shot, so now Raj checked into a hotel. They then departed for New Delhi earlier than planned.
Raj’s husband flew in as scheduled, arriving amidst overwhelmed hospitals and crematoriums. There were reports that the American embassy and consulates would again be canceling renewal appointments.
“Numbers are going up, embassies are shutting down,” Raj recalled.
The family consulted a lawyer, who advised that the embassy would still be accepting “drop-offs.” That meant visa holders such as Raj and her family, who had previously undergone retinal scans and the various other immigration screening procedures, would be able to just drop off their passports to be stamped and mailed to them.
As the primary visa holder, Raj’s husband was the one permitted to enter the embassy on the day of their appointment. The husband was told that he was indeed eligible for a drop-off renewal, but dependents were not.
That meant his wife and daughter would have to wait for an appointment for an interview. And because of a huge backlog, the next available one would be in February 2022.
“At that point my husband started pleading,” Raj later said.
He gave it his all for 45 minutes, telling an embassy official that their daughter is only 9 and was due back at school and needed to return to what she knows as home. The official finally relented when it came to the daughter, but refused to budge regarding Raj.
“My husband came out and looked down,” Raj remembered. “He is a strong person… That is the first time I saw him look weak.”
The three went to his parents’ home 1,400 miles away in Bengaluru in Karnataka. Two stamped passports arrived in the mail.
Raj’s visa had not been renewed, so going back to Tennessee with her husband was not an option. And her husband could not stay with her if he wanted to keep his job as an operations manager with an international company and be able to keep the family’s house. He also helps support his parents and hers.
“Three households,” Raj noted.
The daughter also could not remain with Raj. Saanvi had studied, studied, studied all year and aced an entrance exam to gain admittance to a top magnet school.
“That little girl worked very hard to secure that position,” Raj said. “She is a high performer.”
Orientation for the new school is on May 26.
“They cannot hold that seat indefinitely,” Raj said.
For her parents to have her stay in India now would undermine why they left for America in the first place. They would be betraying the hopes they had for Saanvi and any children to come.
“We went there thinking of our children’s future and opportunities for them,” Raj said.
On top of that, there was the pandemic. Basic common sense dictated that Saanvi go with her father.
“Why would we keep her in a COVID hot spot when she had a chance to go back home and be safe there?” Raj asked.
Once it was all decided, the husband and daughter changed their reservations to an earlier departure, May 2, two days before Biden banned travel from India.
“They made it in the nick of time,” Raj later said. “We paid double the amount for flight change, but who cares about money right now.”
The knowledge that they were doing what they had to do did not make the parting with Saanvi any easier for Raj.
“I did not say anything to her because I don’t know what to say,” Raj recalled.
Her husband later told Raj that Saanvi spoke of having an upset stomach and had looked apprehensively behind her as they neared immigration.
“She was worried something was going to happen and she would not be able to get to her home...she would not be able to get to her bed,” Raj said.
Raj stayed in her in-laws’ home.
“Literally locked in a room,” Raj reported. “Which is a very small room and I’m not sleeping because I’m scared. I want to keep myself safe until it is time to go back.”
When she does drift off, she startles herself awake.
“The thought comes, ‘Can I [ever] see my daughter again?” she reported.
The situation is all the more dismaying because she and her husband took every precaution and complied with every rule throughout the time of COVID.
“We did everything right,” Raj said. “What did we do wrong? Why cannot I be with my daughter?”
She saw on social media that she was just one of many who have become separated from loved ones, with part of their family in America and part in their virus-ravaged native land.
“It’s not just my story, there are so many people,” she said.
Others share one of her biggest fears.
“If we die here, that means we’re never going to see our families again,” Raj said.
Some messaged her to say they are having panic attacks and beg for help.
“The only thing I can tell them is keep calm,” she reported. “There is nothing I can do about it.”
A number of people online speak of trying to get to their family members in America by way of Mexico.
“They are looking at that option very seriously,” Raj said. “They’re looking at all these dangerous options to go home to be with their family.”
She is left feeling that she and the others in her plight do not matter. And that goes against everything she has taught her daughter.
“I spend so much time telling her she has to stand up for herself and speak her mind,” Raj said on Thursday.
She was in tears when she added, “I feel like such a fake now because I’m so defeated by the system. It kills me. I don’t want her to think I didn’t fight.”
But moments later, she roused herself with a mother’s fierceness.
“I’m not fighting for myself,” Raj said. “I’m just fighting to be with her. That’s my motivation.”
One way she is fighting is with a petition she helped start on Monday, calling for American officials to “allow non-immigrant visa holders stuck in India to return home to U.S.” It had more than 6,000 signatures as of Thursday evening.
“My wife and kids are suffering everyday..,” one signatory wrote. “My health is not good and I need them here. My dependents cry every day here.”
“My Dad is stuck in India,” wrote another. “I am a minor; wouldn’t I need my parents to be with me?”
“My husband got stuck due to this travel ban and also because of cancelling visas in India in this situation,” wrote yet another. “Me with 2 little kids are in USA and waiting for him come back. We do have home mortgage and other financial commitments which we scared to think of at this situation if he stays there.”
“My mom passed away in April last year, I couldn’t come back then because of complete lockdown so I came to India to meet family in November and to perform my moms last rites (asthi visarjan),” wrote still another. “From past 2 months unable to find regular appointment to book for my h4 stamping and now this travel ban and visa ban has made the things worse for us. I have 5 years old (US citizen) born child separated from his father from past 6 months... My son is extremely stressed because he is missing his father, school and friends. Help us reunite with our families.”
“My wife ( H4) is stranded in India due to these travel restrictions. She went to India as her dad passed away and now unable to return,” wrote still another. “Now she is separated from me and my two kids. My wife recovered from COVID-19 here in US but not vaccinated. The ban should be removed for all visa holders separated from their families.”
From the quarantine they entered upon returning to the U.S., Raj’s husband reported that Saanvi seems as balanced as ever, preparing her own breakfast and making sure she gets her vitamin C.
But then came word that Saanvi was running a fever. Raj suffered high anxiety until the afternoon, Tennessee time, when good news came from her husband.
“She has 98 temperature right now so it’s good,” she messaged The Daily Beast. “We are going to watch it whole day. I am going to be up whole night checking with my husband every hour.”
Her daughter can expect to be there for the new school orientation, but Raj has no idea how long it will be before they are reunited.
“Months? A year?” she asked.