BEIRUT – Six members of the Assali family landed at Philadelphia airport at 7:45 a.m. on Jan. 28, after a long trip from their home in Damascus. They thought they were about to start a new life in the U.S., but instead, they were sent back to Syria, becoming the first Syrian victims of U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive order.
The Assalis are not refugees. In 2003, the two brothers, their wives and respective children started the immigration process to move to Philadelphia, where a third brother lives with his family. It took 13 years to obtain their residency visa for family reunification. But as soon as they landed, two security guards prevented them from entering the airport.
“They took them in a room, where they were not allowed to give us a phone call,” Sarmad Assali, the deported brothers’ sister-in-law, said in a phone interview. “They were denied an interpreter and an attorney and forced to sign papers they didn’t understand, under the threat of being handcuffed, detained and not being allowed back in the U.S. for five years. They have dignity, so they signed and were sent back on a plane without even being allowed to touch their passports and documentation.”
Several hours later, the family arrived in Qatar, and were terrified to realize their visas had been cancelled. Only then were they able to call Sarmad and her husband. The family then boarded a flight to Beirut, their original point of departure. “Now they are back in Damascus, where fortunately they still have a house,” Sarmad said. “But they had sold their cars and most of their possessions to afford this trip.”
The previous day, Trump signed an executive order banning foreigners from seven countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, from entering the U.S. for 90 days. The order also halted refugee resettlement for 120 days. However, the ban on Syrian refugees would last indefinitely.
At the airport, the Assalis had been forced to sign the I-407 form, a record of abandonment of any legal residency status, but the family’s attorney, Jonathan Grode, said the fact that they had been previously security cleared in the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan, helped them to reinstate their visas.
“It’s premature to say how it’s going to go,” Grode said. “But even if their visas are now revoked, the fact they were allowed one in the first place should mean something.” The U.S.-based contingent of the family also filed a U.S. federal court complaint on Jan. 31, requesting their family’s return.
“This is not America, this is not the American way, we don’t close our doors to immigrants and refugees,” said Sarmad, who arrived in the U.S. from Syria in 1978, and currently works as a dental hygienist at her husband’s dental practice. “This country was built on immigration. Who is Trump to decide things like that? His own family is [built] from immigration.”
Some Syrians felt the ban was a personal attack on their dignity. Fadi Hallisso, cofounder of Basmeh & Zeitooneh, a relief and development organization working with Syrian refugees, is a Syrian national living in Lebanon and married to a U.S. citizen. He has had a business visa for the last two years and hoped to get a green card to accompany his wife to events in the U.S. He was in the process of gathering the necessary documents for his appointment at the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon when he was informed that they could no longer accept his application.
“I don’t care about not being able to go to the U.S., it’s not a big deal. But I felt angry and humiliated that someone gave himself the right to classify me as a potential terrorist and a threat to national security, just because I was born in a certain place of the world,” Hallisso said.
Hallisso added that his situation is fairly unique, as for most Syrian refugees, the cost of being banned from the U.S. is much higher. Last year, according to figures not formally released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the U.S. allocated 2,500 places for refugees in Lebanon of various nationalities, but as of December 2016, only 1,070 people had left, including Syrian, Iraqi, Sudanese, Somali refugees.
Over 800 refugees around the world who were set to make the U.S. their new home found themselves barred from traveling to the U.S. last week, according to UNHCR. Based on average figures from the last 15 years, UNHCR says an estimated 20,000 refugees worldwide might have been resettled in the U.S. during the 120-day ban.
“Refugees are very worried. Some are in shock and fear what is going to happen next,” said Lisa Abou Khaled, UNHCR’s public information officer in Beirut. “Many have been making plans to rebuild their lives in the U.S. after years of waiting in refugee camps or precarious urban situations and have already completed numerous steps to get to this point.”
For Syrian refugees, the resettlement process to the U.S. usually takes between one and two years, but all the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) interviews at the embassy in Lebanon were suspended between late 2014 and March 2016 due to renovation, said Charlotte Bertal, a Syrian case manager for The International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), a U.S. legal assistance organization that deals with a dozen refugee cases in Lebanon who are waiting for resettlement in the U.S.
IRAP plans to ask the UNHCR to resettle the most urgent cases in other countries, but Bertal isn’t optimistic about the other cases. “These people are very vulnerable and they have been waiting for years,” said Bertal. “Most of them were waiting for the final interview at the embassy in early February.”
Nour, another of IRAP’s clients, was a civil society activist who helped to organize and reported on protests in Syria before he fled to Lebanon in 2013 with his wife and child. He applied for the resettlement program in early 2014, and his file was accepted a year later. After several interviews with UNHCR, his file was referred to the U.S. in February 2016. After another year of additional interviews and background checks, his final interview at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut was scheduled for Feb. 8, 2017. The news couldn’t have come at a better time, as Nour’s Syrian passport is about to expire and he is worried that he may be detained if he goes to the Syrian Embassy to renew it. Without a passport, he fears he has little chance to live legally in Lebanon.
But just a few days before the long-awaited day, Nour got a call telling him his appointment was canceled. “We postponed our life for this resettlement program, we had high hopes of a new life. Life here is unbearable,” said Nour, whose name has been changed for security reasons. “Suddenly, all these hopes vanished, and we are back to zero.”
Last week, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said around 900 refugees who were already “in transit” when the order was signed would be admitted to the U.S., not including nationals of the banned seven countries, but allowing for exemptions for specific refugees.
On Friday, a week after the order was signed, the rules changed again when a federal judge in Seattle issued a ruling blocking the travel and refugee ban. The Trump administration is trying to overturn the ruling, but for now, visas that were cancelled under the order are reinstated, according to the State Department.
The Assali family was informed on Sunday that because they had previously obtained clearance in Amman to board their flight to the U.S., they would not have trouble entering the country. They are expected to arrive on Monday, Feb. 6.
As long as the ruling is enforced, Nour’s appointment at the U.S. Embassy should be rescheduled, but he is still unclear if he will actually be able to reach the U.S.
“Everybody is confused, nothing is clear about what will happen,” Nour said. “All I know is that my only dream is to protect my child and allow him to lead a decent life. I would do anything in order to protect him.”
This story has been updated to clarify that IRAP deals with around a dozen refugee cases who are waiting for resettlement in the U.S., not a dozen cases in total in Lebanon.
UPDATE: The Assalis finally arrived at John F. Kennedy airport in New York on Feb. 6. “They are now here and safe”, said Sarmad Assali after the family reached the U.S. “I feel so much better and relieved.”