SAN DIEGO (AP) — Just a week ago, Nadia Hanan Madalo and her family had received news that refugees like them have been waiting to hear: They had seats on a flight bound for the US from Iraq, with an arrival just before the latest Trump administration travel ban was to take effect.
But until they set foot on US soil, they weren’t sure.
All Madalo’s family knew was that they couldn’t go back to their village. Terrorist group had invaded several years ago, and only devastation remains. Roads are filled with land mines. The town has been destroyed. And their family home was burned to the ground.
“Thank God we have landed here,” she said amid tears after long embraces with her mother and siblings who greeted her with balloons and a bouquet of flowers at the San Diego airport Wednesday.
As Madalo and her family flew to the US on Wednesday, a federal judge in Hawaii put a hold on President Trump’s newest ban — the latest development in a fight between the administration and the courts that has injected more uncertainty into the lives of refugees.
Resettlement agencies say more than 67,000 refugees were in the stages of being approved and allowed into the US when Trump’s January order halted travel for 90 days from seven majority-Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The order also suspended the refugee programme for 120 days.
After a federal court in California blocked the order in February, declaring it unconstitutional, thousands rushed to get in before the anticipated new order was issued. The Trump administration said the revised ban addresses the legal problems of the last one, and dropped Iraq from the list of countries.
US District Judge Derrick Watson blocked the order, citing “questionable evidence supporting the government’s national security motivation.” Trump, who has said the order is necessary to prevent terrorists from entering the US, criticised the ruling, saying, “The danger is clear. The law is clear.”
Madalo, her husband and their four children originally had been scheduled to leave on Thursday, the day the travel ban was to go into effect. The renewed order allowed refugees with booked tickets by the end of Thursday to still come into the country until the end of the month.
Given the turmoil surrounding Trump’s first executive order, the family didn’t want to take a chance and managed to get their flight a day earlier. A week ago, they got word that there was room on a refugee flight leaving Wednesday and they grabbed at the chance, having already been waiting for four years to get into the US.
They felt lucky. Madalo’s sister in Lebanon was among those waiting to be allowed into the US.
Before leaving, Madalo and her husband returned one last time to their village. The family had not been back in three years since IS fighters moved in. Government forces have since pushed them out, but their home was in ruins — grim confirmation that they needed to leave.
Still, it was a difficult moment. Madalo’s husband, Salim Tobiya Kato, cried for hours as he said goodbye to his siblings, not knowing when he would see them again.
“It’s hard to leave my birthplace, where all my memories are, and where my parents are buried,” he said.
At the same time, he looked forward to reuniting with his 21-year-old son, Aujen, who got into the US a year earlier. Madalo was happy her family could stop fleeing. Their children had been struggling since they had left their village in 2014 and fled to Iraqi Kurdistan where they attended an overcrowded school for the displaced.
Their final destination was the San Diego suburb of El Cajon, home to the nation’s second largest population of Chaldeans.
They will also join her mother and four brothers and their families, along with some of her cousins.
But for every family celebrating a joyous reunion, thousands of other lives are now in limbo. People like Midya Alothman.
The Syrian refugee and her two siblings in Buffalo, New York, expected their parents and remaining siblings to arrive in February. They bought the ingredients for a feast, got their father’s favourite strong coffee and made plans to pick up tulips in their mother’s favourite colours — purple and pink.
Then their February 16 flight was cancelled without explanation. They were unable to rebook their flight before the start of the renewed ban.
“Maybe they can stand for two months, three months, and that’s fine. OK. What’s going to happen after that? I’m afraid about this. I’m scared about this,” said Alothman, a Kurdish Muslim from Syria who works 24 hours a week for minimum wage at a clinic as a translator and receptionist.
The 16-page executive order calls for a 55 per cent reduction in refugee visas overall. Instead of the planned 110,000 slated for this year, there would be just 50,000. By this week, nearly 38,000 will have already been admitted.
Madalo and her siblings understand the pain of waiting.
Their parents spent three years going through the vetting process before they got approved for a flight. Then it was cancelled. There were more delays as her father’s health worsened. In 2015, as her parents travelled to the US, her father died.
Her brother, Gassan Kakooz, who came to the US in 2008 as a refugee, buried his father in San Diego. In his apartment, he keeps a photo of him displayed high up on a corner shelf, as if he is watching over the room.
Over the years, Kakooz has welcomed his siblings one by one, helping them to find homes and get jobs. He and his wife and children have become US citizens, and have no plans to go back to Iraq. Now his youngest sister and her family were here too.
“I am so happy,” he said. “I cannot tell you how happy I am.”