Fears replace lost dreams of living in safety
istanbul — After working as an interpreter for an American security company in Iraq and enduring years of background checks after applying for a U.S. visa, Labeeb Ali’s hopes of moving to the United States ended abruptly in Qatar’s international airport on Saturday, when officials prevented him from boarding a flight to Texas.
“I have the visa in my passport,” he said hours later, after he had stopped yelling at the airport staff and his rage had given way to despair and regret at having already sold his business and belongings in Iraq.
“They have killed my dream,” he said. “They took it all away from me, in the last minutes.”
President Trump’s order on Friday to temporarily ban citizens of several Muslim countries from entering the United States sowed panic, confusion and anguish in airports across the globe Saturday, as nationals of the affected countries were either barred by airlines
from traveling or detained upon arrival in the United States.
Those prevented from boarding U.S.-bound planes included Iraqis such as Ali, who said he had been granted a special immigration visa on Jan. 24 reserved for interpreters and translators who had worked for American forces in Iraq or Afghanistan. Others had fled war in Yemen or Syria or repression in Sudan or Iran. Taken together, Saturday’s restrictions amounted to another cruel trial for people who had escaped conflict and overcame the hurdles to win coveted American visas, only to be turned back on what should have been their journeys’ final leg.
Countless others were left in a paralyzing limbo as they struggled to understand the president’s edict. They included Syrian students granted admission in American universities and facing the certainty that they would not be able to attend, and Iraqi or Iranian green-card holders traveling abroad and terrified at the possibility that they would not be able to return home.
Sarah Amer, an Iraqi who lives in New York, had left her daughter at home and was visiting friends in Iraq when Trump signed the executive order. “They can’t just change the rules in one night,” she said Saturday, amid confusion about whether green-card holders from Iraq could return to the United States.
“These are people’s lives they are playing with,” she said.
The executive order, titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” bars citizens from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Libya, all predominantly Muslim nations, from entering the United States for the next 90 days. The order also indefinitely bars Syrian refugees from resettling in the United States and suspends the entry of all refugees from any country for 120 days.
The order followed Trump’s repeated campaign pledges to restrict Muslim immigration to the United States. But the speed with which it was promulgated — a week after the president took office — still caught those most affected by surprise.
The confusion extended to airlines, which issued contradictory or vague rules about who would be allowed to fly. Lufthansa, the German carrier, released a statement saying it was “obliged by law to strictly adhere to U.S. immigration requirements.” But, reflecting the uncertainty over the American directive, the airline said only that citizens of the affected countries “might not be accepted onboard U.S. flights.”
Qatar Airways said that passengers would be allowed to travel only if they were permanent green-card holders or had visas that were exempt from the order.
Manel Vrijenhoek, a spokeswoman for KLM, the Dutch carrier, said, “It’s not 100 percent clear who is allowed in and who is not.” The airline had barred seven passengers from traveling to the United States on Saturday, she said, after informing them “that there is no use in flying to the U.S. because you will be rejected. You won’t even be able to leave the plane.”
She would not say which country the passengers had come from, only that they were from one of the seven countries named in the presidential order.
Ali, the Iraqi citizen, said that two Syrians were also prevented from traveling on his flight to Texas. In Egypt, security officials stopped five Iraqis and a Yemeni national from boarding a flight to New York. There were unconfirmed reports that Iranian visitors as well as permanent greencard holders were restricted from traveling to the United States by officials at airports in Amsterdam, Abu Dhabi as well as Qatar, according to Hazhir Rahmandad, an Iranian American professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who created a crowdsourced database to track Iranian travelers affected by the ban.
Although the details in the database could not be independently verified, the reports also suggested scores of Iranian visitors and green-card holders were also being turned away at several U.S. airports upon arrival.
The data and reports so far “suggest there is confusion among border agents about how to treat” the various categories of visa holders, Rahmandad said.
When Fuad Sharef and his family landed at Cairo airport Saturday morning, they were clutching boarding passes for their connecting flight to New York and valid one-year visas to the United States. They were headed, eventually, to Nashville, to start a new life.
But soon after they entered the terminal, Egyptian airport authorities stopped them and ordered them to hand over their
“They can’t just change the rules in one night. These are people’s lives they are playing with.” Sarah Amer, an Iraqi who lives in New York and was visiting friends in Iraq when President Trump signed the executive order.
passports. They informed him that the American Embassy in Baghdad had sent a communique saying the family could no longer travel on to the United States.
“They didn’t explain why,” said Sharef, 51, who spoke by phone because he and his family were inside the transit section of the terminal and not allowed to leave. “But I knew this was because of the executive order signed by Donald Trump.”
He was traveling with his wife, Arazoo, 41; his son Bnyad, 19; his daughter Yad, 17; and another daughter, Shad, 10.
Like many Iraqis wanting to resettle in the United States, Sharef took advantage of a program to assist Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government and American media in Iraq. Sharef had worked for Research Triangle Institute (RTI), a USAID subcontractor, for several years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, first as translator and later running a program that gave out microbusiness loans to Iraqis.
Working for the Americans was filled with perils, he said. He and other colleagues faced death threats — he knew co-workers who were kidnapped or killed. His work and background swayed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and after two years of vetting, they deemed him safe enough to be resettled in the United States.
Sharef sold his house, his car and his remaining possessions. He pulled his three children out of their schools. He spent $5,000 for air tickets and quit his job as a supply-chain manager for a large pharmaceutical firm. He was confident he would find an opportunity in Nashville, with his three degrees, including an MBA.
“Donald Trump destroyed my life,” said Sharef. “How can he do this to people who risked their lives to help America?”
At John F. Kennedy International Airport, protesters rally against President Trump’s immigration order.