An Iraqi pleaded for his life to President Donald Trump. A former Iraqi translator for the U.S. military landed in his new home with words of praise for America still on his lips. And community and church groups, geared up to welcome Syrian families, looked in dismay at homes prepared for refugees that may never be filled.
Trump signed a sweeping executive order Friday that he billed as a necessary step to stop “radical Islamic terrorists” from coming to the U.S. Included is a 90-day ban on travel to the U.S. by citizens of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia or Yemen and a 120-day suspension of the U.S. refugee program.
Around the country and the world, refugees and foreign-born Muslim visitors already approved for asylum here but not yet arrived, and families and refugee workers who had been eager to greet newcomers, adjusted to Trump’s ban abruptly barring them and others from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
“What’s next? What’s going to happen next?” asked Mohammed al Rawi, an Iraqi-born American citizen in the Los Angeles area, on Saturday after his 69-year-old father, coming to visit his grandchildren in California, was abruptly detained at a transit stop and sent back to Iraq after 12 hours in detention. “Are they going to create camps for Muslims and put us in it?”
Refugee-rights groups and others immediately challenged the orders in court, and said the bans scapegoated Muslims and Arabs without making the United States safer.
Trump’s order came down as Hameed Khalid Darweesh, a translator and assistant for the U.S. military in Iraq for 10 years now fleeing death threats over his U.S. ties, was just minutes away from landing at John F. Kennedy airport in New York.
U.S. officials detained Darweesh and another Iraqi whom the U.S. government also had already approved for entry to this country. After lawyers for refugee-rights organizations filed emergency petitions in federal court for their release, Darweesh walked free, to the applause of sign-waving demonstrators gathered at the airport to protest the ban.
“This is the soul of America,” Darweesh told the crowd and reporters there, of those who had worked for his asylum and his release.
Asked what he thought of the United States now, Darweesh pointed a finger in the air, and said emphatically, “America is the greatest nation, the greatest people in the world.”
Meathaq Alaunaibi, also a refugee from Iraq, was hoping to soon be reunited with her twin 18-year-old daughters who are in Baghdad. Alaunaibi, her husband, a son and another daughter were settled last August in Tennessee, as the twins completed their government review to enter the U.S. After Trump signed the order, she spoke by phone with her daughters.
“They are so worried and afraid because they’re stuck there in Baghdad,” Alaunaibi said Saturday. “They are young and they are strong, but I am crying all the time. I miss them.”
Staff at U.S. agencies that resettle refugees were scrambling to analyze the order and girded for the wrenching phone calls that would have to be made to the thousands of refugees just days away from traveling to the U.S. Several staff who spoke to the AP burst into tears as they contemplated the future for people who had waited years to come into the country.
“It’s complete chaos,” said Melanie Nezer, policy director for HIAS, one of nine refugee resettlement agencies that work with the U.S. State Department. “It’s heartbreaking.”
The International Refugee Assistance Project, which aids foreign nationals targeted for their work for the U.S. government as well as other refugees, was sending the same message to asylum-seekers, most of them who had been waiting for years.
“We have to reach out to hundreds of our clients and explain that their future has been taken away from them, and we don’t know when they’ll get it back,” said Becca Heller, the group’s executive director.
An Iraqi in Mosul, an Iraqi city where the Islamic State group had seized control, despaired at word that what he had thought was an imminent flight to safety in America was now canceled, indefinitely.
“If you can write to Mr. Trump or find any other way to help me reunite with my family, please, I am dying in Iraq, please,” the man, whose identity was withheld because he is still in danger in Iraq, wrote back to his U.S. lawyer by email.
Before Trump signed the order, more than 67,000 refugees had been approved by the federal government to enter the U.S., said Jen Smyers, refugee policy director for Church World Service. More than 6,400 had already been booked on flights, including 15 families that had been expected over the next few weeks in the Chicago area from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iran, Syria and Uganda.
The bulk of refugees entering the U.S. are settled by religious groups, who organize churches, synagogues and mosques to collect furniture, clothes and toys for the refugees and set up volunteer schedules for hosting duties. All that work ground to a halt after Trump signed the order.
In Massachusetts, Jewish Family Service of MetroWest had been coordinating a group of doctors, community leaders, a local mosque and other volunteers to resettle 15 Syrian families, including a 1-year-old and 5-year-old who arrived Tuesday.
Now, two fully outfitted apartments remain empty and it’s unclear when, if ever, the other refugees will be allowed to enter, said Marc Jacobs, chief executive of the Jewish service group.
Countless visitors from the seven countries targeted by Trump were turned back as well.
Nour Ulayyet, 40, of Valparaiso, Indiana, said her sister, a Syrian living in Saudi Arabia, was sent back after arriving from Riyadh at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on Saturday and told she couldn’t enter the U.S. to help care for their sick mother. Ulayyet said some officials at the airport were apologizing to her sister, who had a valid visa.
“My mom was already having pain enough to go through this on top of the pain that she’s having,” Ulayyet said.
Associated Press writer Verena Dobnik contributed to this report from New York.
RECOMMENDED FOR YOU