SAN DIEGO – 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 U.S. from Iraq, with an arrival just before the latest Trump administration travel ban was to take effect.
But until they set foot on American soil, they weren’t sure.
All Madalo’s family knew was that they couldn’t go back to their Christian village. Islamic State fighters 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 ran from there and come here,” she told her brother in Chaldean, who translated her words to English after Madalo, her husband and four children arrived to the San Diego airport Wednesday.
Tears streamed down her face as she gave him, her other siblings and mother long embraces amid flowers and “welcome home” balloons.
As Madalo and her family flew to the U.S. 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 U.S 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 program 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.
U.S. 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 U.S., criticized the ruling, saying: “The danger is clear. The law is clear.”
Madalo and her family were booked on a refugee flight leaving Wednesday after originally offered 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.
They felt lucky, after waiting for four years to get into the United States. Madalo’s sister in Lebanon is among those still waiting for final approval.
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 the fighters 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 who got into the U.S. 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 Iraq’s semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region 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, where her brother hosted a celebration with their mother, siblings and cousins. They feasted on a spread of kebabs, roasted chicken and a cucumber tomato salad with sumac.
But for every family celebrating a joyous reunion, thousands of other people remain in limbo. People such as Midya Alothman.
The Syrian refugee and her two siblings in Buffalo, New York, expected their parents and remaining siblings to arrive in February. They also bought ingredients for a feast, got their father’s favorite strong coffee and made plans to pick up tulips in their mother’s favorite colors — purple and pink.
Then their Feb. 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 Catholic clinic as a translator and receptionist.
The 16-page executive order calls for a 55 percent 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 traveled to the U.S., her father died.
Her brother, Gassan Kakooz, who came to the U.S. in 2008 as a refugee, buried his father in San Diego. In his apartment, he keeps a photo of him displayed high up, 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 U.S. 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.”