Family of six Syrians who were detained at Philly airport and sent back: 'How much can one family take?'
Earlier this morning, Sarah Assali's mother was already planning a big dinner. Makes sense, since Assali had been anticipating the day for 13 years. That's when she started the process of bringing six members of her Damascus-based Orthodox Christian family to Allentown, Pennsylvania where her Syrian aunt and two cousins have been living for some time.
On Saturday, the three expected to be united with Assali's two uncles, two aunts, and two cousins. Her family bought and rehabilitated an additional house in Allentown for the six.
"Today was the day they were all going to move into the house," Assali said.
She had started the family-sponsored F4 visa applications for them well before the Syrian civil war started in 2011, timing that she later believed would prove fortuitous.
"We thought we lucked out," said Assali. "We didn't have to apply for asylum, or refugee status, we already have the paperwork in the works."
Her uncles are craftsmen in Damascus who make tables, chandeliers, crosses, and candles for local Syrian churches. They were hoping to make use of those skills by doing handiwork in Allentown.
"We were going to be able to get them out of this zone where they don't have electricity or water, food — bread is difficult to come by in some areas," she said.
After thorough vetting, U.S. officials approved the six visas in 2015, she said. Following that, they underwent additional background checks and medical exams, which included trips to Jordan to finalize documentation. The long and arduous process was supposed to come to a celebratory end on Saturday morning. Assali's dad left Allentown for the Philadelphia International Airport. About a half hour into the trip, however, his cell phone rang.
"It's from Customs. They say we're not letting your family through. They will be put back on a flight to Doha," said Assali. "They didn't give a reason why. They said it was confidential."
According to Assali, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials detained her family then gave them something of an ultimatum: get on a flight now to Qatar, or wait and risk losing green cards and visas.
So at 10:21 a.m., the six American-bound Syrians with valid visas boarded the 18-hour flight back to Doha, Qatar.
"They were afraid, frustrated, shocked," said Assali, who communicated online with the devastated passengers as they flew back to Qatar.
The intense mix of feelings is the result of President Trump's Friday order blocking foreign nationals from seven mostly Muslim countries, including Syria, from entering the country for 90 days. It also prevented those with green card from re-entering the U.S.
"We weren't expecting this because we paid everything. The green cards have been paid for, the visas have been paid for, everything has been approved," Assali said. "To suddenly be told, 'no, you no longer qualify to enter the country,' it kind of comes as a slap in the face.'"
For Assali, this shocking development could not have arrived at a more troubling time for the family. Assali, 25, is in her third year of medical school and she's currently doing a clinical rotation in Youngstown, Ohio. She came back early to Allentown this week after her grandmother died. The funeral was held yesterday.
Assali's grandmother raised her until she was five years old, while Assali's father was studying dentistry at New York University. Most summers, the family would visit Damascus and her grandmother would come along.
"We're already going through so much. To have this on top of it is almost comical," she said. "How much can one family take?"
She and her family are in conversations with attorneys about the fate of her relatives, but right now uncertainty prevails.
"We don't know what the next steps are," she said. "A lot of attorneys we have spoken with aren't even sure how to interpret the executive order."
These early conversations with lawyers have left Assali feeling defeated.
"Being an American, I was born and raised here, to have the first question that comes out of the attorney's mouth is, 'Are they Christian?' It kind of hurts," she said. "Because yes, we are Christian. But at the same time, as an American I would never think there was a prerequisite of, 'are you Christian, or are you Muslim?' before we could help you."
A spokeswoman with the Philadelphia International Airport would not confirm nor comment on the family's predicament, saying only that the Customs area of the airport is under federal control.
"Banning immigrants and refugees is not only unjustifiably cruel, it also puts Americans at home and serving abroad at great risk," said Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney in a statement. "The Trump administration very well may have just given these families a death sentence."
Several organizations, including the local Council on American-Islamic Relations, are planning a protest at the Philadelphia airport Sunday at 2 p.m.
"We will not be silent as human beings fleeing war and terror are denied sanctuary," a post for the event reads.
Protesters swarmed the Philadelphia airport Saturday night, holding signs that read "No Muslim ban," and chanting: "Let them in."
Also on Saturday evening, a federal court in New York issued an emergency stay halting President Trump's executive order banning foreign nationals after the ACLU sued on behalf of several who were detained at John F. Kennedy International Airport. No writs of habeas corpus petitions — contesting the legality of holding passengers from the targeted countries — were filed in the federal district court covering Philadelphia, but civil rights attorneys said early Sunday morning that an agreement had been struck with the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Several others were detained at the Philadelphia airport as part of Trump's executive order, but both sides agreed to release them Sunday, according to a statement from a coalition of Philadelphia civil rights attorneys. The exact number, and their country of origin, were not immediately known. Some of those detained were not allowed to contact family or speak to attorneys.
The group of lawyers said the New York court order halting Trump's action leaves open some questions.
"The New York court's order did not address what would happen to others who had been refused
entry and detained throughout the day in different locations," according to the statement from the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Jonathan Feinberg of Rudovsky, Messing and Feinberg and others.
U.S. Rep. Bob Brady of Philadelphia, Gov. Tom Wolf and Mayor Jim Kenney paid a visit to the protesters who gathered at the airport Saturday night.
"We want to make sure people are welcome here," Wolf said. "These are legal immigrants. People who've gone through all the hurdles, and they have chosen to come and live with us here in Pennsylvania. And I say to them: You are welcome here."
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