UPDATE: Assali family reunited with Syrian relatives at JFK after Trump’s order deported them

Tawfik Assali

Tawfik Assali

UPDATE: It’s been a long and confusing journey for the Assalis following 13 years of waiting and being denied entry into the country last week, but on Monday, none of that seemed to matter because joy was the emotion that prevailed in Kennedy International Airport in New York.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Monday, Feb. 6, at 11:30 a.m.

They finally arrived.

It’s been a long and confusing journey for the Assalis following 13 years of waiting and being denied entry into the country last week, but on Monday, none of that seemed to matter because joy was the emotion that prevailed in Kennedy International Airport in New York. 

Assali family just arrived at JFK. They said in Arabic that they’re ecstatic and so happy to be here. Conferring with attorneys now. pic.twitter.com/K6phxgQbkl

— Bobby Allyn (@BobbyAllyn) February 6, 2017

 

“I am so grateful to everyone who helped in this,” Sarmad Assali, who lives in Allentown, told reporters outside of the airport after long hugs and tender kisses with her Syrian family inside the airport.

“I was very scared and really worried I was not going to make it here,” said Sarah Assali, 20, through Sarmad Assali, who was translating from Arabic, as both wiped away tears and held each other close.

Matthew Assali, 17, described what he and his five other Damascus-based relatives felt on the flight before they were turned away at Philadelphia International Airport last weekend.

“The hardest part was when we got back,” he said. “We were scared, and we didn’t know what happened. We played by the rules. We didn’t do anything wrong.”

He said he’d like to return to Syria when the civil war there ends. He came to U.S. to escape conflict, and “for a better future. For better opportunities,” Matthew Assali said.

“They’re going to settle in the house that we purchased for them, and hopefully tomorrow is a new day, where we start with school registration and we build our future,” said Sarmad Assali, noting that both Matthew and Sarah hope to attend college in Pennsylvania.

One of the Assali’s attorneys, Joe Hohenstein, said all six are now permanent legal residents. That comes after federal immigration officials marked their visas invalid last weekend, a move, Hohenstein said, that has not been reversed.

Hohenstein said both Gov. Tom Wolf and U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent’s support helped expedite the Assalis’ return to the United States. He hopes that sends a signal to others looking to escape unrest in Syria.

“There are more people here who want to welcome folks from Syria,” Hohenstein said. “I think what we’re letting people know is that there’s more than one voice coming from American, and most of the voices are ones that welcome people.”

 

 

The six members of the Damascus-based Assali family, who were blocked from entering the United States last weekend, are expected to finally be united with their Allentown-based family at Kennedy International Airport in New York on Monday. 

They have been stuck in legal limbo for the last week as President Trump’s immigration-restricting executive orders forced them to return to the Middle East.

“It’s such a big day because a week ago they were told it wasn’t going to happen,” said Joseph Hohenstein, an attorney for the Assalis.

The family’s elation is tempered by deep exhaustion from the whirlwind week.

“I haven’t been sleeping well, but I’m too excited to sleep. I’m very excited that things are looking better,” said Sarmad Assali in Allentown. “I was angry at first, but now I’m more hopeful.”

The two Orthodox Christian couples had started the process of leaving their war-torn country more than 13 years ago. After securing green cards and visas, their Allentown relatives were set to pick them up from the Philadelphia International Airport last Saturday. One of the couples has three teenage children, one of whom already lives in Allentown and the other two are traveling with their parents from Syria. The other couple have three children, but they are not presently in Syria. Two live in Germany, the other is in Qatar. 

Before getting on a plane to the U.S. , the two Damascus craftsmen and their wives sold their cars and other possessions in Syria to afford the plane tickets. In Allentown, a new home fixed up by their Pennsylvania relatives awaited them.

But the Assalis’ fate was changed by the stroke of President Trump’s pen Friday afternoon. The executive order temporarily banned migration into the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Syria.

Although the action has now been halted by a federal judge in Washington state, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials last Saturday interpreted the order as meaning that the Assalis cannot come to Pennsylvania.

Their visas were invalidated and they were put on a Doha-bound flight, leaving their Allentown family confused and frustrated.

The backlash was swift. Public officials, including Gov. Tom Wolf and U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent denounced the decision to deny the Assali family entry. A band of civil rights attorneys teamed up and filed a federal lawsuit demanding that federal officials bring the family back. An online fundraiser launched by the family raised more than $21,000 toward re-uniting them with their Allentown relatives.

And over the weekend, the family’s attorneys struck a deal with the government to make the demands a reality.

If all goes as planned, the family will land in New York City around 9:25 a.m., according to Hohenstein.

Government officials are planning to bring the six into the country with a special waiver (I-193 visa waiver) recognizing that the original visa revocation was unlawful, providing the family permanent residency.

“My view of it is that the government attorneys recognized that the airport officers did not provide an individual assessment of the case, which is something that the executive order actually called on them to do,” Hohenstein said. “It was that recognition that led them to see that they had to be cooperative.

Given how rapidly the legal landscape around the order has been changing, the Assali family can’t shake their leeriness, despite Monday morning’s government-approved arrangements.

“We have our fingers crossed,” Sarmad Assali said.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.