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Approved For Resettlement, Then Turned Away


Hundreds of travelers around the world were set to fly to the United States, some already buckled into their plane seats, when the travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries was implemented Friday night. At the Cairo airport, Iraqi travelers were told they wouldn't be flying to New York. Instead, they would be headed back to Iraq. NPR's Jane Arraf joins us now from Cairo. She spoke to one of those families.

Jane, tell us what happened.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: So Fouad Suleiman, with his wife and their three kids, had received approval in December for resettlement to the States. So they had gone through Cairo, and it had taken them, Lulu, two years to go through the screening process. As you know, it takes others a lot longer, so that's not bad.

They sold the house. He quit his job. They pulled the kids out of school. And they thought everything was fine until they landed in Cairo. And then there was that email from, they say, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad saying, don't let them on the plane. So they were, essentially, deported. They spent the night on the floor in the transit lounge, and they were sent back to Erbil on the first flight this morning instead of landing in Nashville for their new lives.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That must have been an incredible shock for the whole family. What did Mr. Suleiman tell you about that experience?

ARRAF: Well, we talked to them just after they landed back in Erbil. And Mr. Suleiman said he felt like he had been treated like a drug dealer.

FOUAD SULEIMAN: They treated me as a criminal because they deported me. An officer escorted me to - inside the plane. And he was sitting just in the same row of seats with my family. What did I do to deport me like a criminal, like a drug dealer, yeah?

ARRAF: So this is a man with three university degrees, including an MBA. He's from the Kurdistan region, which is one of the closest allies in the fight against ISIS. He says the whole thing was deeply humiliating.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that's just one story. I imagine there must be so many others. What other stories are you hearing from people being affected by the ban?

ARRAF: Absolutely. There are a huge range of people. So in Jordan, we spoke with two Syrian refugee families. And they've actually been given their travel dates. One of the families was due to leave in two days. So again, after you wait years and you've been through all the screenings and you've been declared safe and cleared to travel, you sell all of your stuff and you cut your ties and you packed your suitcase. And now they're told that none of that is going to happen for the foreseeable future, so they're absolutely scrambling.

But it isn't just affecting Muslims. A Yazidi friend of mine, from the religious minority that the United States actually launched airstrikes to protect from ISIS, he's now separated from his wife because he's in the U.S. And she was given a U.S. visa to join him, but she was also prevented from boarding when she reached the airport in Iraqi Kurdistan. So this whole thing has left a lot of people scrambling.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I imagine that U.S. consulates and embassies have also told Iraqis and others on the list, you know, not to show up for their visa appointments. Just briefly - we have a few seconds left - what has been the reaction from the governments in the region? You're based in Cairo. What are you hearing? We have about 30 seconds.

ARRAF: Well, Cairo is really hoping that it will forge a better relationship with the United States. It hasn't really said very much about this. The Iraqis have said a lot. There's a move within Parliament now to basically ban Americans from entering Iraq. But it's not Parliament that decides. And that's probably unlikely to happen.

There's a lot of anger. And as you know, Lulu, in this region to begin with, there's a real feeling of betrayal among, particularly, people who help the United States. So this just cements that, both on the government level and on the level of ordinary people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Stories from around the region from NPR's Jane Arraf. Thank you so much for joining us.

ARRAF: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.