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Syrian Refugees Will Try To Fly Into The U.S. While Ban Is On Hold


Now that key parts of President Trump's travel ban have been suspended for the moment, there is a window of opportunity. Syrian refugees who had been cleared for relocation to the U.S. are again lining up in airports with their travel documents, hoping to get on planes bound for the United States.

A plane carrying Syrian refugees from Jordan left earlier this morning from Amman. A U.N. agency is putting hundreds of families cleared for resettlement on planes over the next few days. NPR's Jane Arraf was at the Amman airport this morning. She joins me now.

So it must have been quite a scene. Can you just describe what it was like there?

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Absolutely. I was at the international airport after midnight as these families began to arrive. They were pushing luggage carts that were weighed down with battered suitcases and duffel bags. They were carrying sleepy children. So, Rachel, as you know, there's been a lot of uncertainty over the past week. And one family we've been following - Rafiq al-Saleh, his wife, Ghada, and their three small children - are being resettled in Syracuse in upstate New York. So they were distraught when we saw them last Wednesday.

They were in an empty apartment. Their trip had been canceled. But then, the U.S. district judge in Seattle issued that temporary injunction halting the ban. And last night was the first time they had ever been to an airport. So when they walked through those doors, they were really excited.

RAFIQ SALEH: (Through interpreter) I feel good, very, very, very good. I mean, when they spoke to us yesterday afternoon, we weren't ready. You saw us with the mattresses and everything in a mess. But in two hours, we had repacked everything and were ready.

ARRAF: So his wife, Ghada, had been particularly upset. They had sold everything they owned, and they had to try to get back some of it when their trip was canceled last week. She didn't know what to tell the kids.

GHADA SALEH: (Through interpreter) Thank God I'm very happy and comfortable now. Thank God I'm comfortable at last. I had a huge headache all last week, but now with this news, it went away by itself.

ARRAF: Saleh actually sent me a photo once they boarded the plane. His 6-year-old son and their - his 4-year-old daughter were fast asleep.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

ARRAF: So they've now made it to Istanbul, where they're changing planes. But they're still not safely in the U.S. yet.

MARTIN: I mean, it's such a complicated set of emotions they must be dealing with, right? They're getting the chance to start their lives over, but they are, I imagine, leaving so much behind.

ARRAF: Absolutely. And that's the poignant part of it because along with the excitement for all these refugees, finally being able to start over after all the tragedies they've suffered in Syria, after two or three years of interviews and security vetting, there's a lot of emotional baggage, and there's a lot of sorrow. So Saleh started to actually tear up when I asked him what he would miss most about Syria.

R. SALEH: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: He says, his parents. They're in Aleppo, and they don't have phone access. So he wasn't even able to call them to say goodbye. He doesn't know if he'll ever see them again.

So all of these refugees have dreams of a new life. But when they get on that plane, they're giving up the dreams of the old one. Saleh was a high school geography teacher in Syria. And he says his dream is to do that again in the United States. But if he does manage to do that, that's going to be a lot of years ahead and a very long road.

MARTIN: Yeah. Just briefly, Jane, anything you can tell us about other families you've been tracking?

ARRAF: Absolutely, still a lot of confusion. One family here that was to have flown out to Atlanta today was called yesterday and, for the second time, told their travel was canceled. They were actually putting their luggage in a taxi yesterday when they got that call that they weren't leaving after all.

And in some cases here, the refugees are being asked to speed up their travel. One family was asked to leave this week instead of next week. So clearly, they're trying to get a lot of people out of here.

MARTIN: NPR's Jane Arraf speaking to us from Amman, Jordan. Thank you so much, Jane.

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