Tense moments led to heartbreak and joy Monday morning at Sea-Tac Airport, as families waited anxiously for loved ones to return from countries affected by the recent executive order banning immigrants and refugees.
Emirates Airlines flight 227 out of Dubai was scheduled to land at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport at 6:35 a.m. Monday.
It was early. Wheels down at 6:19. The first passengers cleared Customs and rode the escalators up to baggage claim at 6:52.
Mustafa Kadhem’s mother was not among them.
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Kadhem, 21, was waiting with his father, younger brother and a family friend for his mother to return from Iraq, where she’d been visiting her sister.
Both women are in poor health — Kadhem’s mother suffers from the autoimmune disorder Guillain-Barré syndrome and uses a wheelchair — and the visit could be their last chance to see each other.
But the trip was planned, and the flight was made, under a different president. Kadhem’s mother, Wafaa Fakhri, left the United States six weeks ago, before there was a temporary ban on all refugees, Iraqis and citizens from six other countries, entering the United States.
The family had moved from Iraq to Burien, as refugees, three years ago and are legal permanent residents — green cardholders. On Sunday, the White House relaxed its immigration and refugee ban, permitting green-card holders from the seven banned countries to re-enter the United States.
But they were still promising “extreme vetting.” And there was a lot of confusion regarding the order over the weekend. Green-card holders should be OK, but, nobody was sure.
Kadhem was nervous.
“The last two days it was terrible, we didn’t sleep, we didn’t eat, my little brother always crying,” Kadhem, a student at Highline High School, said as passengers — but not his mother — collected their baggage. “I don’t know what to say, but it was really, really terrible. I might could not see my mom again.”
At 7 a.m., the plane’s flight attendants came up the escalators.
7:10: Kadhem walked outside to call his mother. No answer.
7:16: A big batch of passengers. No Fakhri.
Kadhem got her on the phone at 7:33. She was in a room. Customs and Border Protection agents were asking questions, waiting for her luggage to search it. They were “kind of nice” she reported.
“She’s been praying for the whole three days,” Kadhem said. “Every time I talk to her and she listens to my voice it’s like she’s crying.”
The minutes dripped by.
Waiting and waiting
Kadhem and his family weren’t the only ones standing by Monday.
Ali Faraj, 40, was waiting for his wife to return from Iraq. She went to visit his mother. Faraj can’t go, he said, because before they moved to Kent 2 ½ years ago, he worked for an American contractor in Iraq — International Relief & Development — and now fears for his safety if he returns.
“I call her,” Faraj said of his mother in Iraq. “How do you feel? Are you good? How about your health? I feel she’s not good. That’s why I sent my wife to help her.”
Faraj, his wife and their two kids all have green cards. Her return should not have been a problem.
But, like Kadhem, he waited.
“I’m confused because we don’t do any wrong,” he said. “I’m scared because I have this news, new government, anybody goes to our country can’t come back to live in America. I don’t know why.”
He asked where he could go to smoke a cigarette.
Waiting in baggage claim were a half-dozen volunteer lawyers, loosely organized by several local immigrant-rights groups.
They were there to help, but there wasn’t much they could do. They couldn’t see any of the passengers while they were still being held by Customs.
“Seems like the only practical effect of this is family members get some moral support,” said Mike Russo, a Seattle University law professor and former public defender.
At 7:47 a.m., a Somali woman came up the escalator, greeted by her waiting husband. They were both U.S. citizens, making her arrival more guaranteed. Faraj offered him a handshake and congratulations.
Saif Mubarak, 36, leaned on a railing, peering down the escalators, waiting for his family. They all moved here four years ago after Mubarak spent a decade working first as a translator for the U.S. Army, and then at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
About a month ago, Mubarak said, his mother, still in Baghdad, was shot in an ambush.
He flew back to help her through surgery, bringing his wife and two young sons, all of them green-card holders.
After two weeks, he returned to Seattle and his job at Impact Hub, a Pioneer Square co-working location. His wife and kids stayed in Baghdad, planning to return in late February. The executive order scuttled those plans. Worried, they bumped up their reservation and flew back Monday.
“Terrible days,” Mubarak sighed. “It’s weird, getting new rules on a weekend night.”
Then his sons, ages 4 and 5, came up the escalator and he scooped them both up in his arms. His wife embraced all of them.
Mubarak tapped his older son on the cheek. “Speak English,” he told him.
They weren’t the only ones who made big changes because of the immigrant and refugee ban.
Samantha Hufane, 28, waited for her brother, Mahad Hufane. They’re Somali, but both are American citizens. Mahad Hufane, 20, had been in Somalia for six months, living with their grandfather. He had planned to stay six more.
“With all this stuff going on, it’s better for him to be here,” Samantha Hufane, a nurse at Swedish Cherry Hill, said. “You never know what’s going to change if this much has changed in a few days.”
‘She can’t fly’
A lot changed for Omar Alithawi. He’s lived in Bothell for almost five years, after emigrating from Iraq, working at a medical-device company in Renton.
But his wife still lives in Baghdad.
After years of trying, she’d secured an FX1 visa, for the spouse of a lawful permanent resident. The American Embassy in Baghdad issued it on Jan. 5., and Alithawi flew back to Iraq to accompany her to the United States.
They went to the Baghdad airport on Sunday.
He had his green card, she had only the visa.
He was allowed on the plane, she was not.
“When I ask the boarding gate in Baghdad, he says ‘I don’t know,’ ” Alithawi said. “I say, ‘Do you have paperwork for government or refugee or immigrant?’ Says, ‘I don’t know.’ Just, she can’t fly.”
His wife a world away, Alithawi wheeled his bags out of Sea-Tac, unsure what to do next.
Long wait in customs
Mustafa Kadhem was still waiting. He stood with his younger brother and their friend, peering over a railing, angling for the first possible look at arrivals. At 7:54, a big group of passengers snapped them all to attention. No luck.
His brother, Haidr, 11, slumped down into the wheelchair that awaited their mother.
Which elevator will she use, Kadhem asked an airport employee.
They switched to the opposite railing, closer to the proper elevator.
A lawyer came over and explained that sometimes Customs takes a little while. “Yeah,” Kadhem said.
At 8:08 a.m., Faraj’s wife arrived. There were handshakes all around. Did she know anything about Kadhem’s mother, they asked? No, they’d been taken to separate rooms. She had nothing to report back.
“You want to get in to see your family and you can’t,” Kadhem said. “This is family, I don’t know, the most important thing is family, not even money or anything, this is family, you have to be with your family.
“I don’t know what to say. Put yourself in our shoes.”
8:16 a.m.: Two lawyers walked upstairs to the Port of Seattle offices, trying to make some sort of contact with Customs and Border Protection.
And then there she was. The elevator doors opened and Fakhri wheeled out, sobbing. She hugged her sons. Haidr clapped. Kadhem wiped away a tear.
“I thought I might not see my family again,” she said in Arabic, Kadhem translating.
How did she feel? “Very happy,” no need for translation.
At 8:32 a.m., two tense hours after the plane landed, they walked out the door.
“I want a Starbucks,” Fakhri said.