After nearly 24 hours of exhausting travel from war-ravaged Syria, the Abu Assaleh family arrived in Philadelphia, brimming with excitement to begin their new life in the United States.
The Christian family of eight had waited more than 13 years since first applying for the immigration visas now stamped neatly into their Syrian passports.
On Friday, they travelled from Damascus to Beirut, then Amman and on to Doha, before finally landing at Philadelphia International Airport.
“The whole trip took more than 20 hours of travel,” 60-year-old Josephine Abu Assaleh told AFP at her home in the Tijarah district of Damascus, just hours after arriving back in Syria with her relatives.
She travelled to the US with her husband Bassam, his brother Hassaan and Hassaan’s wife and four children.
But as they shuffled through the airport, an immigration official approached them and asked to see the family’s passports.
“They took us into a special hallway and I started to get nervous,” Josephine told AFP, her voice halting as she recalled the nerve-wracking moment.
“The officer came back and told us that our visas had been cancelled and we wouldn’t be allowed to enter the United States.”
In a split second, hopeful anticipation turned to shock and devastation, as the family was informed they would be sent back to Syria after US President Donald Trump’s new restrictions on immigration.
“I told the officer ‘You’re kidding, right?’, and he responded ‘Do I look like I’m kidding?’,” Josephine said.
‘Such a happy feeling’
Trump’s executive order, signed Friday, bars entry to the US for travellers from seven mainly Muslim countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — for 90 days.
It also suspends the arrival of all refugees for at least 120 days, and Syrian refugees indefinitely.
Josephine rubbed at the dark circles under her eyes and gestured to nearly 20 packed suitcases scattered across the house.
“We spent around 15 days shopping, buying gifts for our friends there. We were so happy while we were packing our suitcases,” she said.
“After this exhausting trip, I can’t bring myself to open the suitcases and take out the gifts, but I know I have to.”
Her grey-haired husband Bassam, 62, showed AFP the US visa printed into his passport — now marred with a thin blue line to show it had been cancelled.
“It was such a happy feeling to get a visa to America, considering so many countries are fighting us and won’t give us visas,” he said.
His family had been applying to emigrate to the United States since 2003, and the visas were finally issued in October.
“We travelled on January 27 and arrived in Philadelphia where we found, to our surprise, that a decision had been issued to cancel our visas while we were in the air,” he told AFP.
“We thought it was something personal against us,” he said.
‘Robbed of our rights’
Their 20-year-old niece Sara was glued to her cellphone on a nearby sofa, reading news of fellow Syrians being turned back at other US airports.
After receiving their immigration visas in October, Sara’s parents sold their home and their car in Damascus.
“I said goodbye to my friends in school, my neighbours, and all the places that I love,” and began imagining a new life, Sara said.
“It was a beautiful dream that started turning into reality. I started to read a lot about America, the university that I wanted to enrol in and the places I would visit as soon as I arrived,” she said.
Most of all, she was excited at the prospect of being reunited with her brother Tufiq, who left Syria three years ago to study in the US and had been waiting impatiently in Philadelphia airport’s arrivals lounge.
“The most difficult moments were in the airport, when the police wouldn’t let my mother go out to meet my brother, whom she hadn’t seen in three years,” Sara said.
“There were just a few metres (yards) between my brother and my mother, who collapsed in tears because she wanted to wrap my brother in her arms but couldn’t,” she said.
After pleading fruitlessly with airport officials, Sara’s family was escorted to a departing aircraft without seeing Tufiq.
“I thought my father was going to have a heart attack. We couldn’t eat or sleep on the plane ride back,” Sara said.
“We weren’t allowed to have a lawyer or a translator.
“They robbed us of our simplest rights in a nation that everyone says is the country of laws and human rights.”