Here’s How a Network of Regular People Mobilized to Help One Iraqi Refugee Family Resettle in America

Munther Alaskry and his family were turned away from their first attempt to travel to the U.S. A network of Americans eased their way back.

Photo credit: Scout Tufankjian/ACLU

One recent morning at Terminal 7 of John F. Kennedy International Airport, a motley group assembled—a rabbi, a synagogue member, representatives of the ACLU, a few reporters, and some volunteers and corporate lawyers doing pro bono advocacy for people caught in President Donald Trump’s travel ban.

They were waiting for Munther Alaskry, his wife Hiba, and their two children, 7-year-old Dima and 3-year-old Hassan. The family, Iraqi refugees, had been turned back from their first attempt to fly through the U.S. ban from Baghdad. Now, on his second try to reach the United States, Munther’s outreach on WhatsApp and email had brought together a sprawling, motivated network of activists to make sure that this family got safely through airport security and into a welcoming America.

As time passed, the group in Terminal 7 started to get anxious. Munther’s flight was scheduled to land at 7:55 a.m. Shortly after 9, the flight’s passengers were flooding into the arrivals lounge. Munther and his family weren’t among them. Where were they?

A lawyer, synagogue member Ayla Yavin, and Rabbi Rachel Timoner await Munther Alaskry and his family in Terminal 7 of John F. Kennedy International Airport. Photo credit: Scout Tufankjian/ACLU

An engineer by training, 37-year-old Munther had worked as a translator for the U.S. Army and National Guard in Iraq and helped the military clear bombs. One day, Munther found a death threat stuck to the door handle of his car. “You will burn in eternal hell,” the note said.

Another translator in his unit had already been killed, a single bullet to the back of the head. Munther fled to Jordan and later returned to Iraq, working on logistics for the U.S. Agency for International Development. He also married Hiba and applied for a special immigrant visa, intended for Afghans and Iraqis in danger because they helped the United States.

In December 2016, after six years of fingerprints, iris scans, interviews, letters, forms, and security checks, Munther and his family were granted visas. The International Organization for Migration booked their plane tickets to Houston on January 31, 2017. Excited, the family began preparing for their move to the United States.

But late in January, Munther heard rumors that the new American president, Donald Trump, would soon ban Muslims from entering the country. He decided to move up his departure. He sold his car and furniture to raise money, and on Friday, January 27, he paid about $5,000 for four next-day tickets to fly to the United States. Around midnight in Iraq, while Munther and Hiba were packing, President Trump signed the executive order temporarily banning citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iraq, and all refugees from entering the country.

“I was shocked,” Munther said, when he heard the news. “I didn’t know what to do.” He lay awake till morning with his iPhone, checking the White House website for the official text of the ban and clicking refresh on his email, looking for instructions from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad or the International Organization for Migration.

Nothing.

“I had to take a decision in order to save my family,” he said. He and Hiba, a chemical engineer who worked for the Iraqi Ministry of Oil, hastily readied the kids for the drive to the airport. “The only thing I was feeling is fear,” Munther said, recalling shaking as the family checked in for the first leg of the trip.

They flew to Istanbul, sailed through security, and boarded the next Houston-bound plane. The kids excitedly pressed the buttons on the armrests and found Tom and Jerry cartoons on the seatback screens. Then Munther saw ­three security officers heading straight for Hiba. They asked for her passport. “At that time, both of us recognized that our dream has ended,” Munther said.

The officers ushered the family off the plane onto the snowy tarmac. Both kids were crying, and Dima asked, “Why don’t they want us in America?” Munther was forced to buy four one-way plane tickets back to Baghdad. They returned to an empty house, their prospects for a safe and open future suddenly reversed.

Almost five hours after their flight landed, Munther and his family walk into the Terminal 7 arrivals lounge. Photo credit: Scout Tufankjian/ACLU

In the United States, flights that had been in the air when President Trump signed his order had touched down, and officials were holding and deporting people from the seven banned countries. Protesters began showing up at airports. Hameed Darweesh, a U.S. military translator traveling on the same type of visa as Munther’s family, was one of the first Iraqis to be stopped at JFK. He was a client of the International Refugee Assistance Project, which soon joined the ACLU in a lawsuit against Trump.

At Munther’s relatives’ house in Baghdad, someone turned on a television showing images of thousands of protesters at U.S. airports chanting, “Refugees are welcome here!” Munther was moved to tears.

As the ACLU won an emergency stay on Trump’s executive order in a Brooklyn courthouse, protesters and Members of Congress continued to flock to the airports. Within days, the White House reversed itself and announced that Iraqis with Munther’s special immigrant visa could enter the U.S. Munther got a call from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad saying his family was free to fly anytime.

When Munther talked with staff members at No One Left Behind, a Washington-based group that helps resettle Iraqi and Afghan U.S. military translators, they suggested coming to Rochester, New York, a small town where dedicated, active volunteers have befriended Iraqis and Afghans. Munther booked new tickets to New York/JFK.

And then a network activated.

Children made cards to welcome the family: Hiba, Munther, Hassan, 3, and Dima, 7. “I like this,” says Dima. Photo credit: Scout Tufankjian/ACLU

Ellen Smith is the 57-year-old part-time Rochester chapter head of No One Left Behind. She had never met a Muslim person before she volunteered to help an Afghan family furnish their new home in 2014, she said. Soon she was helping numerous Afghans and Iraqis find apartments, housewares, and American friends. Eventually, she officially joined No One Left Behind, which has brought more than 100 Afghans and Iraqis to snowy Rochester.

Now Smith often invites incoming families to stay in the four-bedroom farmhouse she shares with her grown son. “People have said to me, ‘How can you trust these people?’” she said. “I’m like, ‘Look. If you see the letters that our military has written on their behalf, you know they can be trusted. They’ve risked their lives for us, and they’ve been thoroughly vetted.’”

On Wednesday, February 1, Smith’s phone pinged, and a stranger appeared in a Facebook video. “He said, ‘I’m Munther, hello Ellen,’” she recalled. He said his family would be arriving at JFK in two days.

Smith didn’t know a soul in New York City. So she posted on the Facebook page of the local chapter of the new activist group Action Together, saying she was looking for a New Yorker to meet the family at the airport and help them during a three-day stopover in Manhattan. A Rochester friend of Smith’s would then drive to New York City to collect Munther’s family. “Please spread message far and wide…like down to NYC,” she wrote.

Staci Intriligator, 34, saw the message. A Rochester-based teacher and curriculum writer, she had joined several Facebook activist groups after Trump’s inauguration. “I’ve been feeling powerless with what’s going on,” she said. “I work full-time; I have three kids—I’ve been thinking, what can I do?”

In this case, she could reach out to friends in New York City. Around midnight Wednesday, she messaged Anne Hager in Manhattan.

Hager, 38, a kind, competent teacher-cum-stay-at-home mom, had gone to Washington for the Women’s March and hadn’t stopped protesting since. When her daughter complained that she was missing bedtime to attend a demonstration, she told her, “Sweetie, I’m doing this because I’m a mom, and I want the world to be better for you.” She and a group of eight people, all brand-new activists, had organized online to fight the nomination of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Now she emailed that list. Gabrielle Lipson, a 43-year-old Brooklyn lawyer, responded.

Lipson was connected to various other activist communities — Indivisible Brooklyn, Get Organized BK!, and activists tied to her Reform synagogue in Park Slope. The synagogue, Congregation Beth Elohim, had become a hub of the local resistance to Trump and had received RSVPs from more than 8,000 people for an activist meeting in its sanctuary. When Lipson sent out a message to synagogue members, someone quickly volunteered to pick the family up from the airport. The rabbi decided to go, too. She wanted to welcome the family and personally invite them to join the congregation for a Sabbath dinner. Meanwhile, the synagogue youth group prepared a basket of toiletries and other necessities for the Iraqis. Congregants put together a two-inch pile of phone cards and welcome notes.

Lipson also reached out to some lawyer colleagues at a large, Los Angeles-based firm and arranged for them to meet Munther’s family’s flight at JFK, in case of problems. They contacted other pro bono lawyers monitoring the airport terminals as part of #NoBanJFK.

Hager wasn’t done, either. She put out a request for donations and in a few hours raised $500 to cover the family’s expenses in New York City. At a West Village toy store specializing in eco and handmade items, she asked for advice selecting toys for Iraqi refugee kids. The toy store, Teich, offered to donate about $250 worth of Legos, Lite Brites, puppets, and other toys in a white wicker basket. Hager was so moved, she started to cry — and the store clerk teared up too.

Anne Hager, a volunteer, talks to Munther in the hotel lobby, while his son Hassan naps. Photo credit: Scout Tufankjian/ACLU

On Friday, Munther, Hiba, and the kids were scheduled to fly on Flight 703 from Qatar, landing at JFK just before 8 a.m. Tired travelers from the flight started to shuffle into the arrivals lounge just before 9. Lawyers held up signs, saying “DID YOU SEE ANYONE GET DETAINED ON YOUR FLIGHT? DID YOU SEE ANYONE BEING PULLED ASIDE FOR QUESTIONING?” No one reported problems, but Munther’s family didn’t appear. After a while, an ACLU lawyer off-site contacted the JFK airport director of U.S. Customs and Border Protection to ask about the delay. A lawyer on the scene called other airport officials.

Some passengers shook the lawyers’ hands and thanked them for being there. A family coming off a flight from Buenos Aires carried a big hand-painted sign that said, “Legalize Empathy.” One man who had just landed from Bangkok approached to say, “I’m a lawyer too. Do you need any help?”

Meanwhile, at home in Manhattan’s West Village, Hager heard about Munther’s delay. She called staffers from Congressman Jerry Nadler’s office — and they called officials at the airport. Hager had another friend who worked in the New York City mayor’s office, and she was working to get Mayor Bill De Blasio himself on the phone.

Finally, just after 1 p.m., almost five hours after Flight 703 landed, almost 30 hours after Munther’s family had left Baghdad, a grinning, diminutive, bespectacled Munther rolled a luggage cart piled with suitcases into the arrivals lounge, with Hiba and the kids smiling and pulling more suitcases.

Cameras clicked. A welcome team that had followed this family’s journey over emails and flight status updates stepped forward for hugs that felt as much like reunions as introductions. “I’m so happy to see you,” Munther said. He said officials had treated them well and just asked details about their lives, as though to be sure they were who they said they were.

“My children made you cards,” said Ayla Yavin, the synagogue member who would drive them to a Manhattan hotel, presenting heart-and-star covered drawings to the Iraqi kids that said, “Welcome to New York.”

“I like this,” said Dima in English, grinning.

“This feels unreal,” said Munther, gazing at the Americans. “It’s beautiful.”

Later that afternoon, when Hiba and the kids fell asleep, Munther went alone to the Park Slope synagogue that had invited his family for dinner. Children sang an Arabic version of a Hebrew song about peace. Synagogue members approached and told him, “Welcome. We’re so glad you’re here.”

Munther, wearing the grey sweatshirt that was his best approximation of a winter coat, went onstage to accept a care basket from youth group members. “We want you to know we’re so happy you’re here,” said Rabbi Rachel Timoner. “We want you to feel welcomed and loved and embraced by this country.”

“The compassion, it’s overwhelming,” said Munther. “I feel like I’m among my own people.”

Yet another congregant, Isaac Luria, volunteered to drive Munther back to his hotel in East Harlem. A Hebrew version of the same song about peace played in the car as Munther fell asleep mid-sentence in the front seat. The mobilization around Munther’s family had been both inspiring and necessary, Luria said.

“I think Donald Trump doesn’t know who he’s messing with,” said Luria, driving up Manhattan’s East Side Highway, past the United Nations. “We’re the patriots now,” he said. “It’s on.”

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