* Travellers take advantage of legal uncertainty
* Say they were helped by U.S. politicians
By Ahmed Rasheed and David Shepardson
BAGHDAD/NEW YORK, Feb 5 Fuad Sharef took one of
the first planes out of Iraq with a connection to the United
States this past weekend, just hours after a judge in Seattle
blocked U.S. President Donald Trump's ban on immigrants from
seven mainly Muslim countries.
Sharef, who worked for a USAID subcontractor in Iraq, was
prevented with his wife and three kids from boarding a
U.S.-bound flight last week via Cairo after Trump signed a
90-day travel ban on citizens of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia,
Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
The U.S. president also imposed a 120-day ban on all
Sharef said he came out of the tumultuous week with a lesson
he wanted his kids to learn as well.
"Yeah, my life changed dramatically. You know, ups and
downs, and I learned a lesson that if you have a right, never
surrender," he said before he and his family departed Erbil, the
capital of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, on a Turkish
Airlines flight with a connection to New York via Istanbul.
Once in the United States, the family will head to
Nashville, Tennessee, where the local Tennessee Immigrant and
Refugee Rights Coalition is planning to welcome them at
"Join us at the Nashville International Airport (BNA) to
welcome Fuad Sharef Suleman and his family to their new home in
Nashville," the TIRRC said on its Facebook event page.
"Nashvillians fought to bring them home - and now we can
show them the very best of Southern hospitality!," it said.
Nael Zaino, a Syrian refugee who worked for the
International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Turkey, also
received help from Americans.
He was reunited with family in Boston on Saturday after
getting a waiver from the State Department, thanks to
intervention by U.S. lawmakers who were contacted by Zaino's
Zaino's arrival was relatively smooth, though he was pulled
out of the arrival line, put through "secondary screening" and
asked a long series of questions before a U.S. agent stamped his
passport and gave him a friendly send-off.
"He said, 'Go on, start your life, and enjoy your time with
your son,'" Zaino said. "I didn't believe it until I came out of
the airport. At that moment I realized I'm not in a dream."
Zaino had received a visa to join his wife and U.S.-born
infant son in Los Angeles on Jan. 27, but was blocked from
travelling after Trump signed his executive order the same day,
according to his sister-in-law.
"We've been lobbying a lot of senators in the last few
days," said Katty al-Hayek, a PhD student in Massachusetts with
her own pending asylum claim, who met him at the airport.
"It's been a long, stressful story but senators ... were
able to get him a waiver from the State Department."
VALID FOR TRAVEL
Trump said his executive order, which also barred Syrian
refugees indefinitely, was needed to protect the United States
from Islamist militants. Religious minorities persecuted by the
Islamic State, and other Iraqis fleeing violence, were among
The United Nations said the ban would have prevented a total
of 20,000 people in "precarious circumstances" in the seven
countries targeted from resettling in the United States during
the period covered by the suspension.
A ruling by a federal judge in Seattle, Washington, on
Friday was the first move in what could be months of legal
challenges. It also opened a window of opportunity for some
"We were booked to travel next week but decided to bring it
forward after we heard," said a Yemeni woman, recently married
to a U.S. citizen, who boarded a plane from Cairo to Turkey on
Sunday to connect with a U.S.-bound flight.
"This is the first time I try to travel to America," she
said, declining to be named for fear it could complicate her
entry to the United States.
In a statement dated Saturday but published on its website
on Sunday, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad said visa processing had
resumed and appointments would be scheduled for applicants.
Visas revoked by the Trump order "are now valid for travel to
the United States," it added.
Sharef and his family spent two years obtaining U.S. visas.
"Yeah, we are very excited. We are very happy," Sharef told
Reuters TV before he and his family boarded their flight to New
York. "Finally, we have been cleared. We are allowed to enter
the United States."
Sharef said he applied to immigrate to the United States
under the Special Immigration Visa program, designed for those
who worked for U.S. military and civilian state bodies in Iraq.
U.S. Representative Jim Cooper of Tennessee helped clear the
hurdles to allow the family to try again, Sharef said.
Baghdad protested against the U.S. ban, calling it unfair
and saying no Iraqi had been involved in attacks on U.S.
But it refrained from retaliating as it seeks to maintain
U.S. support for Iraqi forces battling Islamic State in Mosul.
Late on Saturday, a San Francisco-based U.S. appeals court
denied the U.S. government's request for an immediate
administrative stay on the Seattle judge's decision. Iraqi
government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi said: "It is a move in the
right direction to solve the problems that it caused."
The U.S. State Department and Department of Homeland
Security said many visitors were expected to start arriving on
Sunday, while the government said it expects to begin admitting
refugees again on Monday.
Rana Shamasha, 32, an Iraqi refugee in Lebanon, was due to
travel to the United States with her two sisters and mother on
Feb. 1 to join relatives in Detroit until their trip was
cancelled as a result of the travel ban.
She is now waiting to hear from U.N. officials overseeing
"If they tell me there is a plane tomorrow morning, I will
go. If they tell me there is one in an hour, I will go," she
told Reuters by telephone in Beirut, saying their bags were
"I no longer have a house here, work, or anything."
On Sunday, a spokesman for the International Organization
for Migration, Leonard Doyle, confirmed that about 2,000
refugees are ready to travel to the United States.
"We expect a small number of refugees to arrive in the U.S.
on Monday Feb 6th. They are mainly from Jordan and include
people fleeing war and persecution in Syria," he said in an
An official at the airport in Beirut said three Syrian
families had left for the United States via Europe on Sunday
morning. In Cairo, airline sources said that since Saturday, 33
people from the seven countries affected by the U.S. ban had
been allowed to board U.S.-bound flights.
(Additional reporting by Katie Paul, Ayat Basma, Chris Michaud
and Lin Noeheid; Writing by Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Paul