Coming to America: One translator's harrowing journey
- 7 February 2017
- From the section Magazine
An Iraqi translator who worked extensively with the US military spent almost seven years trying to get his family to America. But with days to go before their departure, President Trump signed a travel ban that put the family's future in question.
Friday, 27 January
It took seven years for Munther Alaskry to secure visas for his family. Now, they were only four days away from a new life in Houston, Texas, where friends and an apartment were waiting.
But instead of spending his final days in Baghdad celebrating and saying good-bye to family, Munther was in a panic.
President Donald Trump was about to sign an executive order that would ban immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries for 120 days, including Iraq.
Munther - a 37 year old chemical engineer and former translator for the US military - decided they couldn't wait. He told his family they were leaving Baghdad for the US immediately.
His wife Hiba protested - she hadn't finished packing, and her grandfather was about to have emergency surgery for cancer. She wanted to see him before they left. It was only four days, she told him.
"I don't think we have even one day," Munther said.
After hastily selling off the last of their furniture and some jewellery, Munther was able to raise the $5,000 (£4,022.50) needed for the next-day flight to Houston, with a connection through Istanbul, Turkey. The couple crammed the last of their possessions into gigantic roller suitcases, and told their distraught family members there'd been a drastic change of plans.
Saturday, 28 January
As his family slept, Munther flipped anxiously between CNN, Fox News and the BBC. It was just past midnight in Iraq, but in the US, it was still Friday afternoon. Munther watched President Trump at the Pentagon signing an executive order titled "Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States".
"I am establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America. We don't want them here," Trump said before placing his pen on the paper.
"We want to ensure that we are not admitting into our country the very threats our soldiers are fighting overseas. We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country and love deeply our people."
Munther believed that he firmly belonged in the latter category. He'd always been fascinated by America, learning English from watching action movies like Rambo and The Terminator, and listening to Metallica as a teenager.
He stunned a group of Marines with his knowledge of American heavy metal after he met them at a checkpoint near a relative's home in Baghdad, back in 2003. At the time, he was still a student at the University of Technology, Iraq.
"You speak good English," the Marines told him. "Why don't you join us?"
Munther saw it as an opportunity to rebuild his country in the then-hopeful, post-Saddam Hussein era Iraq.
"I wanted to help the American army and the Iraqi people to understand each other. I was trying to help both of them," he said. "It was the right thing to do."
After the Marines left, Munther got a succession of jobs translating for the 3rd Infantry Division and 1st Armored Division. He was sent to the outskirts of Baghdad to help train the Iraqi National Guard. He manned the checkpoints. He had his own service weapon.
He developed a reputation for his punctuality and his sunny disposition. One former soldier described him to the BBC as a "critical asset", trustworthy with unflinching "integrity and morals".
The most dangerous assignment was with a unit clearing roadside bombs. His convoy was hit more than once.
Fellow translators were getting killed or losing limbs.
They were also getting murdered by members of al-Qaeda.
"They burned them alive. They cut their heads," Alaskry recalled. "In Arabic we say, 'You are putting your spirit on the palm of your hand.' Because you don't know what will happen next."
One day, Alaskry found a letter on his car telling him that he would burn in hell for working for the "infidels".
He fled for Jordan without telling anyone, but returned to Iraq a few years later to once again work for the Americans on a health care project for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
In 2008, Munther married Hiba, also a chemical engineer. When their daughter Dima was born the following year, Munther realized that his young family had no future in Iraq. He was a marked man, and life in Baghdad was too unstable.
The family had to move every year to keep their whereabouts a secret. When American troops began pulling out for good in 2011, Munther felt abandoned, like a trap was closing in on him - a feeling that followed him for years.
"Everyday they are bombing us. Almost everyday, we have like a car bomb," he said. "It's not safe over here, especially [after] working with the Americans."
In 2010, Munther applied for a Special Immigrant Visa, reserved for Iraqis and Afghans who served with the US military and could prove their lives were under threatened as a result.
The programme was choked with applicants desperate to get out of the country. Delays mounted, as did the costs for doctor's exams and certificates from the local police ensuring Munther had no criminal record. Several American law enforcement agencies had to complete independent background checks on the family.
Finally, in December 2016, they were cleared. Their tickets were booked.
"We said, 'There will be a light at the end of the tunnel. We will go to the states. We will secure a better life for our kids."
Saturday, 28 January
Baghdad to Istanbul
In the early morning darkness, Munther and Hiba loaded their enormous bags and two sleepy children into a relative's car and left for the Baghdad airport.
It was the middle of the night in the US. Trump's order, now eight hours old, had not been uploaded to the White House website. As the family checked in, no one questioned their visas or their Iraqi passports.
As they waited for their first flight from Baghdad to Istanbul, Munther dashed off texts to his sponsors and former colleagues from USAID. He sent an email to his contacts at No One Left Behind, a non-profit in Washington founded by American soldiers to help translators resettle in the US.
"I'm so scared ... I don't know what we will face and I don't know if the officer at Istanbul will let us board on the Airplane," he wrote in one message. "Right now the only feeling i have is fear.
"Please pray for us."
The three-hour flight to Istanbul was unbearable. Munther quaked in his seat. It was, he said, "just like a horror movie - when you dream you're jumping from a high building".
In Istanbul, the family transferred to the plane to Houston without incident. After they took their seats, Munther put on cartoons for three year old Hassan. His daughter Dima, an exuberant, chatty seven year old, threw her arms around her father's neck, proclaiming this to be the best airplane she'd ever seen.
Munther started to relax. He reminded Dima of his promise to take her to Disney Land, a treat for which she'd been saving her pocket money.
About 15 minutes after they boarded, a Turkish police officer made her way down the aisle, followed by three uniformed airport security officers. They stopped at Hiba's seat.
"Madame, your passport please," the officer said.
At that moment, Munther says, "I knew our dream was lost".
Sunday, 30 January
After they were pulled from the Turkish flight - the children crying as they were ejected onto the tarmac in the snow - the Alaskrys spent 13 hours in the Turkish airport waiting for a flight back to Baghdad. Hiba and Munther took turns sleeping in order to keep watch over their bags.
By then, news of the executive order had reached airlines and customs officials abroad, and travellers from Syria, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Somalia were being pulled from their seats or barred at the gates at airports all over the world.
In New York City, flights that had been in the air when Trump signed his order had touched down, and US Customs and Border Patrol officers were beginning to hold anyone from the seven barred countries. Some people were sent back. Some signed documents presented to them that cancelled their visas. Even permanent residents - green card holders - were being told they could not return to their homes in the US.
One of the first Iraqis to be stopped at John F Kennedy International Airport was a man called Hameed Khalid Darweesh, who had come to the US on the same type of visa Munther was carrying: an SIV, which he earned after interpreting for the US military for 10 years.
Over the course of the day more and more reports of detainees at airports around the country began to come in: at San Francisco International, Dulles International in Washington, and Philadelphia International Airport.
As the news spread, demonstrators began showing up to the terminals. Darweesh was eventually released, and a challenge filed in court on his behalf resulted in a US District Court judge ordering a stop to all deportations for visa-holders from the seven countries.
Green card-holders were allowed into the country, in some cases after long, intense interviews by customs officials. Lawyers in Virginia, then Massachusetts, then Washington state and Minnesota filed various motions to block Trump's executive order.
Munther watched the protests swelling at JFK on television from their nearly empty house in Baghdad, their carefully packed bags now strewn in a heap across the floor.
"It was amazing," he said. "Lawyers go voluntarily to help the refugees, to help the immigrants, to help the kids. I was feeling happy because other people could make it.
"American people are great people. Really. I work with them. I know them."
Before they left, Munther sold their car and almost all their furniture. He quit his job and had turned down other offers of employment. Because they missed their flight, the resettlement agency in Houston had to give their apartment away. There would be no refund for the aborted trip, nor for the return flight to Baghdad.
In an upstairs bedroom, Munther flipped through a stack of his old identification badges. His weapons authorisation card, his translator's badge, a pass to former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's palace, refashioned as a US military base named FOB Prosperity.
He had a stack of photographs of himself standing with American soldiers - playing cards, riding on top of a tank, posing with an M-16 rifle. The younger Munther looks giddy in the photos.
"They were like my brothers, you know?" he said. "They're really nice guys. Really nice."
Munther pulled out another folder stuffed with letters of commendation, certificates of appreciation, and other documentation of his work history.
"Thank you for your hard work and exceptional performance," read one.
"We couldn't do it without you!" said another.
"Another one. Another one," Munther said, flipping faster and faster, then throwing the whole pile on a heap on his bathroom counter. "Even if I have thousands of those, it's now worth nothing, you know?"
Trump's executive order halted all immigration from Iraq for 120 days. The Alaskrys' visas were due to expire in just two months, at which point they'd be back where they started in 2010.
Munther didn't believe they would ever come to the US, at least not while Trump was president.
"Losing a job, losing money, it's OK. You can survive," he said, "But losing your dreams? This is the most terrible thing."
Tuesday, 31 January
After three days of chaos, confusion, and a blizzard of legal challenges from all over the country, a press conference was called in Washington with the heads of Homeland Security, US Customs and Border Protection and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"This is not, I repeat, not a ban on Muslims," said Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly.
But Kevin McAleenan, acting commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection, did have an important clarification to make.
"Lawful permanent residents and Special Immigrant Visa holders are allowed to board their flights," he said. The state department later confirmed that "it is in the national interest to allow Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders to continue to travel to the United States."
Soon after, the founder of No One Left Behind posted a victory message on the group's Facebook page and sent messages to all of their clients abroad, including Munther: "GREAT NEWS! Afghan and Iraq SIVs WILL be allowed to enter America!! We did it!!!"
Wednesday, 1 February
In his empty apartment, Munther watched McAleenan's comments. He checked the US Embassy's website and read the new guidance. Finally, after a representative from the embassy called and confirmed that he and his family would indeed be able to travel, Munther once again booked a flight to the US.
But almost as soon as the tickets were purchased - this time flying through Doha, Qatar, to New York City - dread set in.
"First I was happy, but now I'm scared," he said. "I don't want my wife and kids to face the same situation.
"Oh my god, I cannot handle it. I barely handled it last time."
As they packed their bags once again, it was clear that little Dima was still traumatised by her experience in Turkey. She asked her mother to bring blankets so that when they were kicked off the flight and forced to spend another night in the airport, she would have something to cover herself with.
"I don't want to go to the America because they don't want us to go," she told her father.
Munther tried to reassure her, but he wasn't feeling very sure himself.
"Hopefully everything will be just fine," he repeated over and over. "Fingers crossed."
Thursday, 2 February
After a sleepless night, Munther lined up the suitcases once more at the front door of their home and called Qatar Airlines to make sure they would be able to board their flight.
He was told no. No-one at the airline had heard of the new guidance.
In a panic, Munther called the US Embassy in Baghdad, which referred him to an emergency hotline and emailed him the text of the new rule to show airport officials.
The airline employees were unimpressed. Munther continued sending frantic emails and texts to the US Embassy all the way to the airport. Finally, about an hour before the flight was set to take off, Munther got a call from Qatar Airlines.
"Do you want to hear some good news?" the man asked him.
The family was cleared, and allowed through security with just 30 minutes to make it to their gate. After a sprint through the airport, they arrived just in time for their flight to Doha.
It was at this point that Munther finally broke down.
"I don't know how to describe how I'm feeling right now," he said, tearing up. "Finally. It was a struggle. But finally."
Friday, 3 February
New York City
The flight from Doha touched down at John F Kennedy International Airport at 8:30am, and a small group of lawyers, a local rabbi and a volunteer chauffer waited by customs for the Alaskrys.
An hour passed, then two.
All of the Doha flight passengers came and went with no sign of the family.
"This is worrying," said Emad Khalil, a lawyer from the newly formed group No Ban JFK. He started making phone calls to the American Civil Liberties Union, who in turn began calling the border patrol and airport officials.
After three hours, Khalil was certain that the family was being detained somewhere behind the big, white wall that separated customs from arrivals. If they did not appear soon, the lawyers said they would file a legal motion on behalf of the family.
Finally, after five anxious hours, they finally emerged, Dima and Hassan holding hands, Hiba and Munther smiling from behind a roller cart stacked high with luggage.
Despite the lengthy delay, Hiba said that the customs officials who interviewed them were friendly, and they never felt intimidated.
One woman handed Dima and Hassan drawings from her own children that read, "Welcome to New York!" Dima chattered away about her plans to see Frozen's Elsa at Disney Land.
"I like it so much - it's so cute," she enthused about the bland, sterile airport terminal.
Like her father, she also learned English in part from watching movies.
"She would like to be famous," said Hiba, smiling. "She has a very strong personality."
At the hotel, the family was greeted by two women from No One Left Behind. They brought a basket filled with Legos, Play-Doh, blocks, a fashion drawing kit for Dima. The children unpacked and re-packed the basket over and over again, counting their new bounty.
Finally, the Alaskrys were left alone to ascend to their 15th floor room, overlooking the rooftop gardens of the Upper East Side.
The children ripped open packets of mini Chips Ahoy cookies, and Dima devoured her first Pop-Tart. They scurried from one end of the room to the other. No one seemed ready for a nap, though they'd been up for nearly two days.
The upshot of the cancelled flight to Houston was an unexpected three-day vacation in New York City, thanks to a relative who paid for their hotel as a gift. Sitting on the plush, crisp bedspread, Munther was in disbelief.
"I've been hearing songs about New York, I've been watching New York like from the American movies," he said. "You see like the yellow taxi of New York, the pizza of New York - it's amazing."
The Alaskrys' new, final destination was Rochester, New York, about five hours north of the city, where a host family and a group of about 40 volunteers waited to help them navigate their new lives in the US.
But before all of that, Munther said he was taking his children to the Statue of Liberty.
"Now they are in the best country in the world, in my opinion," he said. "This is my dream, to bring my kids here, now. After like, maybe ten years, 20 years, I'll be able to tell my kids, 'Listen, you were in Baghdad in that situation, I brought you all the way, I did all these sacrifices for you, and you are here now.'
"I'm sure - or I hope - they will appreciate it."