Iraqi Refugee Family Is Reunited in Texas After Tragedy, Trump Travel Ban
By Kathryn Lundstrom
Photography By Shelby Knowles
Ammar al-Sabahi was a bundle of nerves. “One hour feels like one year,” he said while waiting for his family’s flight to land in Houston.
Once it did, Ammar’s wife and four children were pulled aside by Customs authorities and held for three hours while Ammar started on his second pack of cigarettes.
About 11:30 p.m. on March 12, the family finally made its way through the doors marked “international arrivals.” Ammar dove over the barrier to embrace his family.
It had been 11 months since Ammar last saw his wife and children. A family tragedy in Baghdad drew them back to Iraq only three months after arriving in Austin as refugees, which upended their immigration process. While they were gone, President Donald Trump began to follow through on his anti-immigrant campaign promises, including a travel ban that could have prevented them from re-entering the U.S.
Now they can finally move forward. “This is a new life,” Ammar said.
In Iraq, Ammar, 45, had worked for 13 years as a security guard for the U.S. Army and contractors. Despite the dangers, Ammar believed in the U.S. mission: “I know my country have a president-dictator,” he said. U.S. troops “do everything: bring freedom, build hospitals, schools — everything.”
Ammar, just under average height with short-cropped hair and missing a tooth beneath his mustache, kept the true nature of his job a secret from everyone but his wife. Eventually, enemies of the U.S. found out that he really wasn’t working in a restaurant in southern Iraq. When word got out, all their lives were at risk.
Coming to the U.S. was the first step toward a dream of Ammar’s: giving his children American citizenship.
Three months after their arrival, Ammar’s wife, Zainab, 38, received devastating news from Iraq: Zainab’s mother, her pregnant sister-in-law, just a month from her due date, and her sister-in-law’s mother were all hit by a truck with failing brakes in the middle of Baghdad. Zainab’s mother escaped with broken ribs, but the other two women were killed.
Against the advice of the Refugee Services of Texas, the nonprofit, immigrant-focused social service agency that sponsored the al-Sabahi family, Zainab flew back to Iraq with her kids to assist her mother and attend the funerals. An Iraqi friend had paid for their tickets. Ammar stayed in Texas to continue working 65-plus hours a week at a local restaurant – his minimum-wage job during his first seven months in Austin.
For his family, returning was a long and arduous process. Zainab had not sought permission from the U.S. government to leave the country, so immigration law required that she provide a good reason to leave and could not wait for the government to approve the trip. Refugee Services of Texas dropped the case, but Brian Kurth, a volunteer for the agency, worked to find another organization to pick it up.
Kurth found Hannah Silk Kapasi, “a Jewish attorney, married to a Muslim, working for Catholic Charities,” he said. Catholic Charities of Central Texas agreed to take the case and helped raise money to cover the legal costs. “It has taken a village,” Kurth said.
Silk Kapasi helped the al-Sabahis file the paperwork showing they had a compelling and time-sensitive reason to leave without permission. After the documents were filed in mid-September, however, it was a waiting game.
On Jan. 28, Trump issued his first immigration ban, creating a new level of uncertainty. Immigration law already prohibits new refugees from staying out of the country for more than one year. As the al-Sabahis had left the U.S. in April 2016, that deadline was quickly approaching.
When a judge temporarily blocked the ban on Feb. 4, Silk Kapasi sprang into action. With the help of Austin City Council Member Greg Casar and U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, Kurth and Silk Kapasi were able to get the documents pushed through the immigration bureaucracy. Using frequent flier miles donated by an acquaintance of Casar’s, the team booked flights for Zainab and the kids.
Over 40 people donated nearly $12,000 to their cause through personal donations and two public fundraising pages – one set up by Kurth and another by an Army veteran who urged his friends and family to “right a wrong towards a family that has sacrificed so much on behalf of our great nation.” The money is helping furnish the family’s new apartment and cover relocation costs.
Before his family’s return, Ammar was overwhelmed by the prospect of seeing them again. “I don’t know what will I do,” Ammar said. “I don’t know I will cry, I don’t know I will hug them, I don’t know. It is very hard for me without my wife, my kids.”
Now, the family is reunited and settling into their cozy three-bedroom apartment just north of Austin. The new complex is funded by Foundation Communities, a local nonprofit that provides affordable housing accessible to job opportunities and social services. The complex of brightly colored buildings with modern outdoor play areas offers partially subsidized rent and an on-site learning center. It’s less than a mile from the Lakeline MetroRail station.
The kids have started school in the Round Rock district and are working on learning English, as is Zainab. Ammar proudly listed his kids’ ambitions: his daughter will be a doctor; his three sons, ages six, 10, and 13, want to be a pilot, an engineer and a soccer player, in that order. Though Zainab wears a headscarf, their 16-year-old daughter doesn’t wear one to school.
“I tell her, you do what you want,” said Ammar. “This is not important.”
Ammar finishes his 12- to 15- hour shifts with Fasten, an Austin-based ride-hailing company, at 6 a.m. on most days. Zainab worked as an in-home caregiver for elderly folks after they arrived last spring, and said she plans to find work again as soon as they’ve settled in.
Despite a difficult year and a political climate in the U.S. that’s less than welcoming to refugees, Ammar remains steadfast in his belief that becoming American is the best thing he can do for his children.
“This is my dream,” he said. “I am so happy.”
Additional reporting by Shelby Knowles