Wall Street Journal
By Shibani Mahtani and Raja Abdulrahim
February 7, 2017
After five years as a refugee in Turkey and more than a week trapped by a U.S. political and legal battle over people like them, Baraa Haj Khalaf finally arrived on American soil with her husband and 1-year-old daughter, reuniting with the rest of her family.
“We are so happy and overwhelmed to be here,” said Ms. Haj Khalaf, 22, through an interpreter at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on Tuesday. “We have just received so much support, I have no words.”
Her brother carried Sham, Ms. Haj Khalaf’s toddler, in the air, smiling and laughing, as the family’s co-sponsors, a group of Chicago moms, looked on.
The family joins a stream of people trying to enter the U.S. through a window granted by a federal judge’s temporary stay on an executive order by President Donald Trump that halted all refugee arrivals and immigration from seven countries. Mr. Trump said the measure would keep “radical Islamic terrorists” out of the U.S.
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco heard oral arguments on the executive order Tuesday and adjourned without making a ruling.
Ms. Haj Khalaf, her husband and their daughter cleared customs in just over an hour, an unusually fast process given the lengthy questioning periods since the executive order was signed.
Awaiting them in Chicago were the rest of Ms. Haj Khalaf’s family, who arrived in the U.S. in September, and 38 mothers from a comfortable Chicago neighborhood who banded together to help Ms. Haj Khalaf settle into her new life. Ms. Haj Khalaf and her family were due to travel to the U.S. on Jan. 30 but were unable to board their flight because of the travel ban.
On Tuesday, some of the mothers brought balloons and welcome signs that they had prepared a week ago to the airport to welcome the family. They took the Haj Khalaf family to their new apartment in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, where a hot meal was waiting for them.
Her father, Khaled Haj Khalaf, 46, and his wife, Fattuom Bakir, 44, speak little English and at first had trouble navigating Skokie. The children who arrived with them felt isolated from American culture and barely left home.
“It was almost like we put ourselves in a prison between these walls,” said Mohammad Haj Khalaf, Ms. Haj Khalaf’s brother.
But their sponsors and faith-based resettlement groups helped the family meet other refugees and neighbors. The Haj Khalaf children in Skokie are now enrolled in English classes, slowly picking up American slang, and Mohammad has a job at a food-packaging plant.
“So many people have supported us and helped us and made us feel welcome. We’ve come to see even a smile as a gesture of help,” Mohammad said.
Among the family’s supporters are dozens of young mothers who see themselves as kindred with Ms. Haj Khalaf despite their different lives in the affluent Lincoln Square neighborhood. Together, they decided to co-sponsor the family with Chicago-based resettlement agency Refugee One.
In recent weeks, they furnished an apartment for the young family, including a TV to help them learn English. On Monday, members of the group were rushing to stock the family’s kitchen with halal meat, canned and fresh vegetables and grains.
“Our bond with them comes from their circumstances, which before leaving Syria wasn’t that different from ours,” said Alisa Wartick, 36, who brought the other mothers together through social media and her own networks to co-sponsor the family.
She did so, she said, prompted by a fear the day after Mr. Trump was elected that refugees would find it harder to come to the U.S. and feel welcome. “You can picture who they are, a young couple with a kid just trying to do what they can for their family,” Ms. Wartick said.
Before the civil war, Khaled Haj Khalaf worked at a pastry shop and owned his own home. Ms. Haj Khalaf, his eldest, was a freshman in Arabic literature. His eldest son Mohammad was heading to engineering school and his younger two children were close to completing their high-school education.
In the war, their home was bombed, as was the pastry shop. When Mr. Haj Khalaf lost his brother, he knew it was time to leave.
It took nearly five years, with most of them living in a tent in a refugee camp in Kahramanmaras, a Turkish town about 85 miles north of the Syrian border, before the Haj Khalafs’ refugee status was finally approved. Baraa had moved out two years ago, living since her marriage in an apartment near the camp.
Their applications were processed at different times owing to an administrative error, and Mr. Haj Khalaf, his wife and three children headed off first, leaving Baraa and her family behind.
“We were hopeful, day by day things were getting better, easier, then the travel ban happened and it was like we were back to zero again,” said Mr. Haj Khalaf. His wife, upon hearing the news that her daughter’s travels were banned, collapsed and was rushed to the hospital.
The overwhelming support of their sponsors and other Americans, including those who protested the ban at airports all over the country, hasn’t gone unnoticed by the family.
“I lost faith at first but when I saw the protests, I regained my faith,” said Ms. Haj Khalaf, in Istanbul.
In Skokie, her brother says, the family has been overwhelmed by the kindness of Americans. He has translated the sonnet on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty—“give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—into Arabic for his parents to prove the good inherent in the American idea.
As she planned to leave, Ms. Haj Khalaf was cautious, knowing that her plans could fall apart again as quickly as it did the first time.
“I had already drawn my future life in my head and the life of my daughter and my future children,” Ms. Haj Khalaf said. With the executive order, “one person, with one stroke of a pen, scratched out all our futures,” she said.
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