Life in limbo: Diary of a Syrian mom affected by travel ban

Alaa Ali Alali, a Syrian refugee in the U.S., speaks out about the travel ban.

ByLena Masri
March 07, 2017, 11:31 AM

— -- ABC News has been chronicling the experience of Alaa Ali Alali, a 48-year-old single mother who fled war-torn Aleppo in 2012 with her 14-year-old son, as she tried to navigate her way to the U.S. as a Syrian refugee following President Donald Trump's executive order from January, which banned Syrian refugees indefinitely from entering the country. She had been cleared to come to the U.S. in February, but the executive order threw that into limbo. A month ago, federal judges suspended the executive order and Alali arrived in the U.S. on Feb. 22. She shares her journey through videos, text messages and phone calls.

PHOTO: Alaa Ali Alali had been vetted for nearly two years before her asylum application was approved.
Alaa Ali Alali had been vetted for nearly two years before her asylum application was approved.
Alaa Ali Alali

March 6

On Monday, President Trump issued a revised immigration order. The new order removes Iraq from the list of seven Muslim-majority countries affected. It still bans Syrian refugees from entering the U.S., but this time they are barred temporarily, not indefinitely. Alaa Ali Alali said she thinks the ban will hurt many vulnerable people.

"I think this will hurt a lot of people, innocent people, who need immediate help," she told ABC News in a video recording. "And these people, the majority of them are women and kids. I remember the hard time and how much we suffered to reach America. I am praying for those who are still dreaming of a safe life for their kids."

Feb. 22

Alali was greeted with cheers and applause as she walked into the arrivals terminal at Oakland International Airport on Wednesday evening.

"I cannot believe that I am here right now," Alali told ABC News. "I don’t believe. It looks like a dream, really."

Alali's brother Hassan, who has not seen his sister in seven years, was one of the family members waiting for her at the airport. He handed her a bouquet of flowers. Their lips were trembling as they embraced each other. "It’s a very special day," he told ABC News. "Finally she is with us, safe. And she is starting a new life. Hopefully she’s going to be very successful. I’m very happy. It’s a great day … very special day in my life."

Alali had previously told ABC News that she was afraid that she would never make it to the U.S. because of the executive order that had banned refugees from Syria indefinitely from entering the country. The order was suspended by a court ruling.

Feb. 21

Today, Alali messaged ABC News from the airport in Cairo. She would soon board a plane to New York.

"I feel relieved now," she said in a video recording. "I’m going to meet my family again."

Feb. 20

Alali found out that she will board a plane to the U.S. tomorrow. She said she went to meet with case workers from the International Organization for Migration in Cairo. The two previous times she went to such meetings, her planned U.S. trips were canceled -- but this time seemed different, she said. She even signed a letter promising she'd repay the IOM for the plane ticket that was booked for her.

"I'm very happy that I'm going to see my father and brothers," Alali told ABC News in Arabic over the phone.

After Alali fled her war-torn Syria in 2012, she tried to apply for a visa to the U.S. so that she could visit her mother there who had entered a coma. But Alali never got a visa and her mother died before she could see her. Alali said she had been afraid the same would happen to her father who is in his 80s.

"I haven't seen my dad for five years and some of my brothers I haven't seen for 10 years. My mom died there and I couldn’t see her. After my mom passed away, my dad has been alone. My brothers love him and are very kind to him, but in that age you have a type of weakness. When I talk to him on the phone he always cries. The plan is that we'll live together the three of us -- my dad, my son and I. I hope my happiness will be complete and that I'll actually be traveling to the U.S. tomorrow. I'm scared that something will happen. Surprising decisions keep being made and the situation might change."

Alali said she has been trying to get a ticket for her son on her New York bound flight; as a Canadian citizen he is not part of the refugee program like his mother.

"So far the travel agency has told me that they don't know if he can get a ticket on the same flight as me," she said. "It's one of the things that are making me nervous. He has never traveled alone before. I don't know the rules. I'm afraid that we will be separated and that he will be questioned in the airport if he's traveling alone -- that they will ask him where his family is and deny him entry."

Feb. 15

Once again, Alali's travel to the U.S. has been postponed. She said the International Organization for Migration had told her to prepare for travel tomorrow, but today the organization informed her that she will not be traveling as planned. IOM declined to comment. A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department told ABC News the department was not able to provide information on specific resettlement cases to the media.

"The travel was postponed again until the 21st of this month," she told ABC News in Arabic over the phone. "Today I spent four to five hours waiting in the street outside the U.S. Embassy while case workers from the International Organization for Migration were inside trying to fix the problem. The U.S. has a list of names of who is able to travel tomorrow and apparently my name is not on it. My son Mohammad and I had been so happy because we were finally going to the U.S. We had made a deal that we were going to the Pyramids today. It was going to be our last memory from Egypt. Our bags are ready. I have prepared everything and weighed the bags. Now I'm crying and my son is upset. I don't know if I should unpack or not. My family in the U.S. had been so happy and was expecting us. My son was so happy. He's very attached to his granddad who's in the U.S. He's like a father to him."

Alali said she had paid around $300 to change her son's plane ticket after their scheduled trip on Feb. 9 was cancelled. She has to purchase his plane ticket herself because he's not part of the refugee program like his mother due to his dual Canadian and Syrian citizenship.

"I don’t know if I should still send him to the U.S. tomorrow or not," Alali said. "Currently I can't send him to school here. I took him out of school because I thought we were leaving and I have to pay to send him back to school and I don't know what to do. If I could be sure that he'd be able to enter the country with no problems I'd do it. But I'm afraid they’ll stop him in the airport and ask him why he's traveling alone and how old he is. I spoke to the travel agency and they told me that the fee for changing the ticket would probably be higher this time, but that they'll get back to me. My son really wants to go, but at the same time he wants to be with me. He's afraid like me. I'm afraid they’ll keep postponing the travel until the American president will be able to make a new decision that will stop me from traveling."

Feb. 8

Alali was supposed to board a plane headed to the U.S. on Feb. 9. But today she received a call from the International Organization for Migration, informing her that she will not be traveling after all.

"They told me that they would call me back with a new date. They postponed my travel. Others will be traveling tomorrow, but not me. They told me that they don’t know why my travel was postponed and that they will call me back soon to set a new date," she told ABC News in Arabic.

Alali's son was born in Canada and is a dual Syrian and Canadian citizen, meaning that he is not part of the refugee program like his mother. After Alali learned that she was flying tomorrow, she booked a ticket for her son on the same flight. Now, she says she doesn’t know if she should let him travel alone.

“I begged them [to let me travel tomorrow] because I already booked a ticket for my son. I don’t know what to do now. I’m very distressed. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to travel at all. My son is very upset. He doesn’t want to leave me.”

Earlier in the day, before her travel was cancelled, Alali had a meeting with the IOM. She said she was happy but worried -- the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals still hadn’t made a decision on whether President Trump’s travel ban should be reinstated.

“We have to be at the airport tomorrow at 6 am. And God willing we will depart at 10:30,” she said following the meeting.

“We are going to New York tomorrow. I’m going to buy a suitcase now and then go home. I’ve already weighed my bags so I just need to move things to the new bag and then I’ll be ready. I’m very happy, but I’m also a little afraid. The court still hasn’t made a decision. I’m scared that something I haven’t expected will happen, that the ban will come back into effect. But I’m very happy because I’m going to see my brothers that I haven’t seen for about 10 years and my dad who I haven’t seen for almost five years. My son is also happy that he might get a better life. My dad is happy because he needs me.”

Feb. 6

The decision by a federal judge to place a temporary restraining order on Trump’s ban has failed to allay Alali’s fears.

"As a single mother without any kind of support, loneliness and fear accompanies me for now, but I still trust the people and I hope things will change because justice and mercy are what makes us humans. I think this cruel decision will face refusal by the court. But the process will take a long time. Now, I'm waiting for a call from IOM [The International Organization for Migration] to set a new date for departure. They promised to do the best they could before 'The Ban' starts once again. So I'm in terror of what's next to come."


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