For the past year and a half, junior biology major Joey Assali’s father, Ghassan Assali, left his office every day and headed to a townhouse on 2nd Street in Allentown, Pa.
He went there to fix-up the six-person home for his two brothers and their families, who live in Syria. He had hoped the house would be a safe place from the violence of the Syrian Civil War, which began in 2011 and has displaced more than 13 million people. But now it will remain vacant longer than he expected.
“[The house] was all set up, it was all ready,” Joey said. “Now, the house is just sitting there, empty still.”
For more than 13 years, Joey’s extended family had been trying to move to the United States, where his immediate family has lived for his whole life. They began their paperwork for visas and green cards in 2003. But when they landed at Philadelphia International Airport on Saturday, they were detained for three hours. Then, they were sent back on a plane to Doha, Qatar.
Assali’s two uncles, two aunts and two cousins were sent back because of President Donald Trump’s executive order “Protecting the Nation from Terrorist Attacks by Foreign Nationals” that was signed on Friday. The order prohibits people from seven Muslim-majority countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan and Yemen — from entering the United States. Protests against the ban took place across the nation, including one the Philadelphia airport on Sunday.
“When the war started and we tried to push for the visas, [my family] insisted that things weren’t as bad as they seemed because they didn’t want us to worry, they said, ‘It could be worse,’” Joey said. “As long as you’re alive, you don’t want to complain too much because people have it much worse. We know people who have had their families who were blown up in front of them, houses targeted by car bombs.”
“You never know when the next attack is going to be, if you’re going to get bombed in your sleep, if you can walk through the streets to get groceries,” Joey added. “My heart is always with them.”
Since the order was rolled out, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said people from the seven countries who hold a legal permanent resident card (or green card) will be allowed in the U.S., according to a CNN report. The Assalis legally obtained green cards and visas months before their flight on Saturday, but U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents turned them away, despite having the cards.
Joey said his family members were given two options: stay detained and cuffed until the next morning and have their visas thrown away, or fly to Qatar before going back to Damascus, Syria’s capital, and keep their visas to attempt to return to the U.S. at a later date. The family, which was not provided translators, signed paperwork to go home and try again. But once they arrived in Qatar, they learned the paperwork also canceled their visas, and their 13-year wait to come to the U.S. was wasted.
Joey said his family was sent back to a life of uncertainty. To come to America, his family sold all of their belongings and assets, like their cars.
Now, his family is back in Damascus, suddenly unsure how to find their next meal.
“None of us have had any of those issues in America,” he added. “I was so excited for them to see what it was like for me to live here and finally experience what I get to live through, how lucky I am to have all the opportunities I have.”
“But their first impression was to feel unwelcomed and sent back,” Joey said. “I can’t imagine what they must’ve been feeling that whole plane ride back, how heartbroken they must’ve been.”
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and Mayor Jim Kenney both defended the Assali family at protests Saturday and Sunday at the airport. The Assali family in the U.S. is working with lawyers to file a federal lawsuit.
Before the protests began, President Richard Englert issued a statement to all students about the executive order.
“Temple prides itself on being a community of diverse scholars, many of whom come to us from foreign nations,” it read. “We are committed to enabling our faculty, students and visitors — both from the U.S. and from locations around the globe — to contribute to the vitality of the education we provide and the role we play in the local, regional and global economy.”
Englert provided information about the International Student and Scholar Services and advised students from the seven prohibited countries against traveling outside the U.S.
Takiko Goldschneider, an immigration services specialist in ISSS, said only a few students had called or come into the ISSS office with questions since the order was signed.
Temple has 55 students and 10 faculty from the affected area, but all are in the U.S., said university spokesman Brandon Lausch.
Many students and alumni were a part of the estimated 5,000-person protest against the executive order at the Philadelphia airport, on Sunday, after several hundred protested on Saturdaynight.
Sophomore finance major Sayem Rahman brought a sign that displayed a December 2015 tweet from Vice President Mike Pence that read “Calls to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. are offensive and unconstitutional.”
“My parents are immigrants and I’m a first-generation American,” said Rahman, whose family immigrated from Bangladesh. “All my family came from overseas and they went through literal hell and back to give me a stable life. So when I see other immigrants getting affected by it, I don’t stand for it.”
“It’s been really frustrating to me being able to see Donald Trump and the policies he’s proposed that are so dangerous and hear people say, ‘Oh he doesn’t mean all of that. He’s just going to do the things that work,’” said Sarah Kim, the Parliament chair for the School of Social Work at the protest. “But really all the horrible things he’s said he’s going to do, he’s doing.”
Kim said TSG Parliament will discuss the immigration ban to see what they can do to ensure the students from these countries are supported.
“People complain about protests and say, ‘Oh go get a job, this doesn’t do anything,’” she added. “I don’t know what it’s gonna take for people to really hear the message that protesting is making people confront the realities of what’s happening.”
Gillian McGoldrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @gill_mcgoldrick.