Monday, January 30, 2017
At the Airport, in a Windowless Room, in Limbo
A U.S. green-card holder from Syria describes her experience at O’Hare
By Ian Lovett
The Wall Street Journal
President Trump’s executive order on immigration led to chaotic scenes at airports nationwide. Above, volunteer lawyers at O'Hare on Sunday.
After a long flight from Amsterdam, Abir Hemaidan landed at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago at 12:42 p.m. on Saturday. She didn’t leave the airport for nine hours.
In the interim, Ms. Hemaidan—a Syrian national and U.S. green-card holder who has lived in the U.S. for the last five years—was questioned by multiple customs agents, she said.
The agents interrogated her about every detail of her life, she said. They asked about her income and how much money she was carrying, her children, her husband and the situation in Syria.
Ms. Hemaidan’s day at O’Hare offers an inside look at the impact of President Donald Trump’s executive order restricting people from Syria and several other Middle East countries from entering the U.S. Abruptly put in place on Friday, the order sowed confusion that was compounded by legal challenges and adjustments by the White House.
While thousands of protesters converged on airports across the country, people who were detained inside, like Ms. Hemaidan, had no idea they were at the center of the storm.
Ms. Hemaidan was able to hold on to her phone. But customs agents told her the device would be confiscated if she used it. The phone stayed in her pocket.
Mostly, she waited in an anxious limbo, spending more than five hours with several dozen other people in a windowless room, unable to get any information about when—or whether—she would be let out.
“This room was a horrible place,” Ms. Hemaidan, 46, said. “It was a difficult time for everyone. We could not talk to our families. Every time we asked what was happening, nobody knew. They said only to wait.”
The room was crowded and uncomfortable, with roughly 25 people inside crammed onto wooden benches, Ms. Hemaidan said. The group included four senior citizens in wheelchairs and a handful of children. One baby, less than a year old, cried constantly.
“That gave us more tension,” she said.
Most of those detained, Ms. Hemaidan said, were green-card holders like herself, legal permanent residents who had been living in the U.S. for years.
Green-card holders were a particular point of confusion. At first, they were included in the order, but late Sunday the new Department of Homeland Security chief said they wouldn’t be affected.
Though the customs agents at O’Hare offered no information to those detained, the agents were kind, Ms. Hemaidan said. They emptied the trash in the bathroom and gave cookies to the children. The adults didn’t get food, only water.
Ms. Hemaidan said she wasn’t hungry anyhow: “I only wanted to know what was going on.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
While Ms. Hemaidan was waiting, her family was also desperately trying to figure out what was happening to her. Ms. Hemaidan had been out of the country for two months, first in Syria visiting her husband and youngest son, who still live there, and then her oldest son, who is studying in Amsterdam. She lives with her daughter in Daytona Beach, Fla., where she runs a medical office.
“We were all worried,” said Ammar Hemaidan, 51, Ms. Hemaidan’s brother. He is a U.S. citizen who also lives in Daytona Beach. “We didn’t know where she was or what was going on.”
After four hours in detention, one of the elderly women, who was in a wheelchair and using an oxygen tank, began to cry to the six officers who were going in and out.
“She told them, ‘Just let me out. I need to sleep. I need to rest,’” Ms. Hemaidan said. The customs agents put a blanket over her, but everyone stayed in the room.
Finally, about an hour later, they began to call people out of the room, one by one.
Ms. Hemaidan was the last one to be called. The customs agent handed back her passport with no explanation. She was free to go.
Her family’s ordeal, though, isn't over. Her husband had been in the process of applying for a visa. She now has no idea if or when he will be able to come to the U.S.
As she exited customs enforcement, she was shocked to see hundreds of protesters, who cheered as she walked out. She had no idea anyone had been paying attention.
“I was very thankful to them,” she said. “I felt like somebody cared about us.”