When Sahar Algonaimi came out of a gate at O’Hare’s international terminal yesterday, there were several minutes of quiet, tight, tearful embrace with her sister and her niece. The Syrian national’s odyssey to reach the United States began three weeks ago, when she traveled to Chicago only to put back on a plane to the Middle East, due to a travel ban that took effect while she was in the air.
The ban, ordered by President Donald Trump, barred entry to the U.S. for nationals of seven majority Muslim countries and is now suspended pending court litigation.
Speaking to reporters in Arabic, with interpretation from her niece, Maria Ulayyet, Algonaimi said she was happy and grateful to finally be allowed to see her elderly mother in Valparaiso, Indiana. Algonaimi’s mother, a legal permanent resident of the U.S., underwent cancer surgery on January 27th, the day the travel ban took effect. The next day Algonaimi was supposed to land at O’Hare, but was turned back.
“We all have mothers. We all have fathers. They get ill,” said Kalman Resnick, an immigration attorney who worked with the family to secure Algonaimi’s return. “We all can understand what it must be like to have an ill mother undergoing surgery and want to visit that mother, and the mother wanting her child to visit her,” he said.
Resnick said that once the travel ban was suspended, Algonaimi’s family in the U.S. was able to enlist the help of Senator Joe Donnelly (D-IN) and U.S. Representative Pete Visclosky (D-IN) in obtaining an expedited visa for her to travel again to the U.S.
“I encouraged the family that Sahar should come as soon as possible because there may be a new travel ban,” said Resnick. “My nightmare was what if the new travel ban was announced while she was in the air.”
At a press conference with reporters on Thursday, President Donald Trump said he intends to replace the travel ban with a new executive order next week.
Nour Ulayyet, Algonaimi’s sister and a naturalized U.S. citizen, said that she felt it was a miracle finally to have her sister by her side. While she may have felt angry and worried about the direction of U.S. policy toward Muslims three weeks ago, Ulayyet said she now feels lucky to be in America.
“Because I don’t believe that anything like this… can happen somewhere else where you can reverse something that quickly just because people wanted to speak out,” she explained.
“Now I know for sure that we’re living in a democracy,” she added, “because… now I know for sure that… if there’s something I don’t like I can speak out. Honestly, I never did it (before), but now that I’ve done it… now I think I can face anything.”
Odette Yousef is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @oyousef.