A 20-year-old Iraqi woman and her immigrant family had an emotional reunion in Maine on Friday following a nerve-wracking week during which she was stranded in Iraq because of President Trump’s immigration order.
Banah Al-Hanfy met her parents, sisters and extended family after her flight landed at Logan International Airport in Boston on Friday afternoon, and the family returned to Portland in the evening. They are staying with relatives in Portland until they can acquire their own housing.
Labed Al-Hanfy, 48, and his wife, Soso, and two daughters, Jumana, 19, and Omaima, 13, arrived in New Jersey from Baghdad on Jan. 24 and flew to Portland the next day. Banah was supposed to board a plane a few days later, but she wasn’t allowed on her flight after Trump issued his executive order Jan. 27.
Labed said the family had been threatened during an uncertain political climate in Iraq – and as someone who worked for the U.S. government, it was always possible his family would be targeted. When they were threatened recently, they had to quickly leave Iraq.
But their oldest daughter was left behind and in danger.
Banah said she holed up with a relative for a week while waiting to hear if she would be allowed to board an airplane heading to the U.S. After midnight on Thursday, she received a phone call telling her it was time, so she packed a bag and spent 18 hours on airliners before arriving in Boston.
“It was very dangerous to be there,” Banah said. “If they saw me, people would be asking and questioning me.”
She said it was an emotional reunion in Boston.
“I said to them, ‘I missed you very much.’ I was very happy to see them,” said Banah, who was studying accounting at American University in Baghdad and intends to continue her studies here once she is settled.
It was a harrowing week for the family, which has a special immigrant visa allowing them entry into the U.S. and permission to work. Labed worked for the U.S. government in Iraq, as an Arabic-English interpreter for the U.S. military and as a public policy adviser for the U.S. government to help rebuild Iraq.
Because of Labed’s work for the U.S., the entire family holds a special immigrant visa.
Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, said that Trump’s executive order did not cover special immigrant visas, but in the confusion that followed his order, Banah was not permitted to board a Turkish Airlines flight last week. She was traveling separately from her family because her parents and sisters had a deadline to leave Iraq and she didn’t receive her visa in time to board the plane with them. While the rest of her family left before Trump’s executive orders, by the time Banah attempted to board a plane last weekend, the order had slammed the door on immigrants traveling to the United States from the seven Muslim-majority countries: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Yemen.
A federal judge in Washington state temporarily halted Trump’s executive orders on Friday night.
Earlier this week, Pingree said her staff and a group of volunteers worked to find an airline that would permit Banah to travel to the U.S. Eventually, the German airline Lufthansa granted her permission. On Thursday, she boarded a Lufthansa flight and flew from Baghdad to Doha, Qatar, from there to Istanbul, Turkey, then on to Frankfurt, Germany, and finally to Boston. The trip took 18 hours.
The Al-Hanfys met with Pingree, her staff, well-wishers and the media at the Portland International Jetport on Friday night.
Labed Al-Hanfy said after his daughter was stranded in Iraq, the family had many sleepless nights and he didn’t believe the outcome would be a happy one.
“I expected I would never see Banah again,” Labed Al-Hanfy said. “Now we can sleep.”
Labed Al-Hanfy said the immigration order was confusing and poorly executed, but now that they’re in the U.S., they believe they will be welcomed.
“I’m confident now that we will not be let down,” he said. “The United States will stand with us.”
Pingree said she was outraged by Trump’s “unthinkable” order temporarily banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, which has touched off protests across the United States. Pingree said when her office heard about the Al-Hanfy’s situation, her staff and the group of volunteers did their best to help.
“We didn’t want you to get left behind,” Pingree said to Banah.
Labed Al-Hanfy described the family as secular Muslim.
The family is temporarily staying with his brother, Aqeel Mohialdeen, an Iraqi immigrant and editor-publisher of Maine’s first Arabic-language newspaper, The Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Mohialdeen said he came to the U.S. seven years ago also on a special immigrant visa, as he had also worked for the U.S. government in Iraq after the Iraq War. Mohialdeen lived in Michigan and Texas before settling in Portland three years ago with his wife and two daughters.
“I am very happy, very grateful,” Mohialdeen said. He said he greatly appreciates the freedom he enjoys living in the United States. He said he hopes immigrants continue to be allowed to arrive in America. “I hope my niece is not going to be the last allowed here. I hope the door stays open for other people.”
Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at: