The following article was originally published in The New Yorker.
At 10:05 on Friday morning, a young Iraqi couple named Khalas and Nada were trading panicked texts. Would Nada escape Iraq before President Trump’s executive order barring refugees took effect, or would Trump’s pen-stroke bring all their plans to ruin?
The day before was their second anniversary, but they couldn’t celebrate together: Khalas lives in Washington, D.C., and Nada in Sinjar, in the north of Iraq. Khalas, a former interpreter for the U.S. Army, was granted a Special Immigrant Visa for his service to America. He came last July, thinking that Nada would arrive shortly thereafter.
They are also Yazidis, members of a pre-Islamic religion whose adherents have been severely persecuted in recent years, particularly by the Islamic State.
Khalas had been to the U.S. four years earlier as part of a troupe of students from the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (A.U.I.S.), performing Shakespeare throughout the country. Khalas played Brutus in “Julius Caesar.” He would have been within his rights to claim asylum on that first trip, but he was still full of hope for the future in Iraq.
One of ten siblings, he grew up on a farm outside the Yazidi village of Khanasor, six miles from the Syrian border. His family had a small orchard, some sheep, and cows. They learned English by reading books and mastering vocabulary cards.
When the Americans invaded, he realized his language skills were needed. At eighteen, he became one of the youngest interpreters the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment ever had. At the time, there wasn’t a lethal stigma surrounding such work, especially within the Yazidi community. “Yazidis didn’t look at Americans as occupiers,” he told me. “If you were an interpreter, people would respect you more.”
Dispatched alongside troops patrolling the city of Tal Afar, he was fired upon constantly. On one mission, he accompanied U.S. soldiers door to door as they inquired about water quality—there were reports of a cholera outbreak in the area. Khalas and an American sergeant were questioning an Iraqi and his son at the front gate of their home when an insurgent opened fire with an assault rifle. The sergeant was hit in the legs, the boy was shot, and the father ran off. “It became chaos,” Khalas recalled. “The sergeant was falling down, so I took his weapon, which was jumping around. I put his hand on my shoulder and I dragged him into the house to protect ourselves.” He bandaged the sergeant’s legs while they waited for backup.
Later on in his service, Khalas was riding in convoy behind a Humvee that was hit by an I.E.D. Grenades began sailing in from a nearby village. “There was no place to protect ourselves,” Khalas said, ”but we had to take our friends who have died out of the Humvee.” He ran through the field of fire to help pry the bodies of three Americans from the wreckage.
He was shot once, but the bullet lodged between his Kevlar vest and torso and left only a small scar, so he didn’t think much of it.
After two years with the Americans, he went back to school. In his free time, he formed a group of young poets and travelled from village to village doing readings. Nada, who headed the local women’s union that hosted one of his events, asked Khalas out on a date. “I loved your poems,” she told the startled young man, “but I think I love you, not just the poems.”
In August, 2014, the Islamic State massacred Yazidis throughout the Sinjar mountain range. Khalas had an eight-thirty class at the American University in Sulaymaniyah the morning of the attack. During a break, he glanced at his phone and found forty missed calls.
“We are running from Sinjar,” his father shouted, when Khalas reached him. Half his siblings were fleeing to the city of Dohuk, the other half into the mountains. Their farm, which the family had held for generations, was destroyed by the Islamic State, whose militants killed five thousand Yazidis in the first wave. Thousands of women were enslaved; those that hid in the mountain faced starvation and dehydration. Three days after the attack, President Barack Obama ordered airstrikes on the Islamic State to forestall a potential genocide of fifty thousand Yazidis.
The following month, Khalas and Nada applied for the Special Immigrant Visa. The program was created in 2008, with bipartisan support, to issue visas to twenty-five thousand Iraqis with ties to the U.S. I have been deeply involved in efforts to help these Iraqis, founding the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, in 2007. I formerly coördinated the reconstruction of Fallujah for U.S.A.I.D., and personally lost colleagues to assassins’ bullets. Khalas and Nada contacted Marcia Maack, the director of pro-bono activities for the law firm Mayer Brown, the primary legal partner to the List Project, who agreed to take on their cases. (I became involved in their cases through the List Project.)
As his application wound through the gears of the U.S. bureaucracy, Khalas was required to submit documentation to prove that he was, in fact, an interpreter. He had a handful of dated commendation letters from several years earlier, but Maack located his commanding officers and requested new letters of support.
Major Kevin Martin, U.S. Army Reserve, wrote a letter describing Khalas’s “exceptional performance” as an interpreter. A few weeks later, Major Russell Washington, of the D.C. National Guard, stressed that Khalas had “provided faithful and valuable service to the US Government, and like the other interpreters, faced threat as a result of their employment and association with the United States military . . . it is my opinion he does not pose a threat to the national security or safety of the United States.”
The screening process was arduous and slow-moving, but they were optimistic.
In January, 2015, Khalas and Nada were married. In May, they received their Chief of Mission approval letter, a critical step in the visa process, setting them up for background checks and interviews with agents from the Department of Homeland Security.
That summer, Khalas earned a degree in business, graduating as valedictorian of his class. In his commencement speech, he said, “It saddens me to remember that many of us are moving back to tents or cities far from our homes.”
That fall, Khalas and Nada had their first security interview. They were told to wait.
In April, 2016, eighteen months after applying, Khalas received his visa. With his performance at A.U.I.S., he was offered scholarships to remain for graduate studies, but he wanted to earn an American M.B.A. He dreamed of returning to Sinjar one day to start a private school. He was given until October to travel to the U.S.
But there was a problem: Nada was still waiting. U.S. visa laws are inflexible, unconcerned with nuance, and annoyed by complexity. He could request an extension, but there would be no guarantees. His might expire, while hers was approved. Maack urged him to come to the U.S., confident that Nada would receive her visa soon.
Two months before the Presidential election, her visa was tentatively approved, pending a routine medical examination. She had a slight flu during the checkup, and, for reasons that she doesn’t understand, was told that it would take at least three months to process her results.
She was frustrated, but was certain the approval would come. In the hierarchy of risks, she was a Yazidi woman, married to a former interpreter who now lived in America. It was hard to conjure a more vulnerable situation.
In mid-December, her medical clearance came through, but she was told she’d need to come in for another security interview. The earliest available date was January 19th, the day before Donald Trump’s Inauguration.
On Trump’s first full day as President, she was informed that her visa was approved. Her Iraqi passport, with an American visa, valid for travel until March 7th, would be sent to her in Sinjar via D.H.L.
While her passport was en route, a draft of Trump’s executive order leaked to the press. I worriedly thumbed through the pages, looking for exceptions for Iraqis with Special Immigrant Visas, but found none.
Nada’s passport arrived on Thursday evening.
Early Friday morning, Khalas went on Priceline.com and bought a one-way ticket for her from Erbil to Dulles, with a twelve-hour layover in Dubai. She would depart at 2 a.m., Washington time, the following morning. Khalas knew about the proposed ban, but wasn’t sure if Trump would sign it that day, or whether it would apply to Nada.
Maack told me that Trump would be signing the executive order that afternoon at the Pentagon. It was a jarring juxtaposition: the Pentagon employs more interpreters than any organization on earth. Some of these Iraqis, resettled through the List Project, now serve under the new Commander-in-Chief, having enlisted in the armed forces upon arriving to the U.S. Why sign an executive order that bans the people upon whom his troops depend?
Khalas was on the line. “She wants to get on the plane, but we don’t know what will happen if she gets here! Will she have to go back?”
I walked him through the decades of international treaties and conventions that prohibit deporting a refugee to the country from which they fled, but wondered if any of this would hold true in another hour.
If Nada managed to board the plane, I said, she could claim asylum as soon as she landed. She would be taken into custody for a credible-fear screening, but then released. Maack and her team began planning for the eventuality.
Just before Trump was scheduled to speak, an official in the State Department—who hadn’t yet seen the final version of the executive order—said that there would probably be a provision for people already in transit. I drafted an e-mail to Khalas and Maack with the subject line “Good News.”
At 4:30 p.m., the President signed executive orders in the Hall of Heroes, barring all refugees from entering the country, along with a hundred and thirty-four million people from Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, and Iran. There is no mention to the fact that U.S. forces have operated in five of the seven countries in the past year, or that these operations require interpreters and create refugees.
“I’m establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States,” Trump declared. “We don’t want them here,” he said. “We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country, and love deeply our people.”
Maack texted me. “Do you have a copy of the final text yet?” Khalas and Nada were desperate for guidance.
When he opened the folder containing the executive order, the President squinted at it, and read haltingly, as though it were the first time he’d seen it: “This is . . . ‘Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.’ “
“We all know what that means,” he murmured, before carefully rereading the title. As he signed it, he congratulated himself. “That’s big stuff!”
Three minutes later, the State Department official who had just suggested that Nada would have safe passage sent a one-line e-mail: “Advice is she should not travel.” The official text of the executive order was now circulating, and it was worse than expected.
The draft version had called for an immediate thirty-day ban. Nada’s visa was due to expire thirty-five days from Friday. They had considered waiting for the ban to lift, banking on that five-day window to escape Iraq. But when Khalas anxiously scrolled through the final version, he found that the ban had been extended to ninety days. Nada’s visa would expire during that period, after which there was little hope of securing a new one, given the anti-refugee, anti-Iraqi posture of the White House.
“What should we do?” he asked. Conversations like this dim the outside world. I barely heard my son crying from his crib as I thought. I wanted her to get on the plane, because she had earned that visa. I didn’t want to believe that our government would claw back a one-week-old visa from a Yazidi wife of an interpreter. For one thing, that would require a ruthless efficiency. Why would an Iraqi officer checking in passengers in Erbil care about what Trump had signed ten hours earlier? Why would the airlines care, so long as the ticket was paid for and the visa valid?
Khalas waited patiently for my answer. I asked what they wanted to do.
“We escaped isis at Sinjar!” he exclaimed. “How much harder can this be?”
And so Nada would try. After all, she had done everything the U.S. government had asked of her. After years of interviews, security and biometric screening, medical tests and more interviews, she had a valid visa.
Throughout the course of the day, he had been remarkably composed on the phone. But when I tried to ask a light question—whether she’d packed a lot of bags—the line went silent for a spell.
“She told me that she is only carrying her purse,” he said, shakily. “I told her to go buy some clothes, but she said ‘I will just come with whatever I’m wearing.’ “
I heard him weeping. “She said she feels the same way as when she ran from isis. When she ran then, she only had her purse. She didn’t know if she was going to make it, just like now. . . .”
He apologized while he gathered himself. “I’m sorry. I haven’t eaten all day.”
Maack and her team at Mayer Brown prepared a document explaining what Nada would need to say if she made it to Dulles. While Nada’s departure time approached, we scoured our contacts for someone at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, hoping to alert them to the fact that a highly vetted Iraqi woman with a one-week-old Special Immigrant Visa was represented by a powerful law firm.
“They can’t send her back if she expresses fear of persecution!” Maack said, as if to reassure herself.
At 11:36 p.m., Mohammed, an Iraqi who now lives in Los Angeles after helping Americans during the war, texted to say he had an emergency. His father had had a problem at the airport in Qatar. He’d left Baghdad that morning on a tourist visa, planning to visit Mohammed, but had just been blocked at the gate of his connecting flight. An American Embassy official had come into the terminal to tell him his visa was no longer valid.
“He said Trump cancelled it and he needs to go back to Iraq. Is this true?” Mohammed asked. “He’s a seventy-one-year-old senior.” He was confused, since his aunt and uncle had just arrived at LAX a few hours earlier.
It became clear that as soon as Trump’s pen hit the page, refugees and citizens of the seven barred countries were not allowed in. (The Times has reported that some refugees are now detained at U.S. airports.)
I relayed the news to Khalas.
It was all slipping away until 1:50 a.m., on Saturday, when Khalas’s brother, who had dropped her off at the airport, texted that Nada had boarded the flight. Khalas was cautiously excited.
Three hours to Dubai. I loaded up a flight tracker and waited anxiously for takeoff.
Meanwhile, Mohammed’s panic was mounting. He was trying to book his dad a hotel room at the Qatar airport so he could rest, but his phone had died; the last he knew was that he’d been taken into a cell and had his passport confiscated.
I returned to the flight tracker to see that the plane still hadn’t taken off.
And then: 2:46 a.m., Khalas texted again. “They did not let her enter the plane.”
His brother’s message had not been correct; she had only cleared security. When she reached the gate, the FlyDubai staff ripped up her ticket. “The flight crew sent her back,” he texted, “saying they got orders that no Iraqis with American visas should be boarded.”
“Believe me, in one month if she doesn’t make it here, I am going back to Iraq,” he said. The Yazidi valedictorian will forfeit his visa. She will likely give up trying for another one.
This is, perhaps, what the President and his advisers intended, with the brutal speed of the order’s implementation. For years, we’ve been told that government was inefficient, sloppy, and slow to react, but within minutes, it found a way to implement one of the most draconian refugee policies in our history.
This article was originally published in The New Yorker.