After travel ban uncertainty, friends reunite for a new life in the U.S.

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JUDY WOODRUFF: On January 27, the president’s executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority nations went into effect, throwing plans to travel to the U.S. into chaos for many people in the Middle East.

Right afterward, we introduced you to one Iraqi man who had long worked for the American military, whose plans to immigrate here with his family were suddenly canceled.

Tonight, from Southern California, special correspondent Marcia Biggs brings us this update.

MARCIA BIGGS: This is the day Abdul Hameed Abdul Ghani and his family have waited years for. They’re driving towards the airport in Irbil, Northern Iraq.

ABDUL HAMEED ABDUL GHANI, Former U.S. Military Interpreter: I feel like a big burden is off my shoulder, and I can take my family to a place where I can feel safe.

MARCIA BIGGS: Abdul Hameed and his family are finally coming to the U.S., on special immigrant visas issued to Iraqis who worked for the U.S. military. He spent nine years as an interpreter for the U.S. military, at great personal risk, even finding himself on a kill list back in 2006.

Yet he still proudly wears the American flag.

Did you like working with the Americans?

ABDUL HAMEED ABDUL GHANI: Oh, I loved it. The brotherhood they have, this type of mentality, like we are one team and one fight. They never gave me this impression like, you are not one of us, or you are just an interpreter and you’re going to do your job, and they’re going to leave me behind.

MARCIA BIGGS: Three weeks ago, with bags packed and having sold everything he owned, he got the news that President Trump’s executive order on immigration meant that the visa he had waited almost six years to get would be canceled.

ABDUL HAMEED ABDUL GHANI: I really was shocked, like somebody just popped me in the head. I was like, it’s over. All the dreams that I had, everything that I planned has just vanished from my life.

Even my little kids kept asking me or looking at the TV and he was like, hey, daddy, why is Trump stopping us? Why is this guy stopping us from going to the States? And I had no answer for him.

MARCIA BIGGS: Because you believed in this brotherhood that you had been a part of for so long?

ABDUL HAMEED ABDUL GHANI: Exactly. I have had this feeling like someone is going to stand for me.

And the America that I know is totally different from the decisions that have been made lately by those executive orders. And I was like, this is not America.

MARCIA BIGGS: Someone did stand up for him. Protests erupted all over the country. And just under a week later, the Pentagon recommended that the ban be amended to allow visa holders who worked for the U.S. military to immigrate. So, once again, the family prepared to travel.

And half-a-world away, another family is preparing. Sattar Khidhir, one of Abdul Hameed’s best friends, has been living here in San Diego for the last 5.5 years. As a former contractor for the U.S. Air Force, he immigrated on the same type of visa. Abdul Hameed helped him and many others fill out their visa applications.

MARCIA BIGGS: And he did all of this just out of the kindness of his heart?

SATTAR KHIDHIR, Former U.S. Military Interpreter: Yes.

MARCIA BIGGS: He’s a good man.

SATTAR KHIDHIR: He is a great man.

MARCIA BIGGS: So, is this an opportunity to give back to him?

SATTAR KHIDHIR: Yes. I will do whatever it costs to just help him out. I will do my best.

MARCIA BIGGS: It hasn’t been easy for Sattar, either. He arrived in 2011, and has struggled to find steady work in an area of the country where the cost of living is high.

SATTAR KHIDHIR: Some people, they don’t know how is life in California. Nice weather, I know. It’s nice weather. But then what are you going to do? You have to search for a job. And there’s no jobs.

MARCIA BIGGS: And you have told him this? You have been honest with him?

SATTAR KHIDHIR: Yes. Yes. I told him.

I told him, Abdul Hameed, I speak five language. You speak barely three language. I can’t find any jobs for me like translating because there is a lot of translators over here.

MARCIA BIGGS: Abdul Hameed and his family are moving to this suburb of San Diego, which has more Iraqi refugees than anywhere else in the United States. This main street could be in Anytown, USA, yet it’s been nicknamed Little Baghdad.

In the last five years, over 8,000 Iraqi refugees have been resettled in the greater San Diego area. That’s almost 10 percent of total arrivals nationwide. A local resettlement agency has found Abdul Hameed an apartment, but it’s not ready yet. And the rent is $1,500 a month, almost a quarter of a one-time allowance given to them by the State Department.

MARCIA BIGGS: So, this is where they will be staying?


MARCIA BIGGS: While he waits, Sattar, his wife and two children are making space in their two-bedroom apartment for Abdul Hameed’s family of five.

MARCIA BIGGS: This is your room?


MARCIA BIGGS: And now your whole family’s going to be in here?



MARCIA BIGGS: It’s going to be tight.

SATTAR KHIDHIR: Yes, I know that, but we’re going to be fine. This is what I can do. And we will have fun.

MARCIA BIGGS: You will have fun?


MARCIA BIGGS: Back in Iraq, the family sets off on the 24-hour journey to the other side of the world. It’s an emotional departure.

SAFA HAJI, Abdul Hameed’s Wife (through interpreter): We hope life will be better. We hope our children’s education will be better. But I’m so sad that I won’t be able to see my mother.

MARCIA BIGGS: And fear is never far from their minds.

ABDUL HAMEED ABDUL GHANI: I always had this doubt, like, because it happened. It happened like a couple weeks ago. Some people were airborne and they have been stopped from entering into the United States. I absolutely had this fear like maybe something is going to pop up at the very end of my journey.

MARCIA BIGGS: It was a nail-biter on this end as well. But, finally, the moment Abdul Hameed says he’d been worried would never happen.

ABDUL HAMEED ABDUL GHANI: When I first got off from the airport and I looked around to see Sattar and I actually saw him, it’s kind of hard for men to cry, but I actually cried.

It was an amazing moment. It’s something that I’m not going to forget it in my lifetime. I will never forget that moment.

MARCIA BIGGS: The morning after, a hectic and happy scene in the kitchen, old friends reunited over the breakfast table, but in a new world.

ABDUL HAMEED ABDUL GHANI: First thing in the morning, I took a step outside and took a really long breath and looked around. And I told myself, yes, it is true, and I am here in the United States of America.

MARCIA BIGGS: What do you want for your family in general?

ABDUL HAMEED ABDUL GHANI: I want a brighter future for my family, especially my Down syndrome kid.

And what I’m most worried about, if they start talking about this ban again or they start — if anybody starts to make a difference between all of these types of religion, like — or make it hard for Muslims, then I’m going to be suffering.

MARCIA BIGGS: You’re more worried about discrimination than you are about getting a job and an apartment and …

ABDUL HAMEED ABDUL GHANI: Yes, I know. I know it’s meant for me to be here. So, I’m kind of worried about getting a job, but I will get a job one day soon, hopefully. Like the Iraqis say, inshallah.

MARCIA BIGGS: But with the goal of finally reaching this country, the fear began to settle in. With little money and a small dispensation from the government, Abdul Hameed has to make a life for his family.

ABDUL HAMEED ABDUL GHANI: I know there’s a lot of folks who are coming out here as immigrants and as refugees. So I know the opportunity of getting a job is going to be hard. But I believe in myself and I believe in my destiny. And I think I will be good. I will do my best to be good.

MARCIA BIGGS: For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Marcia Biggs in San Diego, California.

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