With tears in their eyes and tired smiles, Tareq and Ammar Aziz embraced their father at Dulles International Airport on Monday morning.
The reunion was a year and a half in the making for the brothers from Yemen, whose hopes to live in the United States seemed uncertain, even impossible, after President Trump signed an executive order banning travelers from their home country and others.
As they reentered the airport they had been turned back from late last month, joining family members and lawyers who had helped ensure their journey, they expressed only gratitude.
“We are so happy we’re here,” Ammar Aziz said simply, speaking through an interpreter.
The brothers are the face of one of the first court cases challenging Trump’s ban on travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries. A lawsuit filed on their behalf in federal court in Alexandria led to one of the first court orders restricting the ban. But it came too late for the Azizes, who were already on a plane to Ethiopia.
Since then, a federal judge in Washington state has put the ban on hold, and tens of thousands of visas have been reinstated. The brothers are among the many immigrants and refugees arriving at airports nationwide while the suspension is in place. The administration is appealing, and the case could end up at the Supreme Court.
Tareq and Ammar Aziz, ages 21 and 19, with few educational opportunities in war-torn Yemen, had first applied for visas to come to the United States in 2015 and, after months, had secured them. Their father had made a home in Michigan, and they saw a place for themselves there.
“This is America,” said their father, Aquel Aziz. “America is for everybody.”
Aquel Aziz came to the United States in 2001 on a student visa and soon applied for a green card. Although his studies in nutrition science were cut short by visa delays after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he built a career managing gas stations.
Aziz, who had separated from the boys’ mother long before, found life in the United States freer and happier. But he had left his young sons with his parents in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital. He sent money home and spoke with his family by phone every day as the boys grew up without him.
It took seven years for Aziz to obtain a green card. The day after he became a legal permanent resident, he booked a flight to Yemen.
Aziz recalled pulling up in a taxi outside a house he didn’t recognize; two boys whom he at first did not realize were his sons ran alongside it. “Everything was different,” he said. After that, he visited twice a year. When he became a U.S. citizen in April 2015, Aziz quickly moved to bring his sons over.
The timing was fortuitous. The boys’ comfortable lives were coming to an end as Yemen’s civil war began. Rebels took over the capital and divided the country in half.
Before, because of the money their father had sent, Tareq and Ammar Aziz lived almost like American teenagers in the Arab world’s poorest country. Tareq drove his own car, went bowling and even learned to ice skate when a rink opened in 2013. He learned English by watching American police shows, listening to Rihanna and chatting on social media.
Life became more precarious with the rebels in town, but Tareq said that for the most part, these heavily armed tribes from the northern mountains left locals alone. Then Saudi-led airstrikes began, using U.S.-supplied munitions.
“Yemeni people aren’t really afraid of men with guns; they are used to that,” Tareq said. “But the planes were something new.” Every night, the bombs fell, sometimes so close that the brothers couldn’t sleep.
One day, an especially large explosion shook the city. When Tareq got to Sanaa’s main event hall, he came upon a scene of horror.
“I couldn’t believe this is real. It was like in the movies,” he said. “Some of them had no limbs; some were crying. Most you couldn’t tell who they were anymore.”
That day — Oct. 8, 2016 — planes dropped two bombs during a funeral for a prominent politician and killed at least 100 people, one of the deadliest assaults of the conflict.
Even without the bombs, life was fraying. With the money from abroad, the Aziz family could afford food while others around them began to starve. But regular electricity was a thing of the past, and gas prices soared to $300 for a five-gallon jerrycan.
Like many in the city, they rigged up solar panels to give them some electricity, because fuel for their generator had become too expensive and scarce. Cars disappeared from the streets, and many people invested in bicycles.
Tareq’s education plans also fell apart. He had hoped to study at the private British University in Yemen, but with the war, that closed. So did the office of Amideast, a U.S. nonprofit educational institution, where he and his brother had been taking English lessons.
The streets of the city were increasingly deserted as people feared death from above. Mosque attendance declined amid fear of suicide bombers from al-Qaeda who would detonate explosives during prayer times.
Life devolved into a waiting game as the brothers tried to figure out how to get visas and join their father. He would call multiple times a day, watching the news in fear. There was no longer a U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, so they applied for and were granted an interview at the embassy in Djibouti, just across the Red Sea.
Getting there was its own challenge. The airport was closed, so they took the dangerous road overland through the warring factions to the southern port of Aden, home of the internationally recognized government and one of the few functioning airports left in the country.
For days they waited at the airport for space on one of the flights out, before finally getting seats. From there, they took a flight to Amman, Jordan; then Doha, Qatar, before finally landing in Djibouti.
In the time it took them to get there, they had missed their interview at the embassy. After a few weeks of waiting in the sweaty port city, they were granted another interview. Djibouti is expensive, and they had little to do but pace the waterfront, watching the Yemeni fishing boats and dreaming of escape.
On Jan. 25, they learned that they both had visas.
They caught a plane to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and then boarded the long flight to Dulles Airport.
It seemed as though they had finally made it. While the brothers were aboard the plane on Jan. 27, Trump signed the executive order.
“We were happy because we were going to meet our dad and he was waiting for us, and then we arrived in Washington Dulles Airport and there was a guy saying, ‘Yemenis, this way,’ ” Tareq Aziz said.
Along with other Yemenis, Somalis and Sudanese on the flight, they were waved to the side, fingerprinted and taken to an office where a uniformed police officer said they were going back to Djibouti.
“He said, ‘Your visa has been canceled,’ and I was shocked. He told us there was a presidential order,” Tareq said during a recent interview in Djibouti. He and his brother sat at a cafe under whirling ceiling fans.
“I said, ‘Can I call our lawyer?’ and he said, ‘You can’t, it’s a presidential order. You can’t do anything.’ ”
Instead, Tareq said, the officials told him to sign a paper — whose dense legal language he couldn’t decipher — or face being banned from the country for the next five years. He was told that once the situation was resolved between Yemen and the United States, he could reapply.
Escorted by police while the other passengers stared at them, the Aziz brothers were put on the next flight back to Addis Ababa, where they then spent days in the airport, talking with their father and lawyers trying to figure out what to do.
They refused to pay for their flight back to Ethiopia or to board the plane for Djibouti until Ethiopian authorities said it was that or face arrest. So in a few hours, they were back in a city they had hoped never to see again, surrounded by desperate countrymen. Their luggage was missing; they walked in the 80-degree heat in sweaters meant for a Michigan winter.
In Flint, Mich., Aquel Aziz had made a feast of Yemeni food for his sons. After a day-long flight, he knew they would be hungry. When they did not arrive in Detroit and he could not reach them, he began driving toward Northern Virginia. He had made it to somewhere in Ohio when he received the call: His sons had been sent back to Ethiopia, their visas canceled.
“I was worried all that time, not knowing,” he said. “I couldn’t talk to them. I didn’t know what was going on with them until my older son called me — 34 hours later — from Ethiopia.”
The drive home took him three times as long, because he had to stop regularly and break down. The food he gave to neighbors.
“I didn’t eat that food; that was my kids’ food,” Aziz said. Besides, he had lost his appetite. Three days would pass before he wanted to eat again.
Within days, good news came of a likely resolution with the government. But up until the brothers landed Monday, the family remained nervous.
People such as the Aziz brothers, who had their visas canceled, have still faced obstacles. The Justice Department has been settling these cases on an individual basis, and there is no public record of how many visas were canceled or why.
Despite the court order from the federal judge in Washington state and an agreement with the Justice Department to bring the brothers back, lawyers at the Virginia-based Legal Aid Justice Center said they had to call Djibouti repeatedly to ensure that Tareq and Ammar were permitted on their flight.
Now that they are in the United States there will be a new feast. In Flint, Aquel Aziz has found an apartment for his sons, with beds. The brothers still have no idea where their luggage is, but their father doesn’t mind. He will buy them new clothes.
“Everything I didn’t do for them while I was here, I want to do,” he said. “I want to give them the things a father should. I want to give them love.”
Schemm reported from Djibouti.