Despite my decade of service to the United States, when I finally got my visa and arrived in New York late last month, I was detained for more than 18 hours at the airport because of the ban President Trump ordered on travel from Iraq and six other mostly Muslim nations. This was not the America I knew. Maybe the ban is not really reflective of America: It has been blocked by the courts so far, including a federal appeals court ruling Thursday night, so that it cannot take effect while it’s being challenged.
When I was first detained, I was disappointed and surprised. But when I was released, my faith was again restored. I was moved by the crowds of people who came to welcome me. And I’m so glad that I have come to live here with my wife and our three children.
I spent about a decade working for the U.S. government in Iraq, as an Army interpreter, an engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers and for the State Department at the U.S. Consulate in Irbil. I helped Americans protect Iraqis from al-Qaeda terrorists, provide water and electricity, train local police and renovate utilities, roads, bridges, schools, libraries, clinics and hospitals. When I was with my Army colleagues, we were brothers in arms. We lived together, ate together and looked out for each other. They treated me like a soldier alongside them, and we were all one unit. I still have a very strong relationship with them.
In 2005 in Baghdad, two of my Iraqi colleagues were tracked and killed by terrorists. I was also ambushed, but got away. The same terrorists tried to track me a second time. They knew my home address, and I expected them to attack any moment. I lived very carefully. The day that they came to my house, I ran away before they showed up. The next day, my family and I moved to another city. But after a year and a half, the terrorists found me again. They were looking for me in a public marketplace, and I was warned by neighbors to leave. We moved again, but we knew we would not be safe forever. So I decided to try to move us to the United States.
I contacted a friend who was an officer in the Army, and he gave me the email address for the International Refugee Assistance Project, a nonprofit based in New York that provides legal representation for people seeking refugee status. I contacted them, and their CUNY Law chapter took on my case in October 2014.
I waited for my visa for almost three years. I filled out many forms and submitted documents to the U.S. government. I had to travel back to Baghdad to be interviewed at the embassy. I was finally granted my visa on Jan. 20, 2017, the day Trump was sworn in. I received the visas for my whole family the following Wednesday.
That day, our representatives in New York called to say we should fly to the United States immediately because an executive order would be issued soon that would prevent us from traveling. We didn’t know it would take effect while we were in midair.
We had to leave most of our things behind; we didn’t even get to inform our relatives that we were leaving. Our lawyers first booked us on a flight Thursday that would have gotten us to New York Friday morning. But the airline didn’t let us board, because we didn’t have a visa we’d need to make two scheduled connections in Turkey. IRAP rebooked us on a flight out Friday morning, with just one stop in Istanbul, that would land that evening in New York.
We arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport around 5:45 p.m. on Jan. 27 — an hour after the travel ban was signed. When we got off the plane, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer escorted me to another office without my family and asked me to wait. He held my passport with my U.S. Special Immigrant Visa inside, and he took an envelope I had been given at the embassy in Baghdad with additional documents. The officer said my family could wait outside by baggage claim.
They kept me in the back office.
At first, they didn’t ask any questions. I could not see a clock, so I did not know how much time had passed. I started to worry: I knew our legal team was waiting for us in the airport, but I wasn’t sure if they met my family.
After about two hours, I asked an officer, “Why am I here?” She said, “You just wait.” After a while, I asked again, and she got nervous. She told me they were waiting for a phone call. I asked if I was arrested or if they suspected me of something, and her answer was “No.” I told them I wanted to meet my attorney or make a phone call, but they did not answer.
After four or five hours, I realized it must be because of the executive order. When I was still in Iraq, my legal team had prepared me for the possibility that the order would make an officer detain and question me. They even prepared a letter for me to give to the officers, which I had done right away. There was no other reason they could have stopped me.
That night, I was confused and did not know what to do. I kept asking about my family, but I got no answers. What happened to them? How were they doing? I was sure they were scared. But I had no choice: I knew I should listen to the officers and keep calm.
At some point, they decided to move me to another part of the airport. Two officers asked me to empty my pockets. They put everything I had in a bag and informed me that they would move me to another terminal. They said they were preparing to send me back to Iraq. When I asked about my family, they told me I would meet them there and we would all be deported out of the United States and sent back to Iraq.
They said they would handcuff me until we arrived at the next building, telling me, “It is for your safety, because it is a dangerous area.” I told them I did not want any trouble, and they handcuffed me. It was the first time in my life I had been put in handcuffs. I tried to explain again that I served with the U.S. Army in Iraq, and had come to the United States because the government created a resettlement program to support people like me who worked with the Army. They didn’t respond.
I was put in a chair in another room. I couldn’t sleep, because I was very worried about my family. I thought there must be something wrong, a misunderstanding. It was clear the officers were confused and did not know what to do with me. I asked them, “Are you arresting me?” They said, “No.” “Do you suspect me?” “No.” I told them again that I had a Special Immigrant Visa. They could not answer my questions.
I was so confused. I had waited for so long and presented so many documents to the U.S. government over many years to prove my service. After all that, they were going to kick me out? They knew I was repeatedly threatened in Iraq. How could they treat me this way after all I had done? No one could give me any explanation for why they were holding me. People like me who served the United States should be welcomed. We have sacrificed and faced enough risks because of our service.
Around 5:30 a.m. on Saturday, after nearly 12 hours in detention, one of the officers told me, “You have a right to talk to your attorney.” They called Jonathan Polonsky, my family’s supervising IRAP attorney. He said they were working hard to release me, filing a lawsuit to challenge the ban alongside the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups. He told me, “Do not worry about your family. They are safe with IRAP students. They have left the airport.” Federal agents continued to hold me.
That day, one of the officers bought food for me with his own money. Finally, one of the officers told me they would help by filling out a form with my information, asking me some questions and asking me to sign it. “We will return your stuff and you will be free with your family,” one officer said. He apologized and told me they were just doing their duty and following an order. “Welcome to the United States, and thank you for serving our country,” he said. “Thank you, sir,” I told him. “I understand.” And then they released me.
When they escorted me into the airport, a crowd greeted me. They welcomed me to the United States. In that moment, I felt the greatness of America. Yes, this is the United States of America — this is the America I knew from my work in Iraq.
Over the course of those 18 hours, I had grown more and more disappointed. They let me down by treating me as a criminal and putting handcuffs on me. But then, I was welcomed by good people cheering for me and for my release. I came from a country where there was no respect for human rights, no freedom of speech. So I was shocked to emerge from the airport and be greeted with cameras, members of Congress and reporters asking for my opinions. The people who welcomed me at the airport deserve all I did for their country — they are the true Americans.
I can never thank IRAP, Reps. Nydia M. Velázquez and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), and the people who came to JFK to support me enough. Because of their compassion, I know that my hard work and risks were appreciated. I am grateful to my legal team: Polonsky, Gregory Fries, Amanda Candileri, Katy Naples-Mitchell and Whitney McCann. They worked hard for almost three years until I got here, and they continue to support me.
America is great because of its people. The American people have shown me that they are friendly, kind and generous. They believe in freedom, in human rights, in respect for other nations.
What happened to me did not make me cynical. I am very hopeful about my new life and the future of my family here in the U.S. I have a final message for the American people: You make up the greatest nation in the world. Thank you for your help and support. May God bless you and your country. And may you stay united.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story indicated that Darweesh had joined the Army in Baghdad on March 1, 2003. Though his Army unit wrote in support of his application for a Special Immigrant Visa that he had joined them on March 1, that date was incorrect; the Iraq War began on March 20, 2003.