'I am lucky': Refugee family celebrates arrival to US

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SAN DIEGO (AP) — Inside a small apartment in a San Diego suburb, Nadia Hanan Madalo sat before tins of kebab, roasted chicken, and tomato and cucumber salad. Her refugee flight credential still hung around her neck, as her children played with cousins they had only seen on Internet phone chats before this night.

The midnight feast marked the end of the refugee family's long journey to leave war-torn Iraq and be reunited with Madalo's 21-year-old son, her mother and siblings in the United States.

Madalo, her husband and four other children believed when they boarded their plane Wednesday morning in northern Iraq that they would be among the last refugees allowed in before the latest Trump administration travel ban was to take effect.

By the time they landed, a federal judge in Hawaii put a hold on President Trump's newest ban — the latest development in a fight between the administration and the courts that has injected more uncertainty into the lives of refugees.

For Madalo, it all seemed surreal. She smiled. Tears streamed down her face as she gave long embraces to each member of her large extended family amid flowers and "welcome home" balloons.

"I am lucky. I am lucky," she said as she sat squashed on a couch with her large extended family at her brother's apartment in El Cajon. They held the feast for the momentous reunion as quietly as possible. They didn't want to bother their neighbors.

Madalo was looking forward to seeing the ocean for the first time. But other than that, she could not think yet of what her new life would hold for her. But she was sure it would be good.

"The first thing is being safe," she told her brother who translated her words in her native Chaldean language to English.

The Madalo family waited for four years to get into the United States. Her sister in Lebanon is among those still waiting for final approval. The family fled their Christian village before Islamic State fighters invaded several years ago.

Madalo and her husband returned to see the town one last time before leaving Iraq. Only devastation remains. Roads are filled with land mines. The town has been destroyed. And their family home was burned to the ground.

"Thank God we ran from there and come here," she said at the San Diego airport.

Resettlement agencies say more than 67,000 refugees were in the stages of being approved and allowed into the U.S when Trump's January order halted travel for 90 days from seven majority-Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The order also suspended the refugee program for 120 days.

After a federal court in California blocked the order in February thousands rushed to get in before the anticipated new order was issued.

U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson blocked that order Wednesday, citing "questionable evidence supporting the government's national security motivation." Trump, who has said the order is necessary to prevent terrorists from entering the U.S., criticized the ruling, saying: "The danger is clear. The law is clear."

The 16-page executive order calls for a 55 percent reduction in refugee visas overall. Instead of the planned 110,000 slated for this year, there would be just 50,000. By this week, nearly 38,000 will have already been admitted.

Madalo is just happy her family could stop fleeing. Their children had been struggling since they had left their village in 2014 and fled to Iraq's semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region where they attended an overcrowded school for the displaced.

Her brother expected the family to adjust quickly to El Cajon, home to the nation's second largest population of Chaldeans.

But for every family celebrating a joyous reunion, thousands of other people remain in limbo.

Madalo and her siblings understand the pain of waiting.

Their parents spent three years going through the vetting process before they got approved for a flight. Then it was cancelled. There were more delays as her father's health worsened. In 2015, as her parents traveled to the U.S., her father died. He was buried in San Diego.

His photo is displayed high on the wall in the living room where they feasted at the apartment, as if he was watching over them. Below it, the family tethered the bundle of "Welcome Home" balloons.


Harb reported from Iraq.

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