CAIRO // Fuad Sharef and his family waited two years for a visa to settle in the United States, selling their home and quitting jobs and schools in Iraq before setting off for a new life they saw as a reward for working with US organisations.
But Sharef, his wife and three children were prevented from boarding their connecting flight to New York from Cairo airport on Saturday. They were sudden victims of US president Donald Trump's new travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries.
Their passports confiscated, the distraught family was detained overnight at Cairo airport and forced to board a flight back to the northern Iraqi city of Erbil on Sunday morning.
“We were treated like drug dealers, escorted by deportation officers,” Sharef said by telephone from Cairo airport.
“I feel very guilty towards my wife and kids. I feel like I’m the reason behind their dismay.”
In the most sweeping use of his presidential powers since taking office a week ago, Mr Trump signed an order on Friday suspending the entry of people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for at least 90 days. He said this would help safeguard the US from terrorists.
The travel curbs took effect immediately, wreaking havoc and confusion for would-be travellers with passports from the seven countries. Sharef and his family were among the first victims.
Sharef and his family arrived at Erbil International Airport looking demoralised, wondering how Mr Trump could sign a document that shattered their dreams in an instant, even though their papers were in order.
He likened Mr Trump’s decision to the dictatorship of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
“I believe it is a terrible error in the US, terrible error in the history of the United States. I thought America is an institution and democracy,” said Sharef.
“I see [it is] like autocracy, someone signs and effective immediately what does this mean? It is just like Saddam Hussein’s decisions. Yeah without going back to the Congress, I don’t understand.”
Sharef said he was employed by a pharmaceutical company before leaving Iraq, but had worked on projects funded by US organisations such as USAID in the years following the 2003 US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.
The family applied for a US visa in September 2014 as security conditions in Iraq deteriorated, with ISIL insurgents seizing swathes of the country and carrying out mass killings.
Sharef’s work with the US made him particularly vulnerable to attack by militants who view him as a traitor.
“I am broken, I am totally broken, I don’t understand how he rewards those people who helped him. I don’t understand this. When we worked with them, we put our lives, my life, my family’s life, in jeopardy,” said Sharef.
“And we were easy target every day for terrorist groups. Everyone who works with Americans is regarded as an infidel.”
Sharef applied to emigrate via a programme known as Special Immigrant Visa, which was created by US lawmakers to help the tens of thousands of Iraqis who risked their lives helping Americans after the 2003 invasion.
At least 7,000 Iraqis, many of them interpreters for the US military, have settled in the United States under SIV auspices since 2008, while some 500 more are being processed, state department figures show.
Another 58,000 Iraqis have been awaiting interviews under the Direct Access Programme for US-affiliated Iraqis, according to the international refugee assistance project.
Originally due to fly on February 1, the family decided to travel earlier after news leaked of Mr Trump’s plan to issue new immigration restrictions. But they were too late.
“My plan was to go to Nashville, Tennessee. I have friends there. I have arranged with them and they are preparing house and finding house for me, jobs,” said Sharef.
“A lot of dreams, yeah ... Financially this journey cost me US$5,000 [Dh18,365] and all went down the drain.”
Sharef, father of two girls and a boy, said the family was still in shock and did not know what steps to take next. They would be staying temporarily with Sharef’s brother in Erbil.
Asked if he feared for his life returning to Iraq, he said: “Maybe it’s less dangerous in light of the relative regression of Islamic State influence in Mosul, but during my years of work, my life and the lives of my family were constantly in danger and I’m now at risk of being at threat at any moment. There are no guarantees.”
An Iraqi army offensive has been gradually dislodging ISIL from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
One of Sharef’s biggest challenges is explaining the situation to his children.
“My little daughter every day keeps asking me when we are going to America and I tried to explain to her that there is a suspension one month and she was calculating days,” he said.
“Okay at that date the suspension will finish and the day after we go, yes dad?”