LOS ANGELES - Nael Zaino will do anything for his almost 2-year-old son, Aram, whom he has hardly had a chance to meet.
“When I saw him first time, he was crying and the bad moment was when he refused to come to me. Maybe he’s punishing me why I was absent all this period.”
Working for an oil company in Iraq, Zaino was not absent by choice. He and his wife, Lin Arafat, are Ismaili minorities from Syria, and their home there is no longer safe from the Islamic State.
“They are so close to my village also. We are expecting any moment they may be inside the village,” Zaino said.
While visiting her aunt in the U.S. in 2015, Arafat asked for asylum and received it. Zaino then applied for a U.S. visa as a family member. It was approved on the same day that Trump signed his first executive order, banning travelers from seven Muslim majority countries. As a result, Zaino’s first attempt to enter the U.S. failed.
“It’s very hard. I lost all my hope — because I’m here all alone with the little boy. I need him [Zaino] to come to have some support,” Arafat said.
“If you ask about my feeling, I would say I was in a dark box, dark room, black everything around you is black,” Zaino said.
‘This is America’
After many days of phone calls that led to help from U.S. Senator Kamala Harris’ office, Zaino finally arrived at the airport in Boston, Massachusetts, which he compared to coming into the sun.
“I start seeing a spot of life,” he said.
To his surprise, he was not only admitted to the country, he was welcomed.
“The officer gave me my passport with a stamp and he told me, ‘Go and start your life and enjoy it with your son.’ It was unbelievable. He let me feel strong. He told me, ‘This is America. This is American people. We are all behind you.’”
The greeting from the customs officer was at odds with what Zaino had seen on the news: The American government was taking a hard line with refugees and immigrants, particularly from Muslim-majority countries in an effort to safeguard U.S. citizens from terrorism. After the first travel order was stopped by the courts, a revised executive order issued March 6 again included Syria in a three-month ban on visa holders from six mostly Muslim countries. A court in Hawaii put a temporary hold on the second order Wednesday.
Getting to know his son
Zaino’s reception in the U.S., not only from the immigration officer but from other Americans he has met, has emboldened him.
“If it (the revised executive order) harms us, there will be someone to stop it, and we will be a part of it,” he said.
For now, Zaino is working on getting to know little Aram, as they take baby steps together.
“I don’t know what happened yesterday. He refused to let me do anything for him, but today, from the morning, he was smiling, and he let me kiss him, which is not possible yesterday.”