After a grueling 16-hour trip that took them by land from Damascus to Beirut and then onto a flight bound for Abu Dhabi, the Asali family finally reunited with relatives at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York Monday morning.
“I’m so excited to see my brother again,” said 17-year-old Matthew Asali after landing at JFK. “It was unhuman (sic) what happened to us.”
The tearful reunion came after more than a week of legal wrangling between immigration officials following President Donald Trump’s executive order that restricted travel into the U.S. from majority-Muslim countries and immigration lawyers who said the Asalis were denied due process after being turned away from Philadelphia last week.
Some family members hadn't seen each other in three years and wept as they embraced following the ordeal.
"It was still a dream, then I just woke up and it became real," Sarmad Assali said at the airport.
It took about 13 years for the Asalis to obtain visas, passports and security clearances. The legal documentation was in place by December 2016, and the only thing left to do was board a flight bound for Pennsylvania.
Extended family already living in a predominately Christian-Syrian part of Allentown anxiously awaited the Asali’s arrival. They purchased a home for the newcomers and prepared to welcome their relatives into a new life.
But the Asalis in Syria decided to postpone their move until January because they wanted to spend the holidays with loved ones abroad. Unbeknownst to them, they booked a flight that would land just hours after Trump issued a travel ban on travelers from Syria and six other majority-Muslim countries.
Instead of seeing loved ones when they arrived in Philadelphia, the family was greeted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials. They were given two options: either leave on the same plane as they arrived or stay and be arrested.
Their deportation came as a shock to relatives in Allentown, who are American citizens and have lived in the country for more than 20 years.
It was “a nightmare come true," Joseph Assali said last week. "They're all Christian citizens and the executive order was supposed to protect Christians fleeing persecution.”
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-15) worked closely with immigration attorneys in Philadelphia to secure proper documentation for the six family members. The congressman first heard about their plight from his own son, who urged him via text to jump into action after hearing news that the family had been denied entry into the United States.
“By the time I called the White House … and we started figuring things out, the family had already been returned,” he said. “We’ve been working on it ever since.”
Despite this, the family became embroiled in a messy legal battle that will continue to play out in court after the Department of Justice filed a notice of appeal in an attempt to immediately reinstate Trump’s order.
“This family did it the right way,” Dent said. “They played by the rules.”
Dent has been critical of Trump's executive order. He told reporters last week that it "appears to have been rushed through without full consideration to the wide-ranging impacts it will have."
Early Sunday morning, a federal appeals court further challenged the executive order and denied a request to reinstate the travel ban.
But Monday’s reunion was filled with hugs, tears and even a small Liberty Bell. The token was presented to the Asalis by head legal counsel Joseph Hohenstein and immigration attorney Jonathan Grode.
“This is a symbol of liberty in the United States,” Hohenstein said.
“If you just ring the bell, we will come,” Grode said with a smile.
The family boarded a private bus to Allentown where they joined Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf for lunch.
Note: The family members' last names are spelled differently due to a name change during immigration into the U.S.