Ahmed Motaz Al Olabi and his wife Basimal Labbad boarded an Emirates Airlines flight from Dubai to Dallas on Friday with a dual purpose: to see their sons, and for Ahmed to have a surgical procedure to get rid of his obstructive sleep apnea. What awaited them was President Donald Trump’s executive order halting for 90 days the entrance into the U.S. by citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations.
The Syrian parents of SMU student Osama Al Olabi and his brother Tarek were two of the 50 detained at DFW International over the weekend. They gave the Observer a firsthand account of the day-plus they spent on both sides of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detention.
While Tarek and Osama waited, worried, consulted with lawyers and fed off the energy of loud protests at DFW Airport’s Terminal D, their mom and dad were going through what they called one of the worst experiences of their lives.
Ahmed, 55 and a diabetic, and Basimal visited last four months ago on the same B-1/B-2 tourist visas they would use this time around. Osama is in the U.S. on an F1 student visa while he studies mechanical engineering at SMU, while his older brother Tarek is here on what’s called temporary protected status, which is granted to eligible nationals of designated countries like Syria, where it may be unsafe to return to the home country due to an ongoing armed conflict.
All their paperwork was in order. Everyone in the family was legal to be in this country. That changed with an unexpected executive order that Trump signed on Friday.
Ahmed and Basimal arrived at DFW around 9:15 a.m. Saturday. By 9:45 a.m., Ahmed says, they were in a big room with somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 travelers, most elderly, and among them seven or eight in wheelchairs and two children.
Ahmed and Basimal were still in contact with their sons at that point, chatting on WhatsApp and exchanging the odd status update phone call. Tarek and Osama left to get breakfast when it looked like there would be a shorter delay getting through customs. But by 6 p.m., Ahmed’s cell phone had been taken away because he had ignored CBP officers’ instructions not to communicate with those outside.
“We were getting very concerned. He wanted to let us know that they were OK,” Tarek said. “But they took his phone, so we lost communication with them until they were set free the next day.”
Sometime after that, Tarek’s mind started racing when he saw an ambulance stop near Terminal D international departures. He was right to be alarmed. His mother had requested it. She was breathing heavily and her blood pressure spiked.
Ahmed and Basimal were getting something of a reputation for making trouble for the CBP officers. “But they wanted to take her to the ambulance in handcuffs,” Tarek said. “My parents said, ‘No, she will not be taken in cuffs. She is not a criminal.’” Eventually she was escorted to the ambulance sans handcuffs.
Then there were the papers. While the larger group of travelers was still together in the big room, CBP officers handed out forms for the detainees to sign. “In summary they told us this is an order from the president that cancels your visas and sends you back home,” Ahmed said. “First they asked softly and nicely.”
But no one among the 50 signed at first. Ahmed said he was among one of seven who did sign after repeated and more forceful persuasion, “shouting and repeating the same thing for hours: ‘Sign, sign, sign, sign. If you want this to be over, you have to sign the papers.’” His wife was more stubborn, though. She wouldn’t sign, because her sons said the lawyers outside had been telling them to relay the message not to.
“The lawyers told me to tell my parents not to sign,” Tarek said. “So they told the officers, ‘I don’t trust you. I don’t trust the translator. I want my lawyer to tell me if I have to sign this or not.’”
But therein lay another rub. Ahmed and Basimal, while in CBP detention, were not on American soil technically, and thus did not have the right to legal counsel while in the big room.
“When I saw them treat my wife very strongly, shouting, I told them I cancel my signature,” Ahmed said. “Even those translators, shouting at her.”
“They did that to scare them into signing,” Tarek said.
The couple had apparently earned themselves some extra scare tactics with their behavior.
“After 12 hours, everybody left for the lounge, except us,” Ahmed said. “They sent us to separate rooms for investigation, asking us ‘What’s your name, what’s your dad’s name, what’s your mother’s name, date of birth?’ and things.” The CBP already had access to that information.
It wasn’t long before the officer from Basimal’s interrogation room came into Ahmed’s interrogation room and asked Ahmed’s officer to “come with me and shut the door,” Ahmed said. “After a while I heard screaming from my wife, so I opened the door and ran toward my wife’s room. They saw me and caught me and put me on the floor and took me back to my room in cuffs and locked the door. My wife was still screaming.”
Basimal was being patted down by a female CBP officer and stopped screaming when it was over. Then, after refusing to look at the CBP camera for a quick detention selfie, she screamed again after Ahmed says an officer pulled her head up and back by her hair in order to get her to face the camera. She had refused to take the photo without a lawyer’s advice in the matter.
But even though at least two federal judges had issued stay orders counter to Trump’s executive order at that point, the CBP office at DFW wasn’t getting the memo.
By Sunday around noon, after the longest night of the two brothers’ lives and as protests raged on inside Terminal D for a second day, Tarek and Osama had gotten in touch with the DFW chapter of the Council on American Islamic Affairs. By 3:30 p.m., as if someone had pushed a button, their parents were let go.
In the meantime, Osama had been interviewed by no fewer than three media outlets: Dallas Observer, The Dallas Morning News and MSNBC.
Osama, who is a junior at SMU, will finish his degree. Ahmed will get his sleep apnea procedure Thursday. But after being caught in the middle of some ill-fitted cogs of bureaucracy for 30 hours, they don’t see America in the same light as they once did.
“When I first came [to the U.S.] in 2014, I was welcomed. I had no problems,” Osama said Saturday. “Right now, with the new president, all these bans and orders, it’s not even the same country.”
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