(NASHVILLE, Tenn.) -- Iraqi citizen Fuad Sharef Suleman and his family landed in Nashville, Tennessee, Sunday night to start a new life, more than a week after they were barred from entering the United States because of their country of origin.
It had taken Suleman more than two years to receive U.S. immigrant visas for him, his wife and three children. He and his wife quit their jobs and sold their house in Iraq, and their children left their school, all with the expectation of coming to America.
Suleman worked in Iraq as a nongovernmental organization subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which administers civilian foreign aid. Suleman said one of the reasons he applied for immigration visas was because he feared for his family’s safety, given his work with the U.S. government.
"For the terrorists [in Iraq], if you work for the Americans, you become a target. They consider you an infidel," or unfaithful, the Muslim man told ABC News in an interview on Jan. 28.
Suleman said his family had paid about $5,000 for airline tickets to the United States, and that they were traveling on a special immigrant visa for Iraqis because of the work he did with the United States in his home country. They chose to move to Nashville where they already have friends and which hosts one of the largest Kurdish populations in the United States. The Tennessee capital is known as “Little Kurdistan” by many of its Kurdish residents.
But the Suleman’s were prohibited from boarding their connecting flight in Egypt from Cairo International Airport to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York Jan. 28, a day after President Donald Trump signed an executive order suspending refugee admittance and immigration from seven predominantly Muslim nations with ties to terror, including Iraq.
The Suleman family was one of many stuck in transit because of Trump’s controversial ban. But on Friday, a federal judge in Seattle issued a nationwide temporary restraining order blocking the president’s executive action. So airlines around the world were given the green light to resume refugee admittance and immigrant entry into America from the seven countries covered in the order: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
Hours after the judge’s ruling, Suleman and his family boarded a plane from Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, in their second attempt to reach the United States. Iraqi Kurdish troops, known as Peshmerga, are a crucial U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS in the city of Mosul, the Islamic militant group’s last stronghold in the country.
In their first steps on U.S. soil, the Sulemans arrived at New York’s Kennedy Airport Sunday afternoon before boarding another flight to Nashville, their final destination. A crowd of residents, activists and government officials anxiously awaited the family’s arrival at Nashville International Airport with welcoming signs.
“Hopefully, they’ll be allowed to stay once they’re here,” Nashville resident Joyce Stainbrook told ABC Nashville affiliate WKRN-TV as she waited. “I think [Trump] is going to have quite a fight on his hands because he has no idea the sleeping tiger that he awoke in this country.”
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., Nashville Mayor Megan Barry and actress Connie Britton of the show Nashville were also among the hundreds in attendance.
“Our great city of Nashville is known for southern hospitality, and it’s very important that we extend that hospitality to families like Fuad Suleman’s family so that they know that they’re welcome here,” Cooper said, addressing the crowd. “Nashville is a city of the American dream and we got to keep it that way.”
As the Sulemans disembarked and entered the terminal, the crowd erupted in loud cheers and applause. Then people began to chant, “Welcome home.”
Suleman and his family shook hands, gave hugs and blew kisses as they made their way through the crowd. They received flowers, cards and gifts. Suleman said they were overcome by the dozens of people who came to welcome them to their new home.
“Today is a very important day in my and my family’s life, as it marks the first day of my new life in Nashville, Tennessee, United States of America,” Suleman said, addressing the crowd. “But your presence here and the amount of support that you showed and your open arms make this a very, very exceptional day for me. Thank you. Thank you very much.”
Speaking to WKRN-TV Sunday night, Suleman was overwhelmed with emotion and struggled to find the words in reaction to the welcome.
“I don’t know how to describe it,” he said. “The welcoming, it was genuine. You see genuine smiles, genuine happiness in their faces.”
Suleman plans to continue his college education here and wants his children to get a U.S. education as well, he told the TV station, adding that he was looking forward to some down time in his new home.
“It was a long journey from Erbil to Nashville,” he said. “This day is a turning point in my life.”
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