As they greeted each other at John F. Kennedy International Airport, Zeki Khamisi and his mother, Shukriyah Khamisi, cried and held each other close, looking into each other’s eyes. It had been 13 years since they had last been together, in Iraq, and they recalled last week that their impression upon reuniting in New York was that each looked - well, old.
“It’s not like when I left my country. My hair was black,” said Mr. Khamisi, 49, laughing through tears and touching his gray, thinning hair. His mother, 78, smiled serenely. It was a reunion that almost didn’t happen, however, because of President Donald J. Trump’s first executive order banning travel from Iraq.
“I got lucky,” Mr. Khamisi said simply. Mr. Khamisi did get lucky, in several ways. The Khamisi family is Mandaean, members of an ethnic and religious group originally from Iraq and Iran who consider their religion one of the oldest on Earth, tracing back to the biblical figure Adam.
Numbering around 100,000 people scattered worldwide, Mandaeans, Mr. Khamisi said, were among several groups targeted during rising ethnic violence after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. “Every night (you) have bomb, bomb, bomb everywhere,” Mr. Khamisi said.
“When I leave home, it is same thing ... every night bomb everywhere, you know .... every day we felt we’d die every one minute.” Mr. Khamisi said members of the community were sent notes threatening them with death or harm if they did not leave Iraq.
He’s a mechanical engineer, and a note came for him after Americans asked him to help the U.S. Army fix air conditioners at the camp. Mr. Khamisi fled to Jordan in December 2004. His immediate family arrived shortly after, following a move to another section of Baghdad.
His mother went to the southern Iraq city of Basra to live with another son after the family’s departure. Jordan was “good,” according to Mr. Khamisi. He had a good job as the production manager in a company.
In Worcester, he works as a school bus driver. But the Middle East was becoming increasingly unstable, and safety, educational opportunities for children, and freedom of religion beckoned in America. Jordan was very “Muslim-based” in terms of employment opportunities, Mr. Khamisi said.
In July 2009, the family came to the United States as refugees. But Shukriyah Khamisi stayed in Basra. The plan was to bring her to the United States once Mr. Khamisi received citizenship. Mr. Khamisi took his oath of citizenship in January 2015, and the immigration process for Shukriyah Khamisi began.
The paperwork was approved and Shukriyah Khamisi was given an immigrant visa that allowed her to immigrate between Jan. 1 and April 17. The flight was scheduled for March 4. But on Jan. 27, President Trump signed an executive order that barred people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen from entering the country for 90 days.
Shukriyah Khamisi’s visa would expire just 10 days before the 90 days was up. “All the family worried, and my brother too, because we work hard to do everything and everything it is gone fast,” Mr. Khamisi said.
The legal uncertainty surrounding the ban only made things more stressful, family members said. A federal judge in Seattle imposed a temporary restraining order halting the executive order on Feb. 3. Six days later, a court rejected a Department of Justice plea to keep the ban in effect.
But the administration vowed to continue supporting the ban in court, and then said it was formulating a revised executive order. By the time Shukriyah Khamisi was to arrive on March 4, the administration had stated that a revised executive order (which was issued March 6, to go into effect March 16) would not include Iraq in the list of countries from which travel was banned.
This, and the fact that Shukriyah Khamisi already had a visa, gave the family hope, Mr. Khamisi said. But Mr. Khamisi recalled that he tried not to get too emotional as he went to the airport, uncertain about what would happen. His mother arrived after a nearly 16-hour journey - her first plane trip - from Basra, to Amman, Jordan, to New York City.
“I just cried,” Shukriyah Khamisi said, speaking as her granddaughter Yona Khamisi, 15, translated. Shukriyah Khamisi joked that the plane trip was more comfortable than the car ride from New York to Worcester.
Today, Shukriyah Khamisi primarily stays in the family’s apartment on Veterans Avenue. But instead of staying inside the house out of fear, as she did in Iraq, she stays inside to avoid a New England winter that won’t let go.
She said she is glad to be in the United States with her family and feels safe. Her family feels she is safer too. She is applying for a green card, Mr. Khamisi said. And her community provides many visitors.
Mr. Khamisi was elected in January as leader of the local Mandaean community - which numbers about 200 to 250 families, Mr. Khamisi said. The community does not have a Mandi, or place of worship.
But they rent local halls for celebrations and a steady stream of visitors has come to the house to welcome their newest community member. “When mom came, everybody came here to say hello and thank God for her coming here,” Mr. Khamisi said.
As for feelings of homesickness, both Mr. Khamisi and his mother say that is unlikely. “I (do) not feel anything about my country because everybody (left),” Mr. Khamisi said. “If I miss my friend, my friend has left, too. If I miss my brother or sister, everybody left.”
Asked how she felt about her journey, Shukriyah Khamisi answered simply. “She feels like he brought her home,” her granddaughter translated.
By Cyrus Moulton