Mohamad Sayadi was in a last minute race against the clock. Yet, rather than feel anxious or nervous, he couldn’t stop smiling and singing.
Nikki Minaj, Justin Bieber and Arabic artists blared from the speakers of his car as he raced down the highway from Louisville, Kentucky, to a nearby Wal-Mart in Indiana. He rapped or sang every lyric, never in key. It didn’t matter. His family was about to arrive.
“I miss my family, especially my mom”
Mohamad had not seen his family in 472 days. They fled their home in Homs, Syria about three years ago and ended up in a refugee camp in Amman, Jordan. He won’t talk on-the-record about why they fled.
Mohamad and his family applied for refugee status with the United Nations, then the United States. Interviews and background checks followed. Then, more interviews and more checks. After nearly two years, Mohamad was granted permission to enter the U.S.
It was now 2015. Mohamad was greeted at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport by representatives and volunteers affiliated with the charity World Relief. He spoke no English and had never been to the U.S. Yet, he was determined to succeed– making a life for his family who he was sure would soon join him.
He hopped jobs, from restaurants to operating a forklift at a warehouse. He wasn’t happy with his roommates, who were refugees from Iraq. He decided to be closer to friends and moved to Louisville, Kentucky. He found an apartment located behind a liquor store. He found work at a different liquor store. Both required some adjustment, given the fact that alcohol consumption was banned back home.
“I’m an American now”
Mohamad was adjusting well to his new surroundings. He was quickly picking up English, finding it easiest to learn from music and movies. He also picked up conversational language used in his neighborhood, full of four-letter words.
All the while, he kept in constant contact with his family. His mother, father, and two younger sisters were still living as refugees in Amman. (An older sister got married in Amman.) Mohamad frequently sent them money, ranging from $200 to $500 transfers via Western Union.
To save money, Mohamad lived modestly. He bought his clothes from thrift stores. He found a used car that ran well enough, save for the facts that a tire shook at high speeds and the driver’s door could only be opened from the outside. It wouldn’t be his for long anyway. Mohamad planned to fix the car up and give it to his father when he joined him in the U.S.
“They coming, my brother!”
In mid-January, Mohamad sent a message via Facebook to a CGTN producer saying his family would soon be joining him in the United States. Their arrival date was set for February 8.
Then, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order immediately halting all Syrian refugee resettlement. His family’s plane tickets were canceled. They weren’t given any updates about what might happen next.
Mohamad was heartbroken. Fighting back tears, he posted a video to Facebook begging for his family to be allowed in.
Then came two unexpected twists. Federal courts in the U.S. states of Washington and California ordered an immediate halt to Trump’s immigration ban. Mohamad’s family had their travel rebooked. Their new travel date: February 14. It would be Valentine’s Day in the U.S., a holiday which celebrates love.
“I can’t wait”
The day had finally arrived. Mohamad’s family had already left Amman, flew through the Frankfurt Airport in Germany and arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. They cleared immigration checks easier than thought. They borrowed the phone of another Syrian refugee family and called Mohamad.
“They told me they ready,” Mohamad said. “They already waiting for the next plane.”
Mohamad began counting down the hours– and racing the clock. He still had last minute errands to run.
First, it was Wal-Mart. He went to the “Money Center” and pocketed $200– the first gift he’d give to his father. He purchased a bouquet of 12 red roses– the first gift for his mother and sisters. As he waited in the checkout line, his legs shook with excitement.
Still racing the clock, he called a friend to ask him to help with laundry.
“I can’t go to the airport like this,” Mohamad said, pointing at his sweatshirt.
Mohamad entered an address in his phone’s GPS. He started driving, blasting music then closed the GPS. He seemed to intentionally get lost, enjoying not only the drive but also the last moments of living away from his family. He missed them more than anything, but like any other 25-year-old, he had also enjoyed some of the freedom that came with living away from home.
He went to dinner at his friend’s restaurant. He ordered a plate of kubba, oblong shells filled with meat and spices. He also ordered lamb kabob and tabouleh, a salad with lots of parsley and mint. He set up hookah, choosing apple-flavored tobacco. He barely ate the food. He couldn’t put down the hookah.
“It feels like it’s been 100 years”
After the smoke-filled dinner, Mohamad raced over to a friend’s home. He called them cousins, though it was not clear if they are actually related. Inside, several older couples with their younger children. The youngest was 2. The children spoke few words in English. The adults spoke no English. They were also refugees from Syria.
Mohamad changed his clothes. On his pants, an American flag was featured prominently.
In a convoy of three cars, Mohamad and the others sped to the airport. A CGTN producer riding with him noted the flight was landing earlier than scheduled. Mohamad panicked.
The lead car missed the turn into the parking lot. Mohamad cursed, then sped up. Two minutes passed before the cars pulled into parking spaces. Mohamad’s car was barely stopped before he opened his door (reaching out the window to open it) and shouted something in Arabic, then English: “They coming. Let’s go!”
He sprinted out of the car so fast he left the roses in the back seat.
Mohamad and nearly a dozen friends quickly navigated the Louisville airport. They met up with volunteers from a local charity that had come to welcome them, help transport luggage and settle his family into their new apartment.
Mohamad made jokes and exchanged small talk with the volunteers. Someone gave him a large, white stuffed animal to give his family. One of the volunteers told Mohamad that his family would be carrying a white bag, so he would know it’s them.
“I know my mother,” Mohamad said, with a laugh. “Sorry, I appreciate. I just know my family.”
Just a few minutes passed before Mohamad’s family came around the corner. Mohamad ignored security signs saying “no entry” and sprinted to his mother. He dropped the stuffed animal and fell to his mothers feet, kissing them. His pants slipped down. His father stood Mohamad up, one of his friends helped Mohamad with his pants and he stood there, embracing his family. Mohamad ignored a security agency employee telling them to move out of the way. His family couldn’t understand anyway.
The only thing Mohamad cared about was holding his family, especially his mother, in his arms. For the first time in as long as he could remember, they were all together. And home.