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How One Iraqi Medical Student Made It to the U.S. Despite the Travel Ban

Mustafa Mousa came to Ohio just for a visit — but he hopes he’ll be able to complete his green-card application before returning to school in Ukraine in September.
Photo of Mustafa Mousa sitting in a restaurant

Mustafa Mousa.

Four days after President Donald Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning people from seven Middle Eastern countries from visiting America, Pacific Standard talked to Mina Mousa, a 22-year-old Iraqi American who settled in the United States with her parents and sister in 2012. The plan was for her two older brothers to join the family once they graduated from professional school in the Ukraine. They've both applied to be permanent residents, like their parents and sisters. One brother, Mustafa, has a U.S. refugee travel document, which is supposed to allow him to come and go from the country freely. But days before Mustafa was due to fly into Columbus, Ohio, for a visit — and to complete portions of his green card application — the American embassy in Kiev advised him he wouldn't be allowed on a plane to the U.S. "We're trying to figure it out," Mina said at the time. "I can't do anything."

Then, good news came: Mustafa was able to fly after all. He landed first in New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, where he was held for what he estimates to be five hours. He ended up in Columbus only one day later than planned. Pacific Standard talked to Mustafa over the phone to learn what his experience was.

  • I applied for a travel document in April of 2016, when I was in the U.S. I had it sent to the U.S. embassy at Kiev. The day before I traveled, I went to the embassy and asked them for my travel document. At first, they said, due to the new rules about the seven countries, they can't give it to me. I said: "I haven’t visited Iraq in 11 years. My travel document was approved before I left U.S. soil." After an hour, they said, "You can collect your passport, but I don't think they’re going to let you board the plane at the Kiev airport." Because I already bought the ticket a month ago, I wanted to give it a shot. I went to the airport. I showed them my travel document. I didn't show them my Iraqi passport. I thought that would be safer. They let me board the plane! I didn't have any trouble.
  • At 1:30 p.m. Thursday, the second of February, I landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport. I went to the border. I showed them the travel document. The officer asked me to go to a big room. There were about eight people there, waiting. I sat there for about two hours. Another flight arrived; now there were, like, 12 people. A man came to apologize for the delay. Then I waited another hour. Then another guy asked me to come with him to a room. He took all this information, like: my name, when I left my country, when I came to the U.S., why I left the U.S., where I lived the last three days in Kiev. It all took about 30 to 40 minutes. There was one question — he asked me, "What did you think about Iraq when Saddam [Hussein] was the president?" I said I was 13 years old. All I cared about was school and my friends. Then he asked me to wait outside, in the same room as when I started. After another hour and a half, they told me, "You are good to go." By the time I left, there were about 15 people waiting.
  • When I exited, there were three lawyers and one interpreter waiting for me. I don't know what organization they were from. They had written my name on a big piece of paper. But I didn't need them. Everything was cool, even the detective and the people inside. I missed my connecting flight, so I asked the airline for another. They scheduled me for the day after that, which was February 3rd. I stayed in a hotel for a night.
  • How did I feel? It was cool. You know, my main concern was boarding the plane in the Ukraine. I felt that, at the U.S. border, everything would be OK because I have my travel document. I'm praying I'm going to get my green card as fast as I can because I need to go to finish medical school in the Ukraine in September. Maybe because of the new laws it's going to take longer. I don't know what I’m going to do. I still have my fifth and sixth year to finish. Then I will come to take the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination. I want to be a physician in the U.S. My plan is to be a neurologist. Maybe I can work on robotic hands that people can control with their brains. That's my big, big, big plan.

— Mustafa Mousa, a medical student and Iraqi refugee