As chemical attack draws U.S. airstrike, Syrian family reunites in Des Plaines
At about the same time the United States was launching a missile strike retaliating for a chemical weapon attack in Syria, two natives of the country were landing at O'Hare International Airport for a happy reunion with their family here.
"Now they are home. Now they are safe," Marwan Saffaf, of Des Plaines, said of his wife, Lama, and daughter Maria, 16, as their separation of nearly three years finally came to an end.
He said he feels particularly lucky his family escaped their homeland after getting word of the deadly chemical attack in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun on Tuesday. "So many people have appreciated our journey, our case."
The chemical attack was about 25 miles from the family's former hometown of Hama. Lama and Maria recently had been staying in the United Arab Emirates to escape violence, such as a shooting that killed a man in front of Maria and one of her three brothers, all of whom have been living in the U.S. with their father.
On Thursday, Marwan waited at O'Hare for his wife and daughter to clear customs. One hour passed, then two, then three.
Marwan hadn't slept after learning Tuesday that Lama and Maria had missed a connecting flight at Doha International Airport in Qatar. Their passports were confiscated until they boarded a new plane the next day.
The Rev. Corey Brost, former president of St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights, and two Arlington Heights women, Kate Rickard and Angelica Andrews, who have been helping the Saffafs settle into life in America, waited with Marwan. His sons, ages 14, 11 and 7, were at school.
When mother and daughter passed out of the double doors from the arrivals area, Brost watched the three embrace.
"It was wonderful," he said. "A family divided by war, by our broken immigration system, reunited after three years."
Seconds later, Brost's phone rang. It was 14-year-old Homam Saffaf. Brost said he quickly handed the phone to Lama, letting her tell her son she'd be home soon.
Earlier this year, the family began to fear they would never be together. In January, President Donald Trump banned travelers from seven countries, including Syria, which he said was to protect against foreign terrorists. But courts put those orders on hold, giving Lama and Maria a window to enter the country.
Marwan said his family fled to the United Arab Emirates in 2013 after witnessing increasing violence in Hama. Saffaf said he was kidnapped once by members of the opposition party who mistakenly identified him as a government official. The event is documented in his asylum paperwork, said the Saffaf family's lawyer, Lauren McClure.
Shortly after Marwan was granted asylum, sons Homam, Fares and Eylas were given immigrant visas and allowed to join him. But Marwan's wife and his daughter remained in limbo, while he and the boys did their best to adjust to life in America, alone. Marwan works as a bank teller and the boys quickly picked up English, all becoming honors students at their respective Des Plaines schools last semester. They are looking forward to showing their mother and sister the local parks and taking them out for Chinese food.
Marwan said the family grieves for Syria and that this week's chemical weapon attack was not the first one.
Meanwhile, he said the family is just enjoying little moments of togetherness and will celebrate soon. "Maybe this weekend," he said, noting Friday was his 47th birthday.
His sons, he said, "didn't show their emotion in front of me, but when they see their mom they are crying, and so happy. After (a) long time, it's like, we are a family once again.
"Now I am not so worried about tomorrow. When you find security you are not as worried."