The family members of six Syrians who were detained at Philadelphia International Airport and then sent back to the Middle East spoke out for the first time Sunday.
The families were detained and deported through an executive order signed Friday evening by President Donald Trump that immediately restricted travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries and temporarily halted a refugee program for Syrian immigrants, according to family in the U.S.
"America is not America," Dr. Ghassan Assali told reporters Sunday. "Like ISIS now, they ask, 'Are you Christian? What do you believe?' And if they are not saying what they believe, they kick you out and they cut your head off. So America, same thing. They ask you are you Muslim? You've got to change your religion. Thank you."
Assali and his wife Sarmad Assali, both Allentown residents, and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf addressed the media Sunday afternoon. The couple's six family members from Syria arrived at Philadelphia International Airport Saturday morning from Doha, Qatar and were briefly detained. They were then sent on a return 18-hour flight back to Doha, the family said.
"This is not a place where people come to experience oppression and that's what their family members experienced," Gov. Wolf said Sunday. "I for one as an American, as a Pennsylvanian, I'm outraged."
The families, made of up two brothers, their wives and two children, were detained by Customs and Border Protection officials after disembarking a Qatar Airways flight at 7:25 a.m. Saturday, according to Assali's son, Joseph Assali.
Three hours later, the six were put back on a Qatar Airways flight to Doha, Joseph Assali said.
"This is like a nightmare come true," he said, adding that they had visas and green cards that were legally obtained months ago.
"They're all Christian citizens and the executive order was supposed to protect Christians fleeing persecution," he said.
The order suspended entry for 90 days from countries linked to a statute in the Visa Waiver Program. Those countries are: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.
Trump said in signing the order that he was pledging to "keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America." He did, however, declare that Christians in Syria and other restricted-status counties would be given preference. The American Civil Liberties Union and others have challenged the order as unconstitutional, and
Late Saturday night, hours after Assali's family left Philadelphia, a federal judge granted an injunction on the order in response to a request filed by the ACLU and other legal organizations on behalf of individuals subject to President Trump's ban.
Ghassan Assali and his wife said that one of their family members who was sent back was working toward an immigration visa since 2003.
"I would just like to say I've been here for many, many years," Sarmad Assali said. "I'm devastated, what happened to our family. We've done everything by the book."
"We've always lived by the rules. All our lives. I was saddened and I'm heartbroken they had to be sent back to the war zone."
The Assali family said Sunday that their relatives are back in Damascus and doing okay, though one family member is dealing with heart-related issues. They are currently working with the ACLU to help get them back to the United States.
Protesters held two demonstrations at Philadelphia International Airport Saturday and Sunday. Gov. Wolf, Mayor Jim Kenney, Rep. Bob Brady and Senator Bob Casey joined 150 protesters at the airport Saturday night to intervene on behalf of the detained immigrants.
"By several accounts, these families waited months to obtain the proper documentation so they could come to our country legally," Kenney said in a statement. "And still, they were sent back to a war-torn nation that has used chemical warfare against its own people. The Trump administration very well may have just given these families a death sentence."
An estimated 5,000 people gathered at Sunday's protest. Another member of the Assali family, Sarah Assali, attended the demonstration.
"Seeing this much support, it brings hope that our family will be able to come and be welcome," she said.
The Assali family also thanked everyone who protested on their behalf.