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Blind Iraqi refugee, halted by travel ban: 'They tell me Seattle is beautiful'

(From left) Brone Yassir, Salwa Rabaa, Abtsam Rabaa and Mary Yassir are refugees from Iraq currently living in Turkey. Their move to Seattle was canceled by President Trump's so-called travel ban.
Courtesy of Rabaa family
(From left) Brone Yassir, Salwa Rabaa, Abtsam Rabaa and Mary Yassir are refugees from Iraq currently living in Turkey. Their move to Seattle was canceled by President Trump's so-called travel ban.

They were ready. They had even packed gifts for relatives who would greet them in Seattle.

Then a snowstorm delayed the flight.

And the very next day, President Trump signed his temporary immigration ban.

Now, as U.S. immigration laws are debated in court, this family waits and hopes for news. They spend a lot of time on the phone.

“Hello! Can you hear me?”

Wasfi Rabaa speaks through an Arabic interpreter. He sits on a plush couch in his living room in Tukwila, an ornate tea service on the table. He passes the phone to a KUOW reporter.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Wasfi Rabaa in his living room in Tukwila", "fid": "133690", "style": "offset_left", "uri": "public://201702/teaset.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Liz Jones"}]]On the other end of the phone, in Turkey, are all four women who were supposed to come here: his two sisters Salwa and Abtsam Rabaa, and her daughters Brone and Mary Yassir.

Salwa has been blind since birth. Asked how she’s doing, she replies, “We thank God for everything.”

She talks a little about their happy childhood together in Iraq. And how her siblings spoiled her and were her eyes to the world.

“They always took care of me. They took me to the school. I never felt that I had vision problems with them around me.”

Salwa says Wasfi and his family tell her Seattle is beautiful. Health care is excellent. And women have opportunities here for education. In rural Iraq, half the women are illiterate.

Abtsam, who is in her late 40s, has grown weary of life in Turkey.  

“It’s cold and snow everywhere,” she says. “The house does not have any heating so we freeze from the inside, inside the house.”

The four women are always together. When they go out in public, they disguise themselves as Muslims for their safety. The family is Mandean, a religious minority in Iraq.

Abtsam says her sister took the news hard when the travel ban came down and their trip was canceled. She cried, hysterical.

Wasfi, her older brother, nervously taps his leg as he listens to his sisters, staring off in the distance.

He says they’ve been on the phone about 10 hours every day since the executive order was announced. The U.S. government says it is necessary to improve security and the vetting process for refugees.

Wasfi was a police officer in Iraq and assisted U.S. forces during the war. He was kidnapped and persecuted and has worked hard to overcome that trauma.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Wasfi Rabaa", "fid": "133691", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201702/wasfi.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Liz Jones"}]]His sister, Abtsam, shares a similar pain. Her husband went missing.

“I don’t know if it was because of the religious minority that we represent,” Abtsam says. “So I stayed by myself doing my best to protect my two girls for eight years, trying to protect them.”

One of those girls, 18-year-old Brone, asks to speak to the reporter. She has a middle school education but wants to attend college in the U.S.

“I would get a degree in math and be able to solve the biggest equations that no one else can solve,” Brone says.

Listening in Tukwila, her aunt Azhar Khissef’s face lights up with a huge smile. She and Wasfi came to the U.S. in 2010 with their four children who have excelled in school, mostly engineering. Graduation photos hang above the couch. They’re all U.S. citizens now too.

Brone describes her time in Turkey as a life without aim. But she has hope.

“I do believe that the United States will give me that chance to achieve my ambition.”

She tells her aunt and uncle in America she loves them. And that they will see each other again.

Editor's note: Since this story was reported, KUOW has learned these four sisters are now scheduled for a flight to Seattle. But with a pending court decision on the immigration order, plans for them could change at any time.

Liz Jones can be reached at Have a story idea?Use our story pitch form.

Produced for the web by Bond Huberman.

Year started with KUOW: 2006