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U.S. Politics Would-be Americans have dreams dashed by Trump’s executive orders on immigration

Demonstrators and travelers at Los Angeles International Airport watch from the parking lot on Jan. 29, 2017 as protests continue against Donald Trump's executive order banning travel to the U.S. by citizens of several countries.

Ryan Kang/The Associated Press

Donald Trump's move to block entry to refugees, immigrants and citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries rippled through the Middle East, stranding travellers at airports, dashing the dreams of families escaping conflict and upending America's standing in the region.

Over the weekend, citizens of several Arab countries were not allowed to board their U.S.-bound planes at airports in Cairo, Dubai, Istanbul and Beirut, hours after Mr. Trump signed an executive order designed to protect the United States from terrorists and barred entry to all citizens and immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Syria. The Trump administration also ended indefinitely the entry of Syrian refugees and halted the entire refugee resettlement program for four months.

Across the region – from capital cities to refugee camps where families awaited news of their U.S. visa and refugee applications – an untold number of would-be Americans have quickly, painfully discovered that they are no longer welcome in the United States. It comes at a time when the United States is depending on its Arab and Muslim allies to defeat Islamic State in the region.

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"Our dream is destroyed completely," Muhammed Abdullah told The Globe and Mail from Kirkuk, Iraq. The 54-year-old father of two is an Iraqi Kurd who worked for three years as an interpreter with the U.S. Army in Iraq. Among his American colleagues, he was known as "Slim."

Until Friday afternoon, Mr. Abdullah believed he was weeks away from starting a new life in Austin, Tex. His frontline work with the U.S. Army and a glowing recommendation from his commander entitled him to apply for a Special Immigrant Visas (SIV), a fast track to American residency and, eventually, citizenship.

The application for Mr. Abdullah, his wife and their two young sons was submitted in July, 2015, and approved late last year. The family drove from their home in Kirkuk to Baghdad for extensive interviews, paid $600 (U.S.) for medical tests, and sold their car and furniture. Their next stop, Mr. Abdullah told his seven- and 10-year-old sons, was Texas.

Then came the Trump executive order on Friday.

"I told the boys it wasn't happening any more. They're crying right now. They're both miserable, like their dad," he said.

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For Mr. Abdullah and other Iraqis like him, there's a powerful sense of injustice at seeing their American dream dashed after sacrificing so much for a country they'd never seen.

Working with the U.S. Army or contractors was dangerous during the Iraq invasion, and it is still dangerous years later: Mr. Abdullah and his wife live in fear that the wrong people will find out who he once worked for. A week ago, he was followed in his car. Assassinations are a real threat. He feels targeted and vulnerable in his home city of Kirkuk, but unable to find a safer option.

In neighbouring Jordan, where hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in camps and cities await word of what the future holds, it is a painful moment for the family of Abdullah Alelayan.

In a damp, drafty three-room apartment in a run-down section of Amman, Jordan, Mr. Alelayan reflected on the 48 hours after Mr. Trump's order.

"When we heard the news, I felt my blood pressure go up. I thought my wife was about to have a heart attack," he said.

The Alelayan family, two parents and seven children between ages two and 16, are from the southern Syrian town of Busra al-Sham. They have lived in Jordan as refugees since December, 2012, and were going through the security checks that mark the final stretch of the U.S. refugee resettlement process.

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The family is barely surviving. Few refugees can work legally in Jordan, so Mr. Alelayan, a barber back in Syria, works occasionally at odd jobs.

"Without the [United Nations] food coupons, only God could know what would happen to us," he said.

Mr. Alelayan had hoped to be the third member of his family to move to the United States. Forty-five years ago, a sister emigrated to Chicago. Four months ago, a brother and his family followed. Mr Alelayan believed he would be next, and hasn't yet been able to tell his children that their plans have been crushed. Thus far, he has only admitted to a delay of three or four months.

Discussing the decisions that so altered his family's fate, Mr. Alelayan doesn't mince words, referring to Mr. Trump as "Satan" and "a mule." Mr. Alelayan says he feels personally wronged.

"Of course America owes us something. We were at the bottom of a well and they threw us a rope and then they cut it while we were on our way up," he said.

The Trump executive order, referred to as a Muslim ban by critics, could strain relations with the Arab and Muslim world.

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The 22-member Arab League expressed deep concern on Sunday over the Trump order. A day earlier, Iran's foreign minister vowed "reciprocal measures" against the United States. "Collective discrimination aids terrorist recruitment by deepening fault-lines exploited by extremist demagogues to swell their ranks," Javad Zarif wrote in a Twitter thread.

Meanwhile, Iraqi parliamentarians called on the government to retaliate. "Iraq is in the frontline of the war of terrorism …and it is unfair that the Iraqis are treated in this way," said Hassan Shwerid, a member of the parliament's foreign affairs committee.

On Monday, Jordan's King Abdullah II is expected in Washington, where he will meet with members of the new administration and possibly Mr Trump himself. King Abdullah, the United States' closest Arab ally, rules a poor country that houses close to a million Syrian refugees and an untold amount of U.S. military hardware and personnel. Jordan is also one of the top recipients of U.S. foreign aid. Friday's executive order will impact King Abdullah's fragile kingdom and the countries around it. Many of the Syrian refugees accepted for resettlement to the United States have come from Jordan.

In Kirkuk, Mr. Abdullah summed up his and his old colleagues' sense of injustice.

"Me and the Iraqi interpreters I know, we don't hate anybody, but we don't understand: Why did he do this? Okay, I'm a Muslim, but I hate any kind of sectarian violence, religious violence. I'm a human, like you."

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