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Orange County refugee with cancer tells of 5-hour ordeal at LAX

Jose Serrano of World Relief, a refugee resettlement agency, sits with Isam Zabiba, center, and Mayasah Witwit, right, the day after her arrival from Iraq.
Jose Serrano of World Relief, a refugee resettlement agency, sits with Isam Zabiba, center, and Mayasah Witwit, right, the day after her arrival from Iraq.
Courtesy of World Relief

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The Trump administration’s refugee and immigration travel ban ensnared dozens of travelers over the past weekend, among them an Orange County woman whose situation was especially fraught because of her advanced cancer.

Mayasah Witwit, a 48-year-old Iraqi refugee, has Stage 4 breast cancer. She, her husband and their four children fled the political instability from the Iraq war and settled in Westminster a little over a year ago, with dreams of a secure, hopeful future.

In January, she took a short trip back to Iraq to visit her elderly father, who is fighting his own battle with cancer. As Witwit was preparing to fly home, President Trump signed his executive order banning refugees from arriving in the U.S. for 120 days and barring travelers from seven largely Muslim countries for 30 days, Iraq included.

The temporary ban aims to give the government time to revamp screening procedures that Trump said have not been strict enough to prevent terrorists from entering the country. Critics see the executive order as a Muslim ban, a term that Trump has rejected even while he called for one during his presidential campaign.

Witwit heard about the order the night before her trip home from Iraq, via Turkey, to Los Angeles. It was a long, agonizing trip.

“I am very afraid. I think that I will not see my children and my husband,” she remembered thinking at the time.

Witwit landed at Los Angeles International Airport Sunday afternoon. She said customs officers took her to "a special room." They took away her cell phone and asked questions: Why was she in Iraq? How long had she been there?

What came next stopped her cold.

“They said, 'Oh, you are from Iraq? Donald Trump signed a paper. You must return back to Iraq.' And that news shocked me, because I miss my kids and my family," she said.

Witwit had no way of reaching her husband, Isam Zabiba, who was waiting for her at the Bradley International Terminal with their children.

“My kids this whole time, they’re crying, because they’re suffering … because there’s no communication with her, I miss her…,” Zabiba said.

But in a move that proved the difference for many travelers caught in the enforcement of the order, Zabiba had gotten in touch with attorneys through World Relief, a refugee resettlement agency that brought the family to the U.S.

World Relief’s Jose Serrano said the attorneys got a message to federal agents holding Witwit that she was medically fragile. 

"So they were able to communicate that to whoever the officer was ... and they were able to speed up the process,” Serrano said.

About five hours after she was detained, Witwit was released.

“When they [brought] me from the special room to outside, I saw my children. They jumped to me, and give hugs to me,” she said.

Now she’s back in her family’s apartment, exhausted from the journey, but relieved to be home and ready to resume her treatments.

Serrano said that as a refugee traveling from Iraq, Witwit was lucky.

“I would say, 90 percent, that she would have been sent back without legal intervention,” he said.

Others were not so lucky. Some travelers stopped at airports over the weekend were returned to the countries they left, among them a man who arrived at LAX on an immigrant visa.

He was sent back to Iran, as attorneys worked to get him returned to the U.S.