Gov. Tom Wolf stood with dentist Ghassan Assali and his wife Sarmad Assali -- both Syrian Christians who have lived in Allentown since 1978 -- and apologized for U.S. authorities at Philadelphia International Airport sending Assali’s brothers back to Syria despite their visas.
“As a Pennsylvanian and as an American: this is not who we are,” Wolf said to the Assalis at a hastily arranged Sunday afternoon press conference. “Pennsylvania is a place of welcome, not a place of oppression.”
He called the refusal to allow Assali’s brothers to enter the country “a dark day for all of us.”
He said Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro was joining 16 other state attorney generals in instituting legal action to stop the government from barring legal immigrants from the United States.
“We’ve lived every day by the book, by the rules,” Sarmad Assali said, explaining how the family has been working since 2003 on the immigration of Assali’s brothers. “They don’t deserve this and we don’t deserve this.”
Her husband, Ghassan Assali, said, “This is not American. This is more like ISIS. ISIS asks, ‘Are you Christian? What do you believe?’ America asks, ‘Are you Muslim?’” He paused, and shook his head sadly.
Sarmad Assali said the brothers and their families were “back in Damascus. They are very tired.” She said she was grateful to Americans who are demonstrating against Trump’s immigration bans. “We are humans,” she said. “Regardless of race or religion, we are humans.”
She said she worries about her brothers-in-law and their families in Damascus. “If ISIS catches them, they are not safe, no,” she said.
They would not discuss a timeline for getting the brothers and their families back to the United States but they expressed hope for their return.
Ghassan Assali said when he received a call from the airport telling him that his brothers had been detained, then sent back overseas, he thought it was a prank.
When he realized it wasn’t, he asked for an explanation and said he was told, “When they get back to Syria, they will call you.”
The Assalis talked with reporters after meeting with lawyers from the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Philadelphia chapter.