Diane Herbst
February 03, 2017 11:00 AM

 

Fadi Kassar waited anxiously for hours in a terminal at JFK International Airport on Thursday.

At 4 p.m., the plane from Jordan carrying his wife and two young daughters had landed. Would they be allowed in? Or would they be sent back again, like they had on Saturday?

It had been over two years since Kassar, 40, originally from Syria, had last seen wife Razan Alghandour, 27, and their daughters, Hnan, 8, and Lian, 5.

But at 7:22 p.m. his family emerged from the glass sliding doors of the Customs and Border Patrol area at Terminal 8, and Kassar ran to embrace his family with long hugs and lots of tears.

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“I am very, very happy to see my kids and my wife,” Kassar, who lives in Milford, Connecticut, told PEOPLE. “Thank you very much everybody.”

Kassar gave his daughter two American Girl dolls donated by supporters, and his teary-eyed wife a bouquet of roses. “I am so happy,” said Alghandour.

The reunion capped off a terribly painful week for Kassar, who had not seen his wife and daughters since October 2014.

Kassar told PEOPLE in this week’s issue that he was “destroyed” when he was informed that his family — already en-route from Jordan to reunite with him on Saturday — wouldn’t be allowed to join him after President Donald Trump issued an order barring refugees from entering the U.S.

The joyful reunion ends an odyssey for the family, after Kassar became determined to travel to the U.S. to make a better life for his family.

About 20 years ago, Kassar left Syria and settled in the United Arab Emirates. He had a home in Syria and often visited, and that is where he met his wife. In 2014, after losing his job at a car rental agency and not being allowed to stay in the United Arab Emirates, the family ended up in Jordan.

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Kassar then took a circuitous path to the U.S. that involved securing a visa to Brazil. Once there, he made it to Mexico and then to the U.S., where he was initially arrested and held in a detention center.

With the help of Sammer Karout — Kassar’s brother-in-law and a restaurant owner in Connecticut — and other family members, his release was secured and he was able to remain in the U.S.

For more personal stories on the effects of Trump’s immigration ban, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE on newstands now. 

After Kassar was offered asylum in 2015, he worked on obtaining visas for his family. Following an intense screening process, his wife and daughters were granted permission to arrive days before Trump’s order took effect. He had booked them on the earliest flight possible.

Despite being granted visas, the trio had their passports confiscated on Jan. 28 in Kiev, a stopover on the route, and were sent back to Amman with no luggage.

With no place to live, a group of supporters raised money to pay for an apartment, clothing and food.

Kassar was so devastated at the time. “My life doesn’t mean anything to me anymore,” he said.

But this ordeal had an abrupt, and happy, turnaround.

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Early Wednesday morning, Kassar received word that the family was approved to board a plane from Amman back to America. Within minutes, a relative booked the flights.

The happy news came after U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut shared the family’s struggle on the Senate floor and introduced legislation to overturn Trump’s executive order Monday night, calling the ban “likely illegal.”

“I am so excited those girls are safe and sound in the United States,” Murphy tells PEOPLE. He  and his office worked with immigration lawyers, the U.S. State Department, and U.S. Customs and Borders to help reunite the family.

Steve Helber/AP

Murphy notes that the Kassars gained entry only because they had been en route before the ban was issued, a waiver the administration made following intense public outcry. But there remain hundreds of other refugee families who now won’t have a chance to come.

“Think of all the other families who thought they were going to experience what the Kassar family were going to experience last night,” the Democrat senator says, “and their dreams are dead.”

The refugee advocacy group HIAS also worked its contacts behind the scenes.

“HIAS is honored to be part of a team effort to save this whole family,” HIAS President and CEO Mark Hetfield tells PEOPLE

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Thursday night at JFK, Karout was one of about 20 relatives who awaited the family’s arrival with Kassar.

Kassar works for Karout’s restaurant in Milford. Friday night, Sen. Murphy and supporters of the Kassar family are expected to gather to welcome the refugees to America.

“I feel that humanity prevails in the United States,” Karout tells PEOPLE. “I feel the American values prevail. We have hope.”

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