"They were very afraid and felt threatened by the way the people were talking to them at the airport," says brother Ghassan Assali

By Caitlin Keating
Updated February 02, 2017 11:47 AM
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Family of six Syrians
Credit: Courtesy Assali Family

For 15 years, a family of six Syrians saved every penny they could to move to America. On Friday, with their visas in hand, proof of green cards and more than 16 suitcases, they made the much-anticipated flight to Philadelphia to join a few relatives, only to be detained when they landed and sent back on the next flight home.

Dr. Ghassan Assali, who has a dentistry practice in Allentown, Pennsylvania, is originally from Syria but has been living in the United States for 20 years with his wife, Sarmad.

“My two brothers, their wives and one of my brother’s two kids were finally coming here to live forever,” Ghassan tells PEOPLE. “But when they landed there were officers waiting for them at the front of the plane.”

For much more on those personally affected by President Trump’s immigration ban, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

While their plane was en route, President Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Syria.

Family of six Syrians
Credit: Courtesy Assali Family

Ghassan says his family was told they could not enter the United States because they had “been banned by the president.”

His family told him they had two choices: Get on the next 18-hour flight back or refuse and be imprisoned.

“They were not allowed a translator or a phone call,” he says. “They begged for them to call us just to let us know because they knew we were waiting outside for us. People in prison are even allowed one phone call. This is not America. It’s not right.”

Family of six Syrians
Credit: Courtesy Assali Family

Ghassan bought his brother Hassan, wife Jurjeet, their teens Sara and Mathyo, and his other brother and wife a home in Allentown. They had spent the last few months renovating and furnishing it.

“They were ready to live here and start a new life,” says Ghassan, “where they could start a new life.”

He adds: “My brothers’ dreams were to come here and they took that from them. Now they’re devastated.”

Hassan, Jurjeet and their two children weren’t just coming for a new and better life. Their oldest son, Tawfik, 21, has been living with the Assalis in Pennsylvania for three years.

“He just stood outside the airport waiting for this family to come out and then found out that wasn’t happening,” says Ghassan. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Now, the entire family is at a loss for what to do next.

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“We want them here and they have the right to be here,” says Sarmad. “As citizens we have these rights to bring our family. We have gone by the process of what was required and what the law required. These are not refugees and these are not terrorists that Mr. Trump wants to leave out.”

She adds: “I certainly do want the safety and I don’t want radicals and terrorists in this country but these people went through the process. They did background checks on them. One of the brothers and his
wife were here numerous times before.”

When one of his brothers and his wife came to visit the United States in 2014, they asked if they wanted to apply for asylum.

Their answer was clear: “No, want the real visa. We want to do the right thing and come as go as we please. We don’t want to be refugees or asylees.”

The Assalis are meeting with lawyers and government officials in Pennsylvania to try and get them back.

“We won’t give up,” says Sarmad.