Driven from Iraq by IS, family struggles to make it to US

BEIRUT, Feb 7 (Reuters) - Amira al-Qassab and her family flitted from one Iraqi city to another fleeing Islamic State, then waited three years in Beirut until they were cleared to move to the United States.

But their plans to fly out last week were derailed after U.S. President Donald Trump froze refugee arrivals.

"We were so surprised and unsettled. It was chaos," Amira, 45, said. "I didn't even unpack our clothes."

Amira had taken her two youngest children out of school, the others had quit their jobs, and their suitcases had remained packed for weeks before a U.S. judge temporarily suspended the travel ban.

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As the family left for Michigan on Wednesday lugging 10 suitcases, they hoped to end a long road -- still fraught with fear -- to resettling as refugees in the United States.

"Everything's been ready, we had just been waiting for a phone call. They told us to go to the airport at midnight," Amira said.

A federal judge last week blocked Trump's order temporarily barring refugees and nationals from seven mainly Muslim countries, including Iraq and Syria. The ruling opened a brief window for travelers who had been waylaid to rush to the United States while the legal limbo continues.

"We're quite afraid President Trump will halt travels again," Amira said as she prepared to board a flight with four of her children, aged 7 to 22.

The Trump administration has said the ban would help prevent terrorism but opponents assailed it as unconstitutional.

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A U.S. federal appeals court heard arguments on Tuesday over whether to restore Trump's order. The case may ultimately reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

The ban led to protests across U.S. cities and chaos at airports overseas after visa holders were kept from boarding flights, detained at American airports or denied entry.

"We were really happy we would travel" but it was bittersweet, said Amira, whose husband Nizar was denied resettlement to the United States twice.

This marked the first time they have been apart since they married nearly 30 years ago and they did not know when or where they would meet again.

"I don't know what my fate will be," said Nizar, 52, whose two brothers resettled in Michigan about four years ago.

In Beirut, the family lived in a small, dingy apartment in a suburb. Nizar was not able to find a job, he said. Their son, 22, worked at a factory to make rent while their daughter, 18, worked to cover food and living expenses.

"We had waited a long time, and our situation here is really bad," he said. "My children don't have a future here. So I was forced to let them go."

Last year, the United States set a quota to take in 2,500 refugees of all nationalities living in Lebanon, UNHCR spokeswoman Dana Sleiman said.

Trump's order also sought to prioritize refugees fleeing religious persecution, a move he said separately was aimed at helping Christians fleeing the war in Syria.

The Qassab family, Iraqi Christians from Mosul, first left their home when unidentified men tried to kidnap Amira at the school where she worked as a janitor.

"Daesh came and kicked us out, so we fled further to the north," said Nizar, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State. They trekked through Iraq, staying in Erbil and Dohuk, and ended up in Beirut in 2014.

"I feared for my wife and children. We sold everything we had and came here," he said.

The family had barely gotten some respite from the instability of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq before the threat of Islamic State militants emerged, Nizar said.

They no longer cared where they ended up, his wife added, they just wanted to find some peace.

"My children are drained. They worked just to pay the rent. We barely made a living," Nizar added.

"I can't go to America anymore. I don't know why...I'm parting with my family," said Nizar , bursting into tears. "How am I going to live alone?"

The Qassabs' eldest son Rami, 26, had already resettled to Michigan two months earlier to find them all an apartment.

"He told us America is beautiful," Amira said. "But it takes some time to settle in."