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After helping US military, Iraqi refugee is detained at JFK

Hameed Khalid Darweesh, center, a former interpreter for the US military in Iraq, greeted a supporter after his release from detention at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. New York Times

An Iraqi refugee who spent the last decade working to help the US in his country was detained at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York Friday as a result of President Trump’s immigration ban, and then released 19 hours later, according to published reports.

Hameed Khalid Darweesh praised America and thanked the people who came out in support of him Saturday. “This is the soul of America. This is what pushed me to move, leave my country and come here,” Darweesh said. When asked what he thought of America, he responded: “America is the greatest nation, the greatest people in the world.”


“. . . we know that America is the land of freedom,” he said.

At one point, Darweesh began to cry as he spoke to reporters, putting his hands behind his back and miming handcuffs.

“What I do for this country? They put the cuffs on,” Darweesh said. “You know how many soldiers I touch by this hand?”

Darweesh had worked on behalf of the US government in Iraq for 10 years, according to the Independent newspaper in Great Britain. A second man, Haider Sameer Abdulkhaleq Alshawi, had flown to the US to join his wife, who had worked for a US contractor. He was still in custody Saturday afternoon.

After they were detained, lawyers for the men filed a suit in the early hours of Saturday morning, seeking their release.

In the early morning hours, the lawyers asked to speak with them. Customs and Border Patrol agents at JFK said that they were not the ones to field such a request.

‘‘Who is the person to talk to?’’ the attorneys asked, according to the complaint. The CBP agents responded: ‘‘Mr. President. Call Mr. Trump.’’

A supervisor for Customs and Border Protection at Kennedy Airport declined to comment, referring questions to public affairs officials. Calls to officials in Washington and New York were not returned early Saturday.


According to the court filing, Darweesh was granted a special immigrant visa on Jan. 20, the same day Trump was sworn in as president. Darweesh worked with the United States in Iraq in a variety of jobs — as an interpreter, engineer and contractor — over the course of roughly a decade.

Darweesh worked as an interpreter for the Army’s 101st Airborne Division in Baghdad and Mosul starting shortly after the invasion of Iraq on April 1, 2003. The filing said he had been directly targeted twice for working with the US military.

A husband and father of three, he arrived at Kennedy Airport Friday evening with his family. Darweesh’s wife and children made it through passport control and customs, but agents of Customs and Border Protection stopped and detained him.

Brandon Friedman, who worked with Darweesh as an infantry lieutenant with the 101st Airborne, praised Darweesh’s work.

“This is a guy that this country owes a debt of gratitude to,” Friedman said. “There are not many Americans who have done as much for this country as he has. He’s put himself on the line. He’s put his family on the line to help U.S. soldiers in combat, and it is astonishing to me that this country would suddenly not allow people like that in.”

Material from the New York Times and the Independent was used in this report.