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Weeks later, Syrian woman allowed in to visit ailing mother

Nour Ullayet addresses reporters after her sister, Sahar Algonaimi (far left) was admitted into the country Friday. | Sam Charles/Sun-Times

Nearly three weeks after she was denied entry to the United States to visit her mother after cancer surgery, a weeping Sahar Algonaimi passed through the gates of O’Hare’s International Terminal and into the arms of her sister and niece.

Algonaimi, a 58-year-old first grade teacher who has lived in Saudi Arabia for 30 years, flew from Abu Dhabi to Chicago on Jan. 28, a day after her 76-year-old mother underwent a mastectomy at a hospital in Munster, Ind., to treat her breast cancer.

Though Algonaimi has lived in Saudi Arabia for 30 years, she has citizenship in Syria — one of the seven majority Muslim countries addressed in President Donald Trump’s controversial executive order.

Kalman Resnick, an attorney who worked to secure Algonaimi’s entry to the country, said that when she arrived at O’Hare last month, her visa was also revoked.

“After three hours [at O’Hare], she was put back on a plane to Abu Dhabi,” Resnick said.

But Friday evening was a different story for Algonaimi, with her sister and niece, meeting her at the arrival gate.

“When I saw her face, everything changed,” her sister, Nour Ullayet, said.

Ullayet and her daughter — who live in Valparaiso, Ind. — waited outside the arrival gate for about 20 minutes before Algonaimi passed through, though they said it felt like an eternity.

“Those 20 minutes felt like forever,” Ullayet said. “I didn’t want her to go through what she went through last time when she was here.”

With her niece Maria Ullayet, serving as an interpreter, Algonaimi said she was anxious to see her mother.

“She’s very happy and grateful to be here and come back after the grueling process that she went though a few weeks ago,” her niece added.

Not having her sister nearby while her mother was undergoing and recovering from the surgery was especially trying, Nour Ullayet said.

“It was definitely devastating not having her with us because we were hoping that, you know, during this tough time, you just need someone to be with you,” she said. “Having [Algonaimi] going through this also added to everything. [It] added to the stress, to the whole tough time that we’re going through.”

Both U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, and U.S. Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Indiana, were instrumental in ensuring Algonaimi’s admittance, her family said.

Resnick said the work done by volunteer attorneys, who’ve been stationed in the international terminal at O’Hare since the executive order was signed last month, was crucial in getting Algonaimi into the country.

“This happened because there were volunteer lawyers from many law firms in Chicago who came to this airport to defend people impacted by the executive order,” Resnick said.

Sahar Algonaimi (left) meets Kalman Resnick, an attorney who helped secure her entry into the country have she was previously denied. | Sam Charles/Sun-Times
Sahar Algonaimi (left) meets Kalman Resnick, an attorney who helped secure her entry into the country have she was previously denied. | Sam Charles/Sun-Times

Despite her sister’s ordeal, Nour Ullayet said the process through which the executive order was overturned gave her newfound confidence in democracy.

“I strongly do believe that the American people are able to really do miracles and this is one of them,” she said.

“Now I know for sure we’re living in a democracy,” Nour Ullayet added. “Now I think I can face anything.”