Iraqi refugee and cancer patient describes her six-hour detention at LAX over Trump order


After spending nearly three weeks in Turkey visiting her sick father, Mayasah Witwit was eager to return home to Los Angeles on Sunday and be reunited with her husband and their four children.

But when Witwit, an Iraqi refugee and a cancer patient herself, went through customs at Los Angeles International Airport, officers stopped her.

“You are from Iraq,” they said. “You can’t enter.”

Witwit was taken to what she described as a “special room,” where she and about 20 to 30 other people — from Iran, Somalia and Syria — were detained for hours, caught in a confusing legal limbo that followed President Trump’s executive order temporarily blocking travelers from seven predominately Muslim countries.


Critics have accused Trump of unfairly targeting Muslims and questioned the legality of the ban. Trump, meanwhile, insisted the action is a necessary security precaution, saying in a tweet that the U.S. “needs strong borders and extreme vetting, NOW.”

At LAX, Witwit’s family waited in fear, unable to contact her and unsure what would happen. Her children cried. Her husband worried that his wife would not be able to take the medication she needs for her advanced-stage breast cancer.

Witwit, 48, wondered whether she would be reunited with her children again.

“I felt confused,” she said. “I fear that I will not see my family or my kids.”

Witwit and her husband, Isam Zabiba, recounted their six-hour ordeal Monday at their Westminster apartment, where the couple and their children moved from Iraq a little more than a year ago. Witwit, a gynecologist, and her husband, a college professor, are applying for green cards, but came to the United States with refugee status. Zabiba said they received that status after fleeing a “bad situation” in Iraq, where he worked with the U.S. Army helping Iraqis find jobs.

The couple said they were shocked that Witwit was detained for so long, noting that she had both her passport and legal travel documents allowing her to travel to and from the United States. Zabiba knew about Trump’s travel ban, but said he thought a ruling from a judge in New York would allow his wife to come home without being affected.

“We’re looking forward to new futures for us and for our children,” Zabiba said. “We hope that this situation … is just bad dreams for just one night, not for all.”

For days, Trump’s move stirred chaos across the globe, with travelers abruptly intercepted en route to the United States and barred from entering the country. In the U.S., protesters swarmed outside airports as attorneys inside frantically worked on behalf of the detainees.


Attorney Sireen Sawaf spent most of Sunday at LAX, trying to help a woman whose trip to the U.S. stalled in Saudi Arabia. Sawaf was about to go home that night, she said, when she saw two little girls and their father. The family was “clearly waiting for someone,” Sawaf recalled.

Sawaf, the daughter of Syrian immigrants who works at the L.A. city attorney’s office, spoke to the family in Arabic and learned they were waiting for the girls’ mother: Witwit. When Sawaf learned that Witwit was being treated for Stage 4 cancer, she said, she knew she had to stay.

“We couldn’t walk away,” Sawaf said.

An immigration attorney began reaching out to Customs and Border Protection officials, Sawaf said, explaining that a cancer patient was being detained. Sawaf tried to amp up the pressure on social media, writing on Facebook about the case.

Meanwhile, Witwit was still inside the room. Officials there didn’t reveal much, she said. Someone told her she was being detained because she was from Iraq.

“Because of Trump,” the man told her. “He signed a paper.”

Officials offered Witwit water and a chance to use the restroom, she and her husband said, but she wasn’t able to take her medication, which she had packed in a checked bag that she didn’t have access to.

Witwit’s family is still not sure why she was let go — the officers didn’t clearly explain, they said. As soon as she left the room, Witwit said, her voice breaking, she went straight to her children and hugged them.