“Welcome, welcome welcome!” reads the digital arrivals display above Terminal 4 at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport.
In more than a dozen languages, the word is translated on a bright blue wall for all to see and read as soon as they exit customs and enter the United States for the first time.
While the signage itself remains unchanged from less than two weeks ago, when President Donald Trump’s ban on foreign nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries led to mass protests and confusion nationwide, JFK’s international terminal has an entirely different demeanor Monday morning.
After Trump’s executive order was put to a halt by a federal judge on Friday, the week’s first arriving international passengers slowly make their way through a quiet hallway. Among them are some (whose visas had not been revoked) from the seven affected nations — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
Protesters are gone
No This time, there are no protests staged outside the terminal, no visible grouping of pro bono lawyers scuttling to assist in T4’s “Central Diner.”
The pale sky is visible through the terminal’s dual-story glass panels, and birds can be heard chirping between intercom announcements.
After a routine hour-and-a-half process through U.S. Customs and Border Protection, vetted families traveling from Dubai continue their journey toward the city.
In a span of two minutes, a reunited family from India and a young couple from Jordan — unaffected by the ban but instead by sheer distance — embrace and burst into tears at the hallway’s end.
Sayeda, from Pakistan, is relieved to finally make it back to her second home — not because she thought the initial ban might somehow be reinstated and expand beyond the initial list, but because the name listed on her ticket does not fully match that of her green card.
Still, she says she understands Trump’s intentions.
“Whatever he is doing, he’s doing for his country, for the people who voted for him,” she said.
‘Not about my religion’
Safwan Edris, a Syrian based in Dubai, has never been to New York. But his wife, Hajar, a stewardess from Morocco has, and it is her turn to play tour guide.
“We booked the flight two weeks ago on the 17th [of January],” recalls Edris. “We saw the news. I couldn’t come here, so we cancelled it. We kept waiting.”
But both Edris and Hajar, traveling with their baby daughter in a stroller, hardly consider themselves victims.
“The ban affects the refugees in Jordan,” Edris says. “They apply, wait two, three, four months, just waiting — interview after interview after interview. They give them a date, then you can’t go.”
“They sold their houses, their cars,” adds Hajar. “These are the people being affected.”
Edris, whose father remains in Aleppo, admits he will probably never return to Syria, calling the crisis there “an act of God.” But New Yorkers, he believes, will be welcoming during their stay.
“I know the culture; I know the people,” Edris said. “It’s not about my religion. It’s politics.”
Liberty and justice
Lindley Hanlon, a City University of New York film professor impersonating the Statue of Liberty, appears shortly before noon, and is immediately questioned by police.
An officer tells Hanlon she can only welcome visitors, not “protest” in the arrivals hall. He concludes that a sign she unveils, with the words “liberty and justice for all,” falls into the latter category.
“This is the pledge of allegiance to the flag,” Hanlon responds, not impressing the officer. But she complies, hiding her sign.
“I’m trying to welcome people to our shores, as I’ve always done for 131 years,” she says, referring to Lady Liberty’s arrival in New York harbor in June of 1885.
“Perhaps even behind closed doors [foreigners] are being interrogated more fiercely,” she remarks. “My feeling is, this was not a way to welcome people to America.”
Like thousands of New Yorkers over the past two weeks, Hanlon made the long commute to JFK to show continued support for the world’s most vulnerable refugees.
“You plan on being here all day?” I ask her.
“No, I’m going to beat the rush hour,” Hanlon says.