NEW YORK (AP) — Munther Alaskry first bonded with American Marines over a shared love of Metallica. He later cleared roads of bombs for U.S. troops and translated for them, helping the military navigate his war-torn country.
The 37-year-old Iraqi engineer spent nearly a decade working for the U.S. government in his home country and received death threats for doing so.
On Friday, a bespectacled Alaskry, his wife and children stepped onto American soil to begin new lives. His arrival ended an anxiety-filled week in which he was initially banned from the United States because of President Donald Trump's immigration order.
His life, he said, had suddenly turned into a feel-good film.
"I don't believe this is real," he said. "We always watch American movies, and this is just like my life is in one now. I'm speechless."
Alaskry waited seven years for a special visa to the United States. But the last week seemed the longest: He and his family were booted off the final leg of their U.S.-bound flight only hours after Trump's Jan. 27 executive order halted travel from Iraq and six other Muslim-majority countries to the United States for 90 days.
His wife was shaking as she was escorted off the plane in Turkey. Their children were crying.
When they returned to Baghdad, the ordeal kept him up at night. Alaskry thought their hopes of living free from death threats had been shattered. Then the U.S. Embassy called and told Alaskry he would be welcome.
After arriving in New York at last, the family filled out paperwork for five hours. Alaskry said he felt like emotionally he had gone between "hell and heaven."
Less than a week ago, he struggled to console his 7-year-old daughter, who had asked him through tears "Why the Americans don't want us?"
On Friday, his daughter clutched a colorful paper sign covered in hearts and the words "Welcome Munther and family." It was given to the girl by a woman from a New York synagogue who volunteered to give the family a ride to a hotel.
"I'm so excited," Alaskry said at the hotel, where his children were playing with Legos, blocks and other toys given to them by New Yorkers who turned out to help.
Alaskry was among nearly a dozen Iraqi interpreters who told The Associated Press they were taken off planes or were told their flights were cancelled after Trump's order, which also banned refugees from Syria indefinitely.
The ban outraged combat veterans who credited the Iraqis with saving their lives. The Pentagon recommended that Iraqis who had supported the U.S. mission be let in.
Days after the order, U.S. Embassy officials in Baghdad began contacting Iraqis who had received special immigrant visas because they worked for the U.S. government during the war. Among them were Alaskry and a 26-year-old man who had worked for the State Department vetting Iraqi contractors.
Alaskry first started working for the U.S. military in 2003 after meeting Marines in the streets of Baghdad. He translated for the Army and National Guard and then cleared away bombs. In 2005, he fled to Jordan after a threatening letter was left hanging from his car door.
He returned to Iraq and got a job with an Iraqi company that supported K-9 teams for the U.S. mission and later worked for a U.S. government-funded project that provided information on health care and trauma to Iraqis displaced by the fighting.
All the while, he waited for his visa to the U.S., hoping to raise his children in a safe place. He applied when his daughter was a year old and was still waiting four years later when his son was born.
Meanwhile, he and his family limited their outings, afraid of the violence and crime. After hundreds of emails, multiple interviews and medical exams, he got the call in December. The visas were ready.
Alaskry promised his daughter that she would finally see Disneyland. He quit his job, sold his car and other belongings and bought their plane tickets, spending more than $5,000.
After he and his family were pulled from the plane in Turkey, he had to buy four more tickets to return to Baghdad.
They sat in silence in a taxi as they went to his in-laws' home.
"I felt so alone," Alaskry said.
Then he turned on the TV and saw the protests at U.S. airports.
"Every time I see those people protesting on the news, I cry," Alaskry said. "It's touching to me. These people don't know me. They don't know my story, though there are hundreds like me who supported the American troops."
When Trump was elected, Alaskry said, he was happy because he believed he would help Iraq get rid of the Islamic State group.
"I just want to tell Mr. Trump, President Trump: 'We are your allies,'" he said. "Please let us be your friends. We want to be your friends. Don't let the Iraqi people down. We look to America like it is our big brother."
In the end, he said, U.S. veterans, including the veteran-run No One Left Behind organization, came to his rescue during what he felt were his life's darkest moments after his return to Baghdad.
"When I lost hope, they told me they would fight for me, and that's what they did," he said.
Now he can fulfill his daughter's dream of going to Disneyland. But first on his list was a different tourist site: the Statue of Liberty.
Watson reported from San Diego.