By Chris Francescani
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A young Iranian girl in need of emergency eye surgery only available in the United States arrived safely at a New York airport on Monday evening, after a court halted new travel restrictions put in place suddenly last month that threatened to delay the vital treatment.
Her mother, Fahimeh Kashkooli, is living in the United States on a student visa while she earns a master’s degree at New York's Fordham University School of Law. She shed tears and smiled as she took her daughter out of the airport through a crowd of well-wishers and reporters.
“I cannot express my feelings in words,” Kashkooli said softly as she waited at a John F. Kennedy International Airport arrival gate on Monday evening.
“I was in pain every single moment, but now I feel so much better.”
For several years, Alma Kashkooli, 12, has been traveling to the United States to see her mother and get advanced medical treatment, including a previous surgery in San Diego, for an extremely rare condition that took several years to even be diagnosed.
She had been scheduled to arrive in the United States on Jan. 31 - two days after the restrictions took effect - for a planned surgery at a Pittsburgh children’s hospital.
Doctors there have urged Kashkooli, 33, to get her daughter in for treatment as soon as possible.
When the travel restrictions were issued two days before her daughter’s flight, Kashkooli was rendered nearly speechless.
“I couldn’t tell her, my little angel, that you’re considered as a threat for this country,” she said.
When U.S. President Donald Trump signed a controversial executive order last month restricting travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, Kashkooli found herself in an impossible position.
She could not go and bring her daughter back from Iran because she might not get back in herself, and she could not get her child to the United States for urgent surgery.
“This little girl has a valid visa, and got caught up in a conflict with which she has no connection,” said attorney Gordon Caplan, whose New York law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher is representing the family pro bono.
Alma's current visa allows her to remain in the United States as long as her mother’s student visa remains valid. The child’s visa became useless when the restrictions went into effect, but has since been revalidated under a court order temporarily halting enforcement of the restrictions.
On Monday, her odyssey through U.S. customs was fraught with tension.
With the possibility looming that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit could issue a new nationwide ruling on the travel restrictions at any moment, family attorneys on hand at the airport were visibly nervous as they waded through a throng of cheerful law students and legal interns.
Caplan remained nervous until he saw Alma.
“This is not over yet,” he said, looking for her over the shoulder of a reporter towards arriving passengers.
When he spotted the child, he exhaled deeply.
Kashkooli had spent years taking Alma to experts on three continents before a California doctor finally diagnosed the child in 2009 with an eye condition known as congenital disorder of glycosylation, which severely complicates vision, development and coordination.
(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis and Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Lisa Shumaker)