SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah Muslim leader who federal authorities barred from returning to the United States last week finally arrived with his family Sunday to a cheering crowd at the Salt Lake City International Airport.
Imam Yussuf Abdi, a U.S. citizen since 2010, had gone to Kenya to bring his wife and five children, ages 8 to 4 months, to Salt Lake City to live permanently.
"It's a great day today. I'm so happy," he said surrounded by friends and members of his mosque, the Madina Masjid.
Though his family was permitted to fly, Abdi was not allowed to board a Qatar Airways flight in Nairobi last Tuesday. He said he was told that his name was on a no-fly list. Three of his children are U.S. citizens, while his wife and two other children have immigrant visas.
Asked why he believes he was detained in Kenya and then again Saturday in Los Angeles, Abdi said "actually, because we are Muslim. That's it so because of my religion."
Abdi has spent the past five years getting approval for his family to come to the U.S. He had gone to Kenya and back several times during that period.
"The day we planned (to) travel, they told us you cannot come to America anymore," he said. "I wanted to bring all of my children and my wife. They were very happy to come to America, but when they found out their father cannot travel, they were very sad also, very shocked."
The Utah-based Refugee Justice League and Coalition on American-Islamic Relations jumped in with a lawsuit against several federal agencies, arguing the government has no reason to believe Abdi is a threat and demanding he be allowed to return home.
But Salt Lake attorney Jim McConkie said it was the U.S. Attorney's Office in Salt Lake City that really paved way for Abdi's return.
"The local Justice Department has been very helpful and helped us get passes and helped him get going," he said. "Whatever they do, they do and the next thing you know, he got the pass."
U.S. Attorney's Office spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch acknowledged that the office coordinated with several federal agencies, including the Transportation Security Administration, the Department of Justice and Homeland Security in Washington, to get Abdi home.
After Abdi and his family arrived in Los Angeles on Saturday, federal authorities detained and questioned him again en route to Salt Lake City because he is on the no-fly list. Abdi said doesn't understand how he can be on the list because he has never committed a crime and has devoted himself to helping the community.
"Then what happened today? Today something amazing happened, he said.
Abdi said his family was stopped at the gate trying to board an American Airlines flight in Los Angeles. He said the TSA told him he and his children could go, but his wife had to stay.
"My kids start crying," he said.
And after being silent about his ordeal to that point, Abdi said he started talking to people in the airport "out loud" about his family's plight. An American Airlines pilot overheard his conversations and refused to leave without the family, he said.
The pilot told the TSA to call whoever it needed to call, including the police, to get them on the flight, Abdi said.
"Finally, they allowed me to board with my wife," he said.
"There are heroes all over, " McConkie said after hearing the story. "What a great pilot."
Abdi, who worked as s software engineer when he first came to the U.S. 12 years ago, said he wants to focus on the positive and "spread peace" despite what he and his family have gone through.
"America is a great country," he said, adding Americans are honest, hard-working people. Immigrants come to the U.S., he said, for freedom of religion and speech. "America is a place that people build their dreams."
McConkie said the two advocacy groups will continue to pursue a discrimination lawsuit to get Abdi off the no-fly list and argue the larger constitutional issue over the right to travel.