Today, as the travel ban becomes the law of the land, that stream has dried up. The foremost question in my mind is how I will explain this to my children. They are first-generation Americans, both born during or very close to President Barack Obama’s presidency. We live in Houston, a metropolitan area celebrated for its diversity. I write about interfaith and intercultural dialogue, as well as immigrant fiction.
But now this ban leaves me at a loss for words.
My 9-year-old daughter was looking over my shoulder when I first read a news article online about the Supreme Court decision. “We’re banned from the U.S.?” was her first, shocked, reaction. I scrambled to explain that things were fine, everything was fine, we were U.S. citizens. But she could probably see the worry in the lines of my face, in the way I snapped my tablet shut and rearranged the papers on my desk.
Here’s the catch: We’re currently in Pakistan on vacation, where my children are spending time with their grandmother and getting reacquainted with their cousins. Learning of such an important legal decision while thousands of miles from home is a scary experience. It’s surreal in some ways but very real in others. A thought keeps nagging at me: What if Pakistan is added to the list while we’re away?
My 12-year-old son has inherited my worrying nature. “What’s to stop them from adding Pakistan to the list?” he demanded. He’s got a tic disorder that displays when he’s stressed, and his head was shaking terribly.
“We’ll still be fine,” I reassured him. “We’re citizens; they can’t stop us from coming back.”
“Are you sure?” he asked, almost crying.
I wasn’t. But these are my children, and I’m supermom. I have to smile and say yes: I’m perfectly positive that Pakistan will not make it onto the list.
The funny thing is that some variation of the Muslim ban — or even the internment camps faced by Japanese Americans during World War II — is always on my mind, as it is on the minds of most other Muslim American parents I know. I’ve got a half-written manuscript on my laptop for a novel about Muslims in a camp and another plot outline about a no-Muslims-allowed America. I’ve abandoned those manuscripts — not because of a lack of inspiration but because the reality is too close. Working on them puts an aching pit in the center of my stomach, and I invariably leave my desk to gather my children close.
I’ve decided that I’d rather write other sorts of books, those that show a diverse and inclusive America. It may be a tenuous reality, but it’s one I want for my children, and writing those truths makes them firmer, more achievable.
Parenting is difficult under any circumstances. My mother struggled with poverty and a mentally ill husband as she provided for three daughters in Pakistan. My husband’s parents lived apart for more than a decade — one in Pakistan, the other in Iran — as they tried to manage finances and six children. My friend Zinah and her family escaped the war in Iraq for the sake of her three sons, leaving behind everyone and everything. All immigrants have these stories, and each is a tale of a struggle beyond everyday struggles. “How can we stop people from coming to America? Like my friend Osman’s grandma, or Farah’s uncle?” my daughter moaned. “It’s not fair.”
I have to agree. It’s not fair is her mantra for everything. But in this case the unfairness of where you live and how it can be an impediment to your children’s safety seems truly epic. I don’t know anyone who leaves their home without a reason, and the people on the travel ban list have the most sincere and pressing need to do so. They are escaping war and terror and violence and death.
My friends in Houston and elsewhere are unable to downplay the news on Facebook.
“I can’t believe it,” one wrote.
“This is a black mark on our nation’s history,” wrote another.
At the same time, my Twitter feed is awash with cheers about national security. I wish I could look those people in the eye and tell them America isn’t going to be safer by denying entry to refugees and asylum seekers. The America my husband and I were attracted to 20 years ago is the one with the motto, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” That’s my favorite part of this nation: its willingness to welcome us all into its gentle fold. As a Muslim, I love this concept of hospitality, because it mirrors my own values.
Today, in my 20th year in the United States, I don’t feel welcome.
“Can we get home?” my son asked again. He’s a tourist in Pakistan, enjoying the sights and sounds and foods but also dying to be back in Houston. In fifth grade, some of his classmates told him he would be deported once Trump became president, and he responded: “I’m a born citizen. I can’t be deported.” But the feeling of inadequacy and being unwanted has stuck in him. As a mom, I can see that. As a naturalized citizen, I can worry.
And hug my children close.
Saadia Faruqi is an interfaith activist and cultural sensitivity trainer featured in O Magazine. She is the author of the adult short-story collection “Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage From Pakistan” and “Meet Yasmin!,” a new early-reader series.