Last Tuesday night, I got an unexpected and somewhat frantic call from my lawyer asking whether I was outside the U.S. and pleading with me to return immediately: “Trump might be signing an executive order that would ban people from Iraq, and a few other countries, from entering the country.” I was in Vancouver at the time to attend the opening night of my little brother’s acting debut. There was no way I was going to miss that.
But trying to be prudent and heed the lawyer’s advice, I showed up at the airport five hours before my flight Wednesday morning to get through immigration before the potential ban could take effect. I’m an Iraqi citizen, though I first came to the United States 10 years ago and I now work at Facebook as a software engineer. It was just a matter of lucky timing that I wasn’t stranded far from my home the way so many people from the countries covered by President Trump’s arbitrary and unnecessary new immigration orders were.
At the Vancouver airport, I was sent to the secondary inspection room, which I’ve had to visit during every single one of my 40-plus entries into the United States over the past two years. It had never seemed so crowded with people who appeared to be of Arabic origin. There are often people of all sorts of nationalities and ethnicities in that room, but last week, most of the names being called were ones like Ahmed, Fahad, Mohammed, Zahra and so on. To me, it felt as though discrimination against people like me was setting in even before the order was signed.
The country I saw this week doesn’t look like the America I know and love.
I first came to the United States in 2007 on a high school exchange program (known as Youth Exchange and Study, or YES) sponsored by the State Department, which offered a merit-based scholarship to students from majority-Muslim countries to spend a year living with an American host family while attending school. Established in October 2002 in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the program was supposed to help bridge the gaps between America and the Muslim world. And it succeeded. Students come here to act as ambassadors for their countries and cultures while also learning about American values, and take this newfound knowledge back to their homes when they return. I consider my journey to be one that has completely fulfilled this purpose and one that proves programs and initiatives like this do work. I came here with very little knowledge and many misconceptions about America, and I was placed in a small-town community in Minnesota, where many people had their own misinformation about Iraq.
During that one year of attending high school in Duluth, I made so many precious connections with people, some of whom have become family for me and are now ones that I hold dearly in my heart. And that’s who I think about when I think of the American people; the people that took me in and stood by me when I first came here as a 15-year-old who spoke broken English and aspired to pursue education and build a safe life for myself and my family.
I can’t help but notice the irony of the situation we are in today, where I am being rejected by the government for being from a majority-Muslim country, which was the very reason I was sponsored by the same government to come here in the first place.
It adds insult to injury when people talk about excluding people like me as if we are a threat to this country, when we have fled the very same things Americans fear. Whether the Islamic State or al-Qaeda, we have been victims of violence and extremism in our native countries. My father and oldest brother were killed by a suicide bomb in Baghdad, and we were forced out of our home by al-Qaeda.
It’s also frustrating when people assert that the borders are insecure and that this ban is necessary to stop some imaginary influx of terrorists. I can easily attest to the stringency and thoroughness of the existing vetting process for visa applications as well as border crossings. People like me who come from those “watch-list countries” are scrutinized extensively before we are issued a visa or allowed entry into the country. I have held more than 10 U.S. visas. Each one required a lot of paperwork and production of materials for vetting, and the visas sometimes took months to issue. But a visa doesn’t guarantee entry — it only gives someone permission to board a plane and appear at the border to request admission. And that’s when the additional vetting process begins. For me, landing at an airport in the U.S. has always involved at least two officers asking questions, verifying documents, inspecting my luggage or electronic devices, among other procedures. Sometimes this can take several hours and become quite invasive, as when an officer elects to read through my personal emails or Facebook messages.
As I was about to leave the immigration room Tuesday, I asked the officer who stamped my passport if he knew anything about the details of this ban, which hadn’t been confirmed at the time. He chuckled and said, “You don’t want to be here when stuff like this is happening anyway,” and went on to suggest that I’d be better off pursuing citizenship in Canada, where my mother and two younger brothers were resettled as refugees in 2015.
But I don’t want to give up on the United States. It would be easy to become cynical and think that the people have spoken, and that Trump’s notion that “we don’t want them here” really shows how Americans feel about people like me. Easy, that is, until I think of all the people who have supported me in the past 10 years, showering me with generosity and kindness that have forever changed my life in ways I couldn’t even dream about as a kid in Baghdad. Rather than cynical fear, those memories give me tremendous hope and confidence that Americans are going to fight against this and stand up for the values and principles of this country. The protests and the rush by lawyers to airports across the country to help free people from immigration detention centers under the order reassures me that this really is the same welcoming beacon of hope I found when I first got here.
So keep fighting for us. Pick up the phone or send an email to your representative or senator; ask to meet with them in person. If you want lawmakers to see one face of the endless stories of all these immigrants these policies will hurt, I will gladly join you if I am nearby or if I can easily fly to your district. Together, we will preserve the American Dream for everyone who came to this country as part of their journey in the pursuit of happiness.