by Mina Al-Oraibi
Sadness. Frustration. Encouragement. Bewilderment. Anger. Motivation. Name the emotion, I have gone through it since last Friday when President Donald Trump stuck to his campaign pledge and imposed a blanket travel ban on millions, while suspending refugee acceptance altogether. The idea that I, as an Iraqi-Briton, was no longer welcome in the US wasn’t the main cause of my anxiety. Rather, it was now clear to me that a team occupied the White House willing to uproot residents, drive divisive policies in the US and around the world, and completely disregard the impact of an ambiguous and unjust decision on law-abiding people around the world.
Those of us who come from the seven countries designated by the Trump administration, or whose families hail from there, are all too familiar with the impact of having politicians play political football with our lives. Citizens of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia, and their descendants, have suffered from irresponsible leaders shattering their lives with the stroke of a pen. The injustice of blanket decisions targeting entire communities with little room for recourse struck a chord with too many of the people I know and love.
One American-Iraqi friend called to say that his two young children were eagerly awaiting their grandfather’s return from a short visit to Iraq, and that despite this decent elderly gentleman having his Green card, he was now banned from returning to the United States. A cousin, who was born in Baghdad but left Iraq at the age of one and is now a proud Iraqi-Canadian employee of a tech company, has had to cancel all her work travel to the US. Other friends from Syria, Iran, and Libya are all contacting each other trying to figure out the impact of this decision on their lives. And these are the “happy” stories. The lives of refugees, dependents, and those in danger are now left in limbo.
Limbo is the insufferable state into which many of us who are suddenly displaced from their homes find ourselves. I am an Iraqi who as a child was forced into exile with my family because of politics out of my control. I am a British adult now considered unwelcome in the United States because of politics out of my control. The rules are not clear, one minute those with a visa can go to the United States, with incompatible statements from Boris Johnson, the US Embassy in London, numerous articles and even more messages from friends in similar situations. The UK Foreign Office insists that it was able to get guarantees that dual citizens are not targeted. Although those traveling on a British passport and having a valid US visa apparently can now travel to the US, the exemption gives little comfort to those who still feel targeted based on their identity and heritage.
Worse still is the limbo for those who need to board flights home to the United States but no longer can, the excruciating pain of refugee families believing they are close to regaining security and ending their displacement, only to have it snatched away. The stories are too many to recount.
I am neither significant nor alone in the great scheme of things. But I am one of many Iraqis and Arabs who have had great admiration for the United States, despite the troubled political relations between Washington and Baghdad. I am among thousands of Europeans who feel that the Atlantic is just a pond that does not divide Europeans and Americans in their open outlook and democratic standards. I have spent time at Harvard, Georgetown, and Stanford, and I am a proud alum of the Yale World Fellows program. I went to the United States for the first time in 2003, weeks after the start of the 2003 war, as part of the State Department’s International Visitor Program. Visiting five states in three weeks, my mind and heart opened up to the US. The kindness and courteous curiosity I encountered were heart-warming—and a world away from what I see emerging as official policy from Washington DC. The recent adoption of a policy of “guilty until proven innocent” goes against the very grain of everything I learned to admire about the US constitution and political system.
I refuse to believe the notion that the Trump administration doesn’t realize that these measures target the very people who are committed American citizens or residents, those invested in strong ties with the United States, or fleeing the type of terror Trump says he wants to prevent. Those orchestrating these measures are not lacking in strategic thinking. Rather, this president made his intentions clear during the election campaign and now he is executing these measures. The intent to isolate is clear—to isolate the vulnerable and exclude those who are different.
The silence of Prime Minister Theresa May has been deafening. It is at first striking that May did not speak out against the ban, especially as she happened to be in the U.S. as it was being drafted. However, this falls in with much of May’s approach. Last October, May used her speech to the Conservative Party to announce that “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” It echoed a disregard for her compatriots who are dual citizens or who have had the fortune of traveling the world or the misfortune of being driven out of their countries to find new adopted homes. I consider myself among millions of Britons who are loyal to the United Kingdom, while enjoying a multitude of identities rooted in values of understanding, respect, and kindness.
Our identity is formed based on a multitude of influences and experiences, including where we were born, our education, faith, family, favorite football team, and many other layers that bring to life an individual. And yet we must also be part of communities, some of them “imagined communities” as famously coined by Benedict Anderson. However, they are as valid as ever. And one of the most beautiful things to emerge from the last few days has been the sense of a strong community among those of us who see our humanity first, of nationalism and pride of country and heritage being an asset for openness to the world. The silver lining has been having friends from New York to Mississippi reach out and give words of love, solidarity, and support. Tears of frustration have been replaced by tears of joy and hope at the sight of organic demonstrations at airports, homes being opened up to those who are stranded, and voices from Hollywood to Congress reminding us of the best of America.
Mina Al-Oraibi is an Iraqi-British journalist and former assistant editor-in-chief of Asharq Alawsat. She can be reached on @AlOraibi. Photo of DC protest by Susan Melkisethian via Flickr.