A 28-year-old version of my father rode his bike home after a day of teaching at the vocational school in his hometown of Basra, Iraq. As he rounded the corner onto his street, a large tank and military personnel came into focus. To his shock, the home they were in front of was his. He had heard that they might come for him, but he would never have actually believed it. There was no choice; he turned around and rode in the opposite direction.
The year was 1991, and an American-backed uprising of the southern provinces of Iraq against Saddam Hussein was in full effect. The regime was nearly collapsed when the U.S., which had encouraged and promised to support the southern uprising, suddenly withdrew its support. Saddam Hussein responded with vengeance. He marched his massive military back into the southern provinces from an unsuccessful attack on Kuwait, which borders southern Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of people were prosecuted for taking part in the uprising, including my father. He spent four years in the Saudi Arabian desert, which he had travelled to on foot the day he saw the military outside his home. Eventually, the U.N. chose him and 40,000 other refugees to be relocated to their new home in the United States of America. A restless work ethic saw Pops achieve a comfortable lifestyle here in the States. Now, all these years later, he is a retired grandfather of five beautiful grandchildren.
If Donald Trump’s executive order to ban Muslim immigrants and refugees from Iraq and six other nations comes to fruition, more than 154 million people can never have the opportunity my father had. So many in Syria, Yemen and Somalia will be stranded in war-torn and poverty-stricken countries with no avenue of escape. The knowledge that we are the lucky ones who made it before the ban is the hardest part to swallow. It hurts to know that, had this ban been in place all those years ago, my father would still have been in a refugee camp. For my family, which has come to terms with the reality that we live on two separate continents, the ban has an even harsher effect, certainly not as pressing as for those who face persecution and possibly even death, but impactful nonetheless.
My father frequently phones home to catch up with his parents and siblings who still live in Iraq. They had always taken it for granted that we could come and go as we pleased. Our grandparents came to visit us a couple years ago. My uncle came a few years before that. My mother and father go every now and then. It has become a reality that our family lives in two places but we try our best to stay connected and visit as often as possible.
“Does this mean I will never be able to see my grandchildren again?” I overheard my grandmother asking my father on the phone. “It won’t stick,” said my dad, hoping to reassure his deflated mother. “There’s a system here. The president can’t just do whatever he wants. There’s courts that can block the ban . . . “I’m just worried that you guys (Iraq) will put a similar ban on Americans traveling there,” he continued.
“I don’t know,” my grandmother said thoughtfully. And that was it, they disappointedly moved on to another subject.
The difficult part of listening to that conversation was the uncertainty and fear in their voices. They didn’t have solutions. They didn’t even have much to say on the subject.They just had sheer disappointment and a fear that they would never see each other again. Ironically, the same country that had once been their savior, was now keeping them apart; it was not something they planned. It was not something they ever thought could happen.
Read MSU J-School book, “100 Questions and Answers About Muslim Americans with a Guide to Islamic Holidays.”