The last time the US was led by a Republican president, President Bush, the State Department launched a program that invited people from Muslim-majority countries to come to the US.
The idea was to fight the rising tide of Islamophobia that occurred after 9/11 by inviting kids to study in the US via a cultural exchange program called Youth Exchange & Study (YES).
YES was founded in 2003 and is still going strong today.
About ten years ago, a high school kid named Murtadha Al-Tameemi from Iraq came to the US via the YES program, his travel expenses paid for by the State Department.
Today, he’s 24 and works as an engineer at Facebook in its Seattle office, and considers the US be his real home. He lives here under a work visa.
In 2013, his family escaped their war-torn country and fled to Jordan as refugees. And, about a year ago, they got Canadian visas and moved to Vancouver, just a few hours from Al-Tameemi.
He was finally able to see his family easily again, and he visited every weekend.
The ‘panic’ zone
That’s when President Trump issued an executive order banning Al-Tameemi from entering the country, since he travels with an Iraqi passport.
Al-Tameemi was in Canada last on Wednesday, when he received a surprise call from a lawyer who worked at Facebook telling him that if he was out of the country, he needed to get back fast. There were warnings last week that President Trump was working on this order.
“I got the call and the panic began,” he told Business Insider.
Grateful to the Facebook lawyer for thinking to call him, Al-Tameemi made it back across the border before the ban took place, but noticed that things felt different that day, writing:
“The Secondary Inspection room, which I’ve had to visit during every single one of my 40+ entries into the US over the last two years, has never seemed so overcrowded with people who appeared from Arabic origins. There’s often a mix of all sorts of nationalities and ethnicities of people in that room, but today, most of the names being called were ones like Ahmed, Fahad, Mohammed, Zahra, and so on.”
Now that the ban is active, he will be unable to see his family again for months.
Even scarier, when he called the Custom Border Protection office for more information, an agent warned him that if he went to Canada and tried to reenter during the ban, his visa may be revoked altogether.
American visas, particularly from Muslim-majority countries, take years to get. As an Iraqi citizen, if he lost his visa he might never be able to return. That’s like losing your job, your career, your home, your friends, and your adopted country all in one fell swoop, with no place else in the world to go.
“What makes this all the more ridiculous is that the only reason I’m here in the first place, is that the US government brought me here. They covered my expenses to be here. Ten years ago, I came in a high school exchange program sponsored by the department of state, the very same entity that’s now been told to ban me,” he said.
Terrorists vs. law-abiding, legal immigrants
Al-Tameemi describes himself as a typical non-political young person. He said during the election there was a lot of talk about illegal immigrants, but he is a legal immigrant.
“The government has taken an official stance of ‘we don’t want them here,” he says. “That’s a direct quote from president himself. He’s referring to terrorists, but we [legal immigrants] have been lumped into ‘them’ and are being asked not to be here.”
There’s now been over 10,000 kids that have taken part in the YES program and “it works,” Al-Tameemi says.
“I am one of the success stories of this program. I came to the US with very little knowledge about the culture and loads of misconceptions, and I learned so much. I immediately noticed the principals and values of American people, their kindness and generosity and welcoming nature. They would tell us this phrase, ‘melting pot,’ and it took me forever to understand. But now I can’t see society as anything other than a melting pot.”
Al-Tameemi worries that this ban takes the US “many steps backward” with its international relationships and will actually fuel the recruitment messages of ISIS and Al Qaeda. He says hey will use it to argue that American is targeting Muslims and cannot be trusted, and that’s why they must join their organisations and fight.
Al-Tameemi also wants the Americans who have downplayed the ban to understand how disruptive it is for the people it covers.
“I was reading other perspectives, what some very Republican news outlets were saying and the word ‘hysteria’ kept showing up. People like me are not being hysterical. If any of these people were told, ‘You can’t come back into the country and you can’t go to your work and you could lose your jobs, are they not going to respond in the same way that they are now calling hysterical?”
If travel restrictions do get reinstated for legal immigrants from the banned countries, and Al-Tameemi visits his family in Canada again, people have warned him he might still face trouble at the border.
“When the dust settles, down the road a few months, I’m hearing I’ll need to be careful about what border officers start to do in screening people. Will they be asking people, ‘Do you like our president?’ Will they be looking at my social media for my posts? Will they construe me
as being Anti-Trump and then oppose me from re-entering?” he says.
If there’s a silver lining to this all, it’s that despite the ban, Al-Tameemi says he’s never felt more supported by the American people: From the lawyer that called him to warn him to co-workers and executives at his company who have reached out to him, to strangers who have offered him support in response to his Facebook post.
“This feeling of not being wanted here is so quickly offset by the outpouring of support that I’ve received from people,” Al-Tameemi says. “People have been saying to me, this is not OK and we will support you however we can. And I can do my part by telling my story, by speaking up.”
Here’s his original story that he posted to Facebook.