AS It was, we hadn't kept our eyes off our screens for weeks. Months, if we're being honest. A whole city obsessed. We'd be on the bus, or at the grocery store, or paused behind the wheel at a stoplight, and there was our thumb, up and down, scrolling for the next shocking update. Or we were at work, stealing glances at the news, ready to collapse the extra browser window at the first sign of our boss, even though we knew she suffered the same affliction. Each revelation was like a hit of dopamine, boiling up and spreading across our chests, out to our extremities. He said what? He’s appointed who? Our addiction to outrage knew no limit.
January 27, 2017, was different. January 27 took us beyond speculation. On that day, at 1:39pm our time, Donald J. Trump, 45th president of the United States—just seven days into his fledgling administration—issued Executive Order 13769. No entry for 90 days into the United States for noncitizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen. Refugees from Syria were banned indefinitely.
Lives were thrown into chaos in an instant.
Syrian refugee Walid Bazara was in Ankara, Turkey, minutes away from the airport and his journey to reunite with his parents in Tukwila, Washington, when he heard. Stop. You will not be allowed on that plane. Juweiya Ali, of SeaTac city, stood in a rectangular, gray building—the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia—and endured yet another reminder that her dream of finally having her family under one roof had been upended.
Here, as in cities across the country, we stormed the airport. We crowded downtown. We showed unity.
Later, there would be relief. U.S. District Court judge James Robart, a Seattleite, granted our state attorney general’s request for a temporary halt on the ban nationwide, forcing the president to rethink his strategy. A revised, second order, issued on March 6, dropped Iraq from the list. Those early hours and days after January 27, though, they were something.
These are the lives of six of us, all hailing from the six countries still on the list. Some have been here for decades, others for just a few weeks. All felt the impact of the executive order acutely. Their stories are a portal, a path away from our screens, away from outrage in the abstract. And they start—why not?—with a young girl and a household appliance.
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Arshiya Hoseyni Chime, Iran
In Tehran the sky was always choked with smog. So as a child she paid special attention when her mother described an impossible invention, a vacuum that could suck pollutants from the air. It was like the vacuum cleaner her mother used to clean the floor, but bigger and yet to be created. Later she sat rapt as she observed her older sister toiling away on a robotic arm, perfecting the grip of a hand that dangled from a skeletal frame. Arshiya Hoseyni Chime, it seems, was destined to be a scientist. Traveling to the U.S. for the best possible education was part of the plan.
At 29, she’s months away from a PhD in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington, where her work focuses on reducing carbon emissions. When she talks about hydro-kinetic wind turbines and her research on renewable jet fuel, she does it through an unwavering smile.
In the chaos of the first executive order, students from the countries on the list were shocked to find themselves stranded abroad; peers in Seattle offered to water plants and care for pets. When the order was lifted, the students returned to their studies, but new uncertainties remained.
Students like Hoseyni Chime, on single-entry visas, must reapply each time they leave the U.S. That takes time and requires sacrifice; in the past she had missed her sister’s wedding and her dad’s funeral. The ban, which suspended the issuance of visas, would prevent her from returning altogether. She planned to go back to Iran, for the first time in years, this summer, but a new court decision could make her PhD collateral damage. Travel is off the table.
In March, Hoseyni Chime observed something new in her fellow Iranian students in the weeks leading up to Nowruz, the Persian New Year. A sense of feeling unwelcome and singled out overlapped with nostalgia for family celebrations.
Hoseyni Chime was at Target, shopping for a mirror for the traditional Nowruz table arrangement, called Haft-Seen, when a thought intruded: “I don’t know if I belong here anymore.”
She’s always been proud of being Iranian. She knows it as a warm, inviting country where people beg you to come over, make you tea, and force you to eat too much. Reconciling that with the Trump administration’s rhetoric—that her home is a backwater filled with dangerous people—is painful enough to make her consider leaving the U.S. for good. If she does, she’ll take her mission to save the world from global warming with her.
Ali Fadhl, Yemen
Sometimes when he’s not in class or meeting with advisers about the bureaucratic tangle that defines his future, Ali Fadhl works with bees. He slips behind the Edmonds Community College vegetable garden to the boxy hives, collecting honey from the honeycombs teeming with more than 10,000 buzzing insects.
In his college dorm, he lives in a different kind of hive. Twelve other Yemeni students are, like him, stranded exchange students, thanks to Yemen’s civil war. With the travel ban, Fadhl is trapped between a host country that doesn’t trust him and a home too dangerous for return. “I feel like I’m in a cage. I feel like I’m not free…in the land of the free.”
Of Aden, the coastal city where he was born, built in a crater of a long-dormant volcano on the Arabian Sea, it’s the heat he remembers most, and the fish he and his family ate every day. Lanky and soft spoken, Fadhl is the youngest of three and was impatient for the American world that mesmerized him on YouTube.
He was never supposed to be gone for long, just a school year, part of an exchange program so elite it took him two tries to get in. In 2014 he began his senior year in a San Francisco high school, living with a host family and cultivating an affection for Lady Gaga, when a coup struck the fragile Yemeni government. The president fled to Aden while Houthi rebels seized control of the northern capital; ISIS and al-Qaeda flourished in the chaos. His exchange program scrambled to secure student visas for the stranded teens, shuttling them off to community colleges with on-campus housing, and after a year in Bellingham, Fadhl ended up here, in suburban Lynnwood, enrolled in a school built atop an old army radio relay station.
Now 20, Fadhl speaks fluent English. He wears his Beyoncé Formation World Tour sweatshirt—“It was the best experience”—with a web of bracelets on his right wrist. Every two weeks or so, he calls home. His mother tells him about the food and water shortages in Aden; he tells her he dyed his hair blue. Thankful for his safe remove, she approves.
Before his homeland appeared on the January travel ban, Fadhl envisioned meeting his family in Oman or Saudi Arabia for a visit. Now the U.S. border is a one-way door. If he leaves, he cannot come back.
Unable to work or drive, he does paperwork: an application for temporary protected status; a fee waiver for the $500 or so it costs to apply; a lengthy questionnaire digging for personal and relationship details, asking whether he’s ever tried “controlled substances.” Even a whiff of misbehavior could spike the application. “If I do something bad, people will not tolerate that as [they would] for other people. For Americans,” he says.
In Yemen, Fadhl walked to school past military tanks, heard gunfire, smelled tear gas. He calls it “back home” but admits that if he ever left he’d be calling the U.S. the same thing. His current visa expires in July. For now he’s inhaling education as fast as he can, business classes and design classes so he can someday build his own brand. He draws; he works with bees.
Juweiya Ali, Somalia
The DNA test only called for a swab of the inside of his cheek. Her seven-year-old son—we’ll call him Keynaan—was nonetheless scared, there at the U.S. embassy in Ethiopia when they called his name. He envisioned a pinprick. He envisioned blood. She reassured him. This is nothing. And she was right. Soon Keynaan was prancing out the door, lollipop in hand. Just the visa interview remained.
Then an unwelcome reminder from a world away. Did she know, an embassy attendant asked, about the U.S. president’s executive order? She did. She’d heard the news at her hotel room, days earlier, on January 27. The finish line of an arduous, expensive quest to reunite her long-scattered family was slipping further from view.
Back in 2014, with the help of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, Juweiya Ali successfully petitioned to bring her Somali husband to live with her in the city of SeaTac. She had been so close to procuring a visa for Keynaan, who was born in Somalia and lived with his grandma in Bosaso, that she had begun looking for a bigger apartment. She looked forward to good-night kisses instead of video chats.
She submitted the final documents for Keynaan’s application on January 20, 2017. Five days later she left for Ethiopia—there is no U.S. embassy in Somalia—to take him for the DNA test to prove their relationship. On January 27 came the executive order suspending issuance of immigrant visas for people from seven countries, including Somalia.
It was like a light on a path suddenly flickered out. The timing was insufferable.
Later, sitting with her son in their hotel room in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, she couldn’t eat the omelet the staff brought for breakfast. She took her son to the arcade for his birthday, before their teary goodbye at the airport. He’d asked when he would come live with her. She answered, simply, “Soon.”
Two months later, in the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project’s office in Seattle, Ali heaved a sigh. “How do you explain to a seven-year old any of this? How do you take this innocent child from such a happy, positive space to It might not happen or even Not as fast as we talked about or hoped?”
Before, there was always a form to sign or fee to pay to move things forward. After the order, Ali rode an emotional roller coaster from ban to restraining order to ban, unsure of what each day would bring and hoping good news in the courts would deliver a visa interview for her son. In March, she was still waiting.
She’s now a plaintiff in a class action lawsuit, filed by the NWIRP and other immigrant rights groups, to challenge both versions of Trump’s order. When Keynaan grows up, she wants to be able to tell him she did everything she could.
For now, as she waits, her thoughts linger on his new American bedroom. What it will look like. What color they will paint the walls. What wardrobe they will buy. She doesn’t know whether he will choose Superman or Batman bedsheets. She is certain of how she will feel when she can tuck him in at night.
Murtada Abdelghani, Sudan
Behind the wheel of his Toyota Camry, Uber driver Murtada Abdelghani regales his passengers with geography lessons from home. Sudan, for instance, is below Egypt but above and to the northwest of Ethiopia. The Red Sea unfurls before his country’s northeast border.
Unmentioned on this mental map he conjures of northern Africa: That his wife is stranded there. That the executive order has left her fate more uncertain than ever. That, after he’s parked the car and settled in after a 12-hour shift, he dreams she lies by his side.
He finds solace in the story of his friend, Mubarak Elamin, also from Sudan. Elamin once lived a world apart from his spouse too, until he petitioned for her visa in 2012. It took months for approval, but today she is here. Abdelghani sees them together, and he is happy for them, but a question always pulls at him. Why, two years after submitting the visa application, must he still wait?
Wait. That word was always there. At home. In the car. It hung like an unwanted ornament from a rearview mirror. The travel ban suspending the visa process for people from Sudan gave the ornament more heft.
Elamin feels his pain. The software engineer, community leader, and former board chair of OneAmerica has heard a lot of stories like Abdelghani’s since January. He’s tried to comfort frustrated, scared community members struggling to reunite their families. When the new U.S. president spews hateful rhetoric about Muslims, Elamin believes it flies in the face of what makes America truly great: that it is a vibrant cohesion of ideas from all over the world; that immigrants, refugees, and Muslims are part of its story; and that it draws the best of humanity to its shores because of what it stands for.
When his own wife finally arrived, Elamin welcomed her at Sea-Tac airport with a bouquet of flowers. “This is going to be a beautiful journey,” he said. “You will love it here.” They have almost worked their way through a list of the places he wanted to show her, Snoqualmie Falls and the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival included.
His friend relishes the idea. If Abdelghani’s wife arrived tomorrow, he would remove the Uber sticker from the Camry and take a four-month vacation. Together they would get started on their own list.
Koloud “Kay” Tarapolsi, Libya
Shortly after the First executive order, Koloud Tarapolsi posted seven art tutorials for kids online: an Iranian paper apple, an Iraqi suncatcher, a Sudanese lantern, a Syrian pinwheel, a Somali pennant, a Yemeni trivet, and, closest to home, a Libyan egg-carton flag.
Those who know her aren’t surprised that Tarapolsi turned Trump’s ban into an educational project. She is, after all a Crafty Arab, running a business with the same name out of her home and serving as artist-in-residence at several Western Washington school districts. Her goal: Fill the void of education about Middle Eastern culture, counter negative misconceptions of Islam, and spread appreciation for the beauty of the 22 Arab countries.
A passion for education runs through Tarapolsi’s blood. In Libya, her parents were teachers who fled the violence of Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi in the late 1970s; Gaddafi brutalized scholarly critics. Tarapolsi was a child then, but she remembers how a cousin and family friends disappeared in the night. She remembers avoiding the market so as not to endure the bodies that hung there.
Tarapolsi’s parents were granted political asylum in the U.S., but her wheelchair-bound, septuagenarian aunt can no longer visit them from Europe. In the midst of Trump’s bans, the aunt’s visa appointment was canceled and rescheduled—twice. So far, she’s unable to offer moral support to her sister, Tarapolsi’s mother, after knee replacement surgery.
This spring at her home, decorated with pieces from her late father’s Arabic textbooks and showcasing the elegance of Arabic script, Tarapolsi read aloud, sarcastically, the email her aunt received from the State Department after the second ban: “A U.S. executive order signed on March 6 affects visa applicants...if you are a national of one of these countries, pleeeease review the information at this link...”
The diversity of the Arab world, with people who practice varying religions and hold different beliefs, countries that each have their own histories, foods, dances—and art—is sometimes lost on the West. Tarapolsi wonders why, for instance, during Women’s History Month, no one notes that it was a Moroccan Muslim woman who founded the first university.
That political streak runs through Tarapolsi’s art. Many of her pieces are a response to the political climate. A piece in a recent Bellingham exhibition reads, “I am not a terrorist,” with enough letters grayed out to reveal “I am art.” Another was inspired when a student was kicked off his flight for saying, “Insha’Allah,” which means If God wills it.
When Tarapolsi was growing up, that always meant “maybe,” the kind of response her parents might offer, even in Gaddafi’s Libya, when she asked for ice cream.
Walid Bazara, Syria
It’s Thursday, February 9, 2017, and President Trump’s executive order banning travel from seven mostly Muslim countries has, by the grace of the U.S. Constitution and a federal judge in Seattle, been lifted. In the baggage claim at Sea-Tac International Airport, there’s a celebration. Tears. Kisses. Gifts.
Jaidaa Bazara, seven months pregnant, wears a gold-glittered black hijab. She’s just exited the plane with her husband, and with her brother Walid Bazara. Their parents, Ahmed and Emtisal, and two younger siblings can barely contain their emotions. A swarm of snapping cameras and new Seattle friends surround the Syrian refugees. Walid—21, jet black hair and a neatly cut beard—hunches over to kiss his mother on the cheeks. She puts her arms around his neck, sobs, and whispers one word. “Habibi.” My love.
They had wondered if this reunion would ever happen.
Since they left Aleppo four years ago, the family has lived in uncertainty in three different countries. On December 14, 2016, Walid watched his parents and younger brother and sister board a plane from Turkey to the U.S., expecting to follow shortly after with Jaidaa and her husband. But on January 30, half an hour before they were bound for a bus to the Ankara airport, Walid got a call. All Syrian refugees were banned from entering the U.S.
It felt like a death in the family.
He was a high school senior when he left Aleppo, where his parents built a home 20 years ago. Life changed in 2011. Civil war broke out among president Bashar al-Assad and rival factions. Businesses closed. Demonstrations and violence were commonplace. On a trip to the grocery store, bullets narrowly missed Walid’s legs.
He’s now adjusting to his new home in Seattle. He wants to be an engineer. He has never gone to college but, after leaving Syria, he briefly worked fixing HVAC systems and washing machines. It’s a start.
He may never make it back to Syria. And not just because of the Trump administration. His old home, the ancient city of Aleppo, is in ruins.
Still his father tells him to love Syria more than he loves his parents. He tells him to love that place in a way that anyone, from any country, including this one, can relate. Remember where you came from. Remember. “Our country, our home, our land.”