In the aftermath of 9/11, Ayla Kadah’s mom was walking into a Walgreens in California when a man took note of her hijab and muttered, “Terrorist.” He seemed to presume she didn’t speak English. She locked eyes and gave a steadfast, “Excuse me? Are you talking to me?” He threw his hood on and quickly exited the store.
“That’s my mom for you," says Kadah, tilting her head and snapping her fingers. “There is very little that scares her.”
Kadah, 22, is Syrian American. She was born in California, raised in Syria, and moved to Seattle in 2013 to study psychology and communication at the University of Washington. She is a politically active policy wonk dedicated to electing progressive candidates and women of color, having worked on congresswoman Pramila Jayapal’s campaign. As one of Washington’s delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last year, she voted to nominate Bernie Sanders. She’s been here less than four years, and she’s already schooling peers on how U.S. government works.
Kadah’s family stretches across the globe, from Europe to Florida to the Middle East, but her mom is anchored to Damascus, Syria. Faithfully.
On January 27, Kadah’s friends threw her a surprise party for her birthday, but she was distracted. It was the same day that Trump signed his executive order banning immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries, singling Syria out as the only country where the refugee ban would be indefinite.
After the party, she hopped in her car and took off to find a view of the Seattle skyline. She turned on some music, took some deep breaths, and tried to clear her head.
“All I could think about was my mom,” she says. “That was when I really hit a low. I was in complete depression mode.”
Her mom has dual citizenship, but in the first days of the ban there were conflicting messages from the White House about whether green card holders and dual citizens would be allowed to return, and large companies advised their own employees not to travel. Would her mom be able to see her graduate in June? What about family members who dreamed of coming to America someday? Could she even go to Canada and back without being stopped?
There were more urgent matters. Kadah’s cousin was in Florida in her last term of pregnancy; her aunt was planning on flying from Syria to witness the birth of her first grandchild. Needless to say, she wasn’t comforted by arguments that the ban was temporary. She hopped on a plane the day Seattle judge James Robart issued the restraining order halting the ban and cried when she landed.
Kadah says her family was confused about Trump’s rhetoric—why were they being singled out?
“It’s very disappointing to feel like this entire administration does not feel like you are worthy of being in this country,” she says. “To feel like I don’t belong because of a part of my identity. That was mind-blowing to me.”
Kadah’s mom always wanted her kids to grow up immersed in Syrian culture. When protests broke out in 2011 just prior to the civil war, Kadah went to King’s Academy in Jordan as a compromise between her parents, since her dad was concerned for her safety.
She recalls a day her aunt visited in Damascus, and they could hear bombs in the distance. Her aunt was terrified; the rest of them didn't flinch.
“You get numb to that kind of thing,” Kadah says, resting her chin on her hand.
Today her mom tolerates the frequent power cuts and checkpoints on commutes. Her deep attachment to the land and people makes it a small sacrifice.
“Anytime something is happening over there, I call her and say, ‘What’s up, what’s happening?’” Kadah says. “She always brushes it off. I know she does that so that we don’t tell her to leave. It’s equally admirable and frustrating.”
Kadah envisions a future for herself here, in the U.S. Seeing how the courts were able to rein in Trump’s ban has given her newfound fuel to live a life of public service. She affectionately calls Washington’s attorney general, who requested the restraining order, “Bobby-Ferg.” Earlier this month, she met him at a political lobbying event for UW students and thanked him personally for his work.
Inspired by the attorneys who showed up at the airport to help detained travelers, she plans on going to law school.
“Watching the lawyers at Sea-Tac, on the floor with their paperwork, surrounded by people with their fists up in the air, that to me was just like...that's where I want to be,” she says.
Kadah’s mom still plans on coming this summer to see her walk, but it’s hard to know what might happen between now and then. Kadah always fears her mom will be stopped because she is visibly Muslim. As for Kadah, this might be the first summer she doesn't spend in Damascus. Having built a life for herself in Seattle, she worries it’s not worth even a small chance of not being allowed to return.
“It’s going to be a ride for the next four years—hopefully just four,” she says. “We are resilient. We’ve dealt with worse where I come from. If we can survive that, we can survive this.”