‘It’s not safe anymore.’ An Iraqi refugee talks about the Trump ban

Protesters demonstrate in front of John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on Saturday, January 28, 2017, after two Iraqi refugees were detained while trying to enter the country. Photo: Associated Press

By Alexia Underwood

When news came that the Trump administration was going to suspend visas for refugees and citizens of several Muslim-majority countries, Mohammed S. immediately started to worry.

Mohammed is a U.S. citizen, but he came here as a refugee from Iraq not so many years ago. His family fled their home country in 2006, three years after the U.S.-led invasion began. They went first to Egypt, where they applied for refugee status. They were eventually resettled in the U.S. in 2010. Mohammed was 13 years old.

He attended a newcomer’s high school in Oakland where many of his classmates were undocumented immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. He learned English well enough to act in high school plays, and eventually earned the second highest G.P.A. in his graduating class. Mohammed was accepted to UCLA and UC Davis, but he chose to attend a state school in the San Francisco Bay Area so he could be closer to his family, and because the tuition was more reasonable.

Over the phone on Thursday, Mohammed tells me that he has started to notice a shift in attitude towards Muslims in the U.S. over the course of the presidential election cycle.

One incident occurred when he returned from visiting family in Iraq last January.

“I was bullied by a security officer,” Mohammed says. “He was investigating us — he asked us a bunch of questions in a rude, negative tone, like are you guys carrying guns? Are you carrying more than $10,000? I got really upset. We are innocent. Like, don’t you see we are a family? He was asking how we migrated here. If I responded, he would tell me to be quiet. He was so angry and pissed off at us. He would shout, and then I would get mad at him. If we came from Europe and my mom didn’t have a scarf on her head, would you treat us the same way?”

As the election approached, the first he could vote in as a U.S. citizen, Mohammed thought hard about his choices.

“I didn’t like Hillary or Trump,” he says. “If Bernie was there I was going to vote, but he was out. I mean, I didn’t like Hillary because of what she had done in Iraq and the Arab region, and [I didn’t like] Trump because of everything he says about Arabs and Muslims, and that made me very unsure. I came to conclusion that I didn’t want to vote.”

But when he learned that Trump had been elected, he felt worse.

“I was very afraid,” Mohammed says. “I was worried I would be kicked out of this country, harmed, detained. I was shocked. That’s the thing, you see these masses of people voting for him, saying yes, go ahead Trump, and … I don’t understand. Why would we have a president who acts like he’s not an American? Being American isn’t being a racist. Being an American is being civilized, open to everybody, that’s how America was developed.”

Mohammed didn’t know what to do, so he joined up with some former high school classmates who were also immigrants and refugees. They decided to protest. A group of almost 300 students, teachers and former students marched from their school to Oakland City Hall the day after Donald Trump was elected president. Other Oakland high schools had protests and walkouts as well.

He says he’s also been proactive at his university, talking to his fellow students about protesting and trying to get them motivated to stand up to “this guy who wants to ban Muslims.” Many of his Latino classmates are in similarly vulnerable situations.

Mohammed and his family were granted citizenship in 2015, so the expected ban won’t affect him directly. But he is afraid, both for his friends and for the unintended consequences.

“For me, I’m going out less, it’s not that safe anymore,” he says. “What do I do if an officer stops me in the street, or if I travel and come back [to the U.S.]? Going through security at airports and being checked out by officers … I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

He also says that the concern that Trump has stirred up extends as far away as the Middle East.

“I was just talking to my friends, who are from Iraq, and Syria, who are hoping to come and finish their education here. I have a friend who’s a medical student in Baghdad. She’s feeling very down. They all think they’ll come here and study and get a higher education. All of these people who have aims and future plans — they shouldn’t be thrown in the trash,” he says.

Still, despite recent developments, Mohammed says that he’s not planning on going anywhere.

He wants to eventually work for a company like Google or Apple, or start a business that fosters trade connections between the Middle East and the U.S.

“I came here at 13, I’ve accomplished a lot, and I plan to stay here, graduate and get my MBA,” he says. “America is my future.”

*Mohammed asked that we not include his last name to protect himself and his family.