Firas Hajjar* had been looking forward to summer this year. A second-year international college student, he doesn’t get to see his family very often, and so he couldn’t wait to show off the United States when they visited. He was excited, and for months after originally making the plans, he would tell everyone who listened about what he planned to show his older sister, who he would introduce her to. Simply ask him, and his face would light up, grin stretching his cheeks.
But now, that light has been extinguished thanks to that infamous executive order: the travel ban.
“I just woke up one morning to my mother calling me, and she and my sister were supposed to visit me this summer because they got their visiting visas accepted. She just called me and she told me ‘Did you hear about the news?'” He leans back now, nineteen-year-old face tired and distraught, the bags under his eyes more prominent as he shook his head.
“I was like ‘What news?’ She said, ‘Your sister and I aren’t coming to visit you this summer anymore. If I were you, I would start applying to Canadian colleges as soon as possible.’ I asked her what she was talking about…and then I just opened up my social media, and I started seeing this thing trending on every newsfeed, on every social media, about the banned list. And I just sat in my room for a few hours and contemplated what to do.”
He, like many, finds himself in a precarious situation and dealing with the shock that came with the sudden change. Like many others already in the US and at the university, he is being told not to leave the country, not even for Canada. However, his situation is considered exceptional in some cases.
“I am a Syrian citizen, but I have lived my whole life in Saudi Arabia. I am also the only Syrian international student at this university. There are other students from countries on the banned list…but their countries are more livable than my country.”
It’s partly for this reason that Firas is nervous about the travel ban and its effect on his life. He notes that, if circumstances were different, even slightly, he probably wouldn’t have had to worry too much about the ban– but they’re not, especially if it hadn’t been for one thing.
“I terminated my Saudi Arabian residency because I was assuming that I was just going to stay here. Every year, I have to renew my residency, but to do that, I have to be in Saudi Arabia, every year. So this year, since I wasn’t planning on going back, I just decided to terminate it, and I just assumed that hey, I’m here and there’s no problem with that.” He pauses, glances at his hands, forces as smile. “But then after I did that, the executive order was signed…which included a ban on citizens from seven countries… and my country happened to be on that list.”
Long story short: if Firas was to go back to a country in the Middle East, it would have to be Syria.
It doesn’t matter that his family isn’t there, having left for work and freedom, or that he hasn’t been there since 2011, or that he, like so many people who find themselves unable to come and unable to leave, is not a threat.
“If I go back there, I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.” The fear in his eyes, the resignation in his voice because he knows that his life is in someone else’s hands should be enough to convince anyone to not support the ban. Firas knows better though.
“It completely does not make sense to support the ban. First of all, from the countries that got banned, there has been almost completely no attacks in the US. People claim that the ban is good for security reasons, and the thing is people try to justify it by bringing up past terror attacks, but what they fail to realize is that none of those countries that just got banned had anything to do with those.”
“What I’m also going to add is that most attacks in the US are from domestic citizens…so it really just does not make sense to ban an entire population of people because of fear that one person would be a part of the, quote on quote, ‘bad bunch.'”
Another point about the ban that Firas wants to make clear? It’s not a Muslim ban–at least in his eyes.
“This is the one thing I’ll agree with the right-wing Republicans on.” He admits, chuckling at the possibly shocking statement before turning serious again.
“Even though Trump called it that, and that he says it’s in part because of radical Islam, if it were a true Muslim ban, he’d ban another 40 countries. No, what Trump is banning is nationalities. You can see it in the fact that even Christians have been turned away and sent back because they were from those countries. In Trump’s eyes, we’re all the same because we were born in certain countries. Even though we had no control over that, we’re all the same to him.” He looks exhausted with his answer, but shrugs it off.
No matter what, there’s no way to avoid how different life is for him now. “I can’t help but think about the ban a lot, but I’m trying my hardest to keep going…but every since it happened, I’ve been feeling like I’m in a completely different place, a completely different atmosphere. Ever since I just woke up that morning, I’ve just felt like I’m intruding, and I’m not wanted and don’t belong, and that it’s better if I just leave.”
The thing that reminds him that he’s not intruded, that he’s wanted? Friends.
“They make me feel welcome here. The most, the best that we can ask is just for people to be there for us, to talk to us, to ask us if we need anything now. ” With that in mind, he is remaining cautiously optimistic.
“As of right now, the ban basically says to stop citizens from these countries from coming into the country. It’s not currently asking anyone to leave. But other than that… I’m just really, really glad about how much people are fighting for others right now, and in my personal opinion, it has been a very hard time for the country, but it’s uniting a lot of people. More than ever.”