Iranians Face a Cloud of Uncertainty During the Muslim Ban

We spoke with four Iranians about Trump’s executive order. Here’s what they said.

By Sara Afzal

We spoke with four Iranians about Trump’s executive order. Here’s what they said.

On Friday, Jan. 27, President Donald Trump signed an executive order temporarily prohibiting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. The travel ban comes as a shock to many Iranians after the diplomacy of President Barack Obama, who opened up U.S.-Iran relations after 36 years, with the signing of the 2015 nuclear deal. In the days following Trump’s order, Iran issued its own travel ban preventing Americans from coming into the country. There have been reports of a ballistic missile test by Iran; shortly after the U.S. imposed new sanctions on the country and Trump said that military action is not “off the table.”

Trump’s Muslim ban serves as a catalyst for renewed complications and tensions between two nations with an already tumultuous history–caught in the middle are the Iranian people who now have to deal with the fear and distress of an uncertain future.

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Saira Rafiee featured on the #GetSairaHome Facebook event page.

Saira Rafiee, a Ph. D. candidate in New York City

Saira Rafiee, who is on a student visa, was on her way home to New York after visiting Iran when she was prevented from boarding a connecting flight in Abu Dhabi. After 18 hours at the airport, she was sent back to Tehran. “You can probably imagine how humiliated one might feel when her whole future, and the future of so many other people, is changed just by a stroke of a pen,” Rafiee said.

“I am very much worried that what has happened is just the first step towards more horrifying policies. I am truly concerned about the future of the U.S. and the world,” Rafiee said. “I think not only Iran, but all the countries that rightly hold that this ban is inhumane, illegal, and against human rights should take every action within the limits of human rights and international laws to oppose this policy.” Rafiee studies political science at City University of New York.  

Rafiee returned to the U.S. on Saturday, Feb. 4, after a federal judge temporarily halted the executive order on Friday. She has not responded to a request for comment since then.

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Photo taken by Joubeen Mireskandari.

Emir Mohsseni, a musician in Tehran

Emir Mohsseni, of The Muckers, most recently completed a visa application for artists invited to perform in the U.S. After years of backgrounds checks and paperwork, Trump’s executive order has imperiled the status of his visa.

“To be honest, I have no idea what will happen to my case,” Mohsseni, whose band was invited to perform at SXSW, said.

“The reason that I’m trying to play my music in the U.S. is because of my love for Western music and American musicians. It’s inspired me my whole life. I remember when I was 5 years old, I was playing air guitar in front of the TV to Bryan Adams,” Mohsseni said.

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Photo provided by Shahab Paranj featuring his mother (on top left) as well as his nieces and nephews.

Shahab Paranj, a Ph.D. candidate in Los Angeles, and his mother, Azam

Shahab Paranj, who is finishing his doctorate in music composition at UCLA, said he spent a year and a half and about $10,000 on his mother Azam’s green card application. The money went towards lawyer fees and travel costs for his mother’s vetting at a foreign embassy he said. (Iran has not had a U.S. Embassy since the 1979 Islamic Revolution). After the order was signed, Azam was held for 10 days in Ankara, Turkey, where she was waiting for her application to be processed. Her passport was also taken away.

“Even the Trump administration doesn’t know really what the process is,” Shahab said. “There is no proper guidance.”

Ultimately, Azam’s green card was not issued during her trip to Turkey. Following a federal judge’s nationwide injunction on the ban, the Paranj family is now waiting for an update. In the meantime, Azam has returned to Iran.

“I am afraid about what is going to happen in the future. We don’t have a wise leader. These reactions are coming from a dictator,” Shahab said. “I have experience with seeing dictators growing up in Iran, and I know how they react. This is not good news for the U.S., the Middle East, and the world.”

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©NYU Photo Bureau: Heuer

Azi Amiri, an art educator in New York

Azi Amiri is a green card holder who has been living in the U.S. for 9 years. She is planning on traveling to Iran in mid-February, for her niece’s first birthday, but says she is worried about being able to return to America.

“We didn’t expect it to happen to Iranians,” Amiri said. “We have learned to resist. We do our best to keep our rights. We belong to the second wave of Iranians that were born after the Islamic Revolution. We have learned how to resist and how to keep our rights as much as we can.”

Amiri says she immigrated to the U.S. to escape the instability of their home country after war and to secure better job opportunities. As a teacher, she describes herself and her husband, who is an engineer, as hard working. “It is not fair. We feel that we have been betrayed after this ban,” she says.

Repeating the Past: Notes to a Holocaust Survivor

Revisiting letters from students to a Holocaust survivor in the wake of Trump’s travel ban.

By Gabrielle Sierra

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Felicia, in 2013, at the age of 94

My cousin Felicia Berland Hyatt was a Holocaust survivor who took great care and pride in telling her story. She spent decades giving lectures, speaking in documentaries and appearing on panels. She even wrote a book. But Felicia always said one of her greatest accomplishments was being asked to appear as a guest speaker at various schools in New York, discussing her life and answering students’ questions.

Felicia often said that her story, although painful, sad and terrifying, had to be told in order to prevent history from repeating itself. Just as she refused to have her concentration camp tattoo removed, she refused to let the millions of people who died during World War II disappear.

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Felicia, right, and a friend

As a guest speaker in K-12 classrooms, Felicia left her mark on many young children; she recounted a time and place and tragedy many had never even heard of. Some students wrote letters in response to her story. These letters showcase an incredible range of emotion, jumping from curiosity and disbelief to fear and sadness.

After Donald Trump signed his executive order (currently suspended) prohibiting people from seven Muslim-majority countries, including war-torn Syria, from entering the United States, I decided to go through Felicia’s letters and pull out a few that seemed especially relevant. The idea that this administration is capable of denying refugees sanctuary is chilling, and made all the more poignant by the fact that the ban was signed on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Felicia died in 2015, at the age of 96, but I like to think that she would have enjoyed reading these old notes from students and sharing the hope I felt when reading them; hope that the stories she told these kids, now adults, will help us all as we face the challenges ahead.

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Felicia, an only child, was born in 1920 and raised in a town called Chelm in eastern Poland. Her parents ran a successful bakery and sent her to a public gymnasium (school), where she was one of four Jewish students admitted under a strict quota system. It was there that she learned to speak German, in addition to her native Polish and Yiddish, a skill that would save her life more than once.

In 1938, her father sensed that war was on the horizon and traveled to the U.S. to set up a new home for their family, but Poland closed its borders before Felicia and her mother could join him. They, along with other residents of Chelm, were placed in a ghetto, where they remained from 1939-1942. The night before the final liquidation of the ghetto, Felicia and her mother escaped and went into hiding.

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In the following months, the women took shelter with two Polish families before being forced to hide in barns and abandoned buildings. Eventually, they decided to separate, a strategy they thought would increase their chances of avoiding capture. It was the last time Felicia would ever see her mother.

Felicia made her way to Krakow and secured false papers. There, she dyed her hair blonde and found work as a housekeeper for a local SS Officer and his family who risked their lives in an effort to help her survive. In 1943, Felicia was discovered and sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

FeliciaLettersScanned-3.jpgOnce in the camp, Felicia survived a series of close calls, including a last minute removal from a group being sent to the gas chamber. Her education and ability to speak German and Polish proved to be of value to the Nazis, who assigned her to be a barracks bookkeeper. In this position, Felicia was able to provide a few reprieves for other prisoners; at one point, moving a group of young sisters into low level positions similar to her own. Over 70 years later, one of these sisters would attend Felicia’s funeral in New York City and tell us that she and her siblings would not have survived without the reassignment Felicia was able to provide.

Auschwitz was a death camp and people were being killed all around Felicia every day with no end in sight. She decided her best hope of survival was to escape. In November, 1944, she found her opportunity. She snuck into a group being sent to a work camp in Stare Mesto, the Czech Republic. She remained there until the camp was liberated in April 1945.

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After the liberation, Felicia sought to reunite with her remaining friends and family, only to discover that her mother, as well as countless relatives and friends, had been killed. She decided to travel to New York to reunite with her father, but this proved to be a great deal more difficult than she had imagined.

The United Nations was sending children to reunite with their families in the U.S., but being in her early 20’s, Felicia was too old to qualify. She was told to go to Sweden, where they were helping survivors settle into new lives. She remained there with friends for over a year but still wanted to be near her father. In 1948, she obtained an American transit visa, intended to allow her a brief stopover on the way to Canada. When she arrived in the U.S. she skipped her connecting flight and remained in New York. She eventually moved into an apartment with her father.

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Felicia may have reunited with her remaining family, but she still had to find a way to stay in the U.S. She was investigated by the FBI under suspicion of being a Nazi or communist. The agency raided her apartment and tracked her movements. Felicia enrolled in college, but was told by refugee agencies not to have any books on Marxism in her home and was warned not to take any philosophy classes, as those ideas could be viewed as subversive.

Finally, in April, 1954, Felicia was sworn in as a U.S. citizen. Until that point she lived in fear of being send back to Poland or having to flee. Years later, she would tell our family that it was this moment, the moment she was given the protections of U.S. citizenship, that she finally felt safe. Although, her nightmares about the camps, the smells and the sounds, would never cease.

Looking through these letters, it is hard not to be moved by the sympathy, horror and sadness expressed by the children Felicia spoke to. Perhaps some of these students were present during the protests that sprung up after Trump’s executive order, or spoke out with a call to a local official. I know that Felicia would find comfort in knowing that even one student was influenced by the story she told in their classroom, and that her mission to prevent history from repeating itself still resonates today.

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Seeking Solace After Trump’s Muslim Ban

Trump’s executive order is not just political, it’s personal.

By Saira Khan

It was around 30 degrees on Saturday and the crowd in front of me at John F. Kennedy Airport appeared to be in the thousands. People were packed into a space across Terminal 4 (international arrivals) and more were lined up along the bus stop and taxi stands. Some had already been standing and chanting for nearly five hours. There were people overlooking the crowd on all levels of the parking garage. An upside down American flag hung from the fourth floor, someone had spray painted a peace sign and “no borders” onto it. I made my way in, unsure of what to do. I was alone and didn’t have a sign. I was able to find a spot on the third floor of the garage where I planted myself for the next few hours. I didn’t know what to expect at the protest but I do know I wasn’t expecting what I saw.

***

On Saturday morning, I woke up feeling a sense of dread and anxiety that I haven’t felt since last year, when I learned that my father had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Late Friday, Donald Trump signed an executive order fulfilling his campaign promise to ban Muslims from entering the United States. The order temporarily bans travel from seven Muslim-dominated countries for refugees and visa-holders. There are reports that the White House is looking to expand the ban to include Pakistan, which is where I am from, and where my parents currently reside. The order makes an exception for persecuted religious minorities; Trump later clarified that he specifically meant Christians.

My sister texted me early morning, “Baji, this Muslim ban is really scaring me.” I had no words to comfort her. As American citizens, the executive order doesn’t affect us yet but the sense of otherness it is fostering is real and immediate. I was born in Pakistan and have spent most of my life in the United States. My sister was born in the U.S., has spent most of her life in Pakistan, and recently moved to New York. Trump’s executive order is ostensibly about religion, but it feels racial. It’s hard to dismiss this as mere politics; it’s personal.

When, late Saturday morning, I saw a handful of tweets and Facebook posts from activists, American Civil Liberties Union lawyers, and immigration organizations calling on people to gather at Terminal 4 to protest the executive order and stand in solidarity with those being detained, I knew I had to go. I needed to do something to shake the loneliness and helplessness I was feeling.

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I spent the early afternoon speaking with friends who were immediately impacted by Trump’s order: people who have been told by their lawyers to cancel travel plans for the immediate future, people whose families can no longer visit them, people who feel the effect of this ban so deeply that they worry even voicing these concerns publicly will result in retribution.

By the time I made it onto the A train to JFK, around 4:00 p.m., it was full of protesters with signs declaring their support for refugees. “We are all refugees,” read one, “No more hate,” read another. Upon arriving at Terminal 4, I was greeted by four NYPD officers in full riot gear. The protesters were nowhere in sight. Outside, there were dozens of officers and a steady stream of flashing red and blue police lights. Further ahead, I heard the faint chants of protesters. I couldn’t make out what they were saying but as I got closer the size of the crowd became apparent.

A week ago, I had attended the Women’s March in New York City, for which the turnout was approximately 400,000. While it was empowering to march with women for our rights, I did not feel the sense of solidarity and emotion that I felt on Saturday. The crowd at the march appeared to be largely white, and, historically, white feminism hasn’t been sympathetic to people of color (much has been written about this, so if you want to know more I recommend reading this and this.) I felt no bond and no sisterhood  with the strangers marching with me. I expect all the women and men I know to fight for my rights as a woman, but I have lower expectations from people when it comes to fighting for my rights as a Pakistani woman of Muslim-descent. Our struggles, as women of color, aren’t their struggles and thus it’s easier to talk about gender than it is about race.

I was expecting anywhere from two dozen to 100 people at JFK. I’m not much of a crier and I surely don’t cry in public, so when I saw the size of the protest at Terminal 4, which appeared to be over 1,000, and my eyes welled up with tears, I felt naked and vulnerable.

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In the garage, as the temperature continued to drop, my fully-charged phone stopped working and my hands became colder. A young woman handed me a packet of hand-warmers. Another woman handed me a bottle of Gatorade, “to stay hydrated,” she said.

I didn’t chant at the protest. I couldn’t bring myself to. I stood there, mostly in silence, at the top of the parking garage, taking in the crowd, and felt the sense of dread I had woken up with slowly melt away. I saw women in hijabs, men in yarmulkes; there were black people and white people and brown people all around me. This wasn’t a protest for overarching women’s rights. This was a specific protest against an executive order that discriminates against a specific sect of peopleit’s likely that many of those in attendance weren’t directly affected by Trump’s ban. The ones who came out that day had cancelled their plans and stood in the cold with no purpose but to voice their dissent. As a woman of color, macro- and micro-aggressions tinge every aspect of my life. I’ve learned to expect the worst from people. On Saturday, this expectation was challenged.

While I was at the airport, my sister was at Cadman Plaza, in Brooklyn, awaiting Judge Ann Donnelly’s ruling on an emergency challenge to the order by the ACLU. It was shortly before 9:00 p.m. when the stay was granted.

“When I got here there were a few dozen, now there are soooo many,” my sister texted me.

(In all the rejoicing, it’s important to remember that we still have a long battle to fight. The stay blocks only part of the executive action: it prevents the government from deporting people who arrived in the United States during this chaos, or people who were already here. The stay does not state that they must be allowed into the country; another hearing is set for Feb. 21. And we still don’t know what is to come from this administration.)

I made it home around 8:50 p.m. and my sister came home shortly after the ruling was issued.

“How’re you feeling now?” I asked her.

“I cried a lot and I’m still really scared about what’s going to happen. But I feel a lot better. Does that make sense?” she asked.

“Yes, it does.” I said. And I meant it.