Thousands of Black refugees have been affected by President Trump’s travel ban. Here are their stories.
This feature originally appeared in the August 2017 Issue of ESSENCE Magazine.
President Trump followed through on his campaign promise to implement a “total and complete shutdown” on Muslims entering the United States.
After repeatedly stating that “Islam hates us,” he issued an unprecedented executive order banning all nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The order, which was to be effective for 90 days, shocked many, perplexing legal advocates and national security advisers alike with its unusual scope and language.
“There have been executive orders in the past that have excluded certain groups of people,” says Glenda M.
Aldana Madrid, a staff attorney with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Seattle, “but never have we seen other presidents rely on the statutory provision that Trump is currently invoking to keep out entire countries.”
Not only did the order violate the First Amendment’s right to freedom of religion and the Fourteenth Amendment’s right to equal treatment under the law—not to mention the 1965 Immigration Act, which “prohibits discrimination based on national origin”—but also policy experts say that there were other sinister aspects about it.
“We were not surprised to see countries like Syria on the list,” says Noah Gottschalk, a senior humanitarian policy adviser at Oxfam America. But “some of the other countries included and excluded were surprising.” As many have since pointed out, the countries named don’t have a history of committing violence on American soil. Meanwhile, those nations that have harbored known terrorists, like Saudi Arabia, were conspicuously missing from the list.
The President’s order, mandated to take effect immediately and without due process, created pandemonium at airports across the country—wreaking havoc on traveling families and blindsiding civil rights activists as federal officials scrambled to detain, question and deport people with widely varying statuses. There was little logic to their methods—everyone from recent refugees to longtime residents and U.S. citizens were questioned.
“We saw widespread panic, confusion, fear,” says Aldana Madrid. “There was chaos,” agrees Abed A. Ayoub, national legal and policy director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) in Washington, D.C. “Some were detained; some were just turned away immediately. Just put on a plane and turned back. And some weren’t permitted to board the plane to come here. Each [airport] was acting under its own rules.”
There were stories of nursing mothers separated from infants, students and professors not allowed to return to their universities, the sick being denied medical treatment. “If there was confusion among the agencies meant to implement this, imagine the confusion among ordinary people,” says Gottschalk.
Nisrin Elamin, a Sudanese green card holder at the time and a Ph.D. student in anthropology at Stanford University, was one of the first to be detained shortly after the ban was announced. She arrived at JFK International Airport in New York City at about 10 p.m. on January 27 after doing dissertation research in Sudan, hoping to arrive home before the ban went into effect.
“I’ve been in those detention rooms many times since 9/11,” says Elamin, 40, who has lived in the U.S. for 25 years. “Anytime I enter the country, I get questioned. There’s a way in which you understand that you’re a Black woman and this happens all the time. But this was different. It was just very unpredictable. As the night progressed, I began to feel more and more like a criminal.”
She notes that almost half of the countries on Trump’s list are in Africa.
According to Elamin, she was questioned extensively about her research and the political situation in Sudan, patted down in her chest and groin areas, and briefly handcuffed and taken to a 24-hour holding area—an experience that she calls “humili-ating” and “dehumanizing.” At one point she began to cry, convinced that she was being deported or taken to a detention center. “I kept asking, ‘Can I have a lawyer?’” she recalls, but says that officials told her, “‘No, this is a special jurisdiction. We’re both lawyer and judge.’”
Elamin was released after five hours and is quick to acknowledge that others weren’t so fortunate: Yassin Abdelrhman, a green card holder in his late seventies from Sudan, was reportedly held at JFK for 30 hours. “They say 90 days,” says Elamin, referring to the fact that the order was only meant to be “temporary.”
“But three months can have a devastating effect,” she says. “People have lost jobs, postponed weddings, been separated from their children.”
Juweiya Ali, a 24-year-old U.S. citizen who is a home health aide in Seattle, can attest to the hardships endured as a result of the ban. She’s the lead plaintiff in the case of Ali v. Trump, a class-action lawsuit involving four families trying to reunite with minor children. Ali’s 7-year-old son, who currently lives with his grandmother in Somalia, was in the final stages of receiving a visa when the ban was implemented. The child’s visa process, initiated last August and costing Ali more than $900 to date, has now been suspended indefinitely.
In fact, since the ban was put in place, some 60,000 already issued visas—the result of years of screenings and paperwork—were revoked without warning, prompting travelers to file dozens of lawsuits against the current administration.
Trump’s executive order was quickly blocked by a U.S. district court a week after it was signed. In response the President made another attempt a month later, issuing a new executive order on March 6 (which he himself complained was just a “watered-down version” of the first). It, too, was blocked by the courts—this time even before it could be implemented.
“For me, it wasn’t theoretical or something I was reading about…It was my people,” says Asha Noor, programming and outreach director at the Council on American-Islamic -Relations (CAIR), the largest Muslim civil rights organization in the country, based in Washington, D.C. Born in Somalia, Noor immigrated to the U.S. with her family when she was 3 months old. When the ban was announced, she organized a town hall in Michigan attended by 2,500 metro Detroit residents—one of the largest metropolitan concentration of Muslims in the nation—to offer guidance and help calm fears.
“It’s a very vulnerable community, because we are not only dealing with anti-Blackness but also xenophobia,” she says. “Many people don’t speak English. Many are in an impoverished situation coming off a 25-year civil war where they’ve lost everything.”
“Let me paint a picture,” says Ismahan Abdullahi, 28, director of community partnerships and civic engagement at the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans (PANA) in San Diego, who describes families that have “left behind everything that they’ve known, everything that was dear to them.” At age 3, Abdullahi came to America from Somalia with her family, following the collapse of law and order in her country due to civil war. They waited in a refugee camp for a year before being -allowed to migrate to the States.
“The suffering of immigrants often gets lost in translation,” says Abdullahi, whose mother fled with her children -after Abdullahi’s father, a doctor, was killed. “We weren’t even able to bury him,” she says. “There was no time to look for the body.”
Some refugees are tortured simply because of the tribe they were born into; others are living in bombed-out neighborhoods or suffering famine. But often as Americans we become desensitized to refugees, says Abdullahi. “We’re thinking, Why are they braving the -waters of the Mediterranean? Why are they risking drowning? People don’t realize that fear can keep you moving and willing to take the risk if there is an opportunity for you and your family to escape the horrors that you’re experiencing. No one chooses to be a refugee. It’s a circumstance of life.”
And yet, while we’re currently living in what the United Nations is calling “an unprecedented refugee crisis” around the globe, with more than 60 million people displaced from their homes in 2015, according to the Pew Research Center, the U.S. accepts only a minuscule fraction of the world’s refugees, says Gottschalk of Oxfam America: “Less than 1 percent.” And even that number has decreased -under the Trump administration.
“Maybe they thought people wouldn’t care about these countries [on the list],” says Gottschalk. “But they were wrong. The thousands of people who showed up at airports supporting them proves that.”
Yet the fear remains widespread, says Ayoub of ADC, and many are still afraid to travel. “No one in my immediate family has traveled since the ban,” says Maram Elnagheeb, a U.S. citizen born in Charlotte, North Carolina, to -Sudanese parents. “Even those with valid visas are too afraid to try.
“I’m 19, just coming into my identity,” adds Elnagheeb, who’s heading into her sophomore year at Duke University this fall. “And now I’m feeling like, Should I keep some parts of myself hidden? I was proud of who I am. But you feel like for your own safety you should not say…I’m more cautious now about how people will view me when I tell them I’m Sudanese.”
Elnagheeb also fears that she will lose opportunities because of her background. When applying for a scholarship earlier this year, she wrote an essay about “being a Black woman and a Muslim” and her thoughts about the election. “I found out later that the woman in charge of the program is a Trump supporter,” she says. “I didn’t even make it past the first round.”
Imagine one spring morning your home is surrounded by federal agents with rifles. You’re taken into custody, carted off to a facility hours away and unable to contact your family for a week. Later you’re transferred to a facility in a different state.
This is what happened to Abdusalam Hussein of DeKalb County, Georgia. He was taken from his home by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) this past April. Hussein, who was forced to be a child soldier when he was a boy in Somalia, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and has a “mental illness,” according to a local activist familiar with his case. In custody Hussein was not allowed to take his medications, and within days he was on suicide watch.
“Trump has given ICE and DHS -[Department of Homeland Security] free rein to act crazy,” says CAIR’s Noor, reflecting on the sweeping practices now taking place to rid the country of Muslims. “They don’t care about decorum or respect. They’re doing raids anywhere, anytime. They’re emboldened. And it doesn’t matter where the hell you came from. You’re still Black.”
Hussein was convicted of a robbery in 2005, making him one of those “bad hombres” Trump has repeatedly referred to in tweets and speeches: people who come to the U.S. and commit crimes. Activists say the Trump administration is now prioritizing the deportation of immigrants for a wide variety of criminal offenses big and small. “When you can’t pay that $2.75 and you jump the [subway] turnstile,” says Benjamin Ndugga-Kabuye, a national research and policy associate with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), that too is “a deportable offense.”
“Hussein was 19 when that [robbery] happened,” says Lovette Kargbo -Thompson, an Atlanta organizer with BAJI. “It was a mistake.” In the 12 years since that conviction, he has become a cook, the owner of a family restaurant and a devoted father to his five children, she adds. “He’s turned his life around.”
“He was not an American citizen,” acknowledged his wife, Naima Musse, in a statement at a community event with -immigration and customs officials. “But he was taking care of five American citizen children that he was protecting and feeding. My husband has been here since he was a teenager. He doesn’t know anything about Somalia,” she continued.
Although the lower courts have temporarily halted Trump’s first executive order, as well as the revised version, the travel ban is quickly evolving. Both orders, along with the dozens of lawsuits filed in response, will most likely end up in Supreme Court. “We’re hoping there will be checks and balances,” says Abdullahi of PANA. “As a Black woman, as a Muslim, I’m aware that my freedom comes because of an amendment in the Constitution—meaning it was a fight. We’re hopeful that the court system will stop the ban.”
Editor’s note: In regard to Hussein’s arrest, ICE released a statement saying, “Abdusalam Hussein, an unlawfully present Somali national, was taken into ICE custody…Mr. Hussein is an aggravated felon due to his conviction for robbery in Minnesota in February 2005.”
Kristal Brent Zook (@KristalZook) is a professor of journalism at Hofstra University and the author of Black Women’s Lives: Stories of Power and Pain (Nation).