Life as a Syrian in Trump's America

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Lama Nassif hoped to attend her brother and sister's upcoming weddings in Syria and Lebanon.

Now, those plans are on hold.

Her concerns aren't about money for travel expenses or vacation time. Nassif is a Syrian living in the United States in the age of President Donald Trump, whose policies have made it much harder for immigrants to enter the country — regardless of their status.

"I live alone here," said Nassif, an assistant professor of Arabic studies at Williams College who has been living in the United States for about 10 years.

"I was hoping that maybe my family or my mom could come visit. It basically felt as if I was imprisoned, in a way," she said. "You feel as if you're discriminated against."

In his first days in office, Trump signed an executive order banning travel from seven majority-Muslim countries for 90 days. Travel from Syria, one of the seven, was suspended indefinitely in the order.

"At that moment in time, it felt as if something was changing in the [United States]," Nassif said. "I started wondering what my life is going to be like ... How am I even going to be able to move even within the United States?"

The courts have since blocked the travel ban, but that is of little comfort to people like Nassif, who became a legal permanent resident of the U.S. about a year and a half ago.

She said she does not plan to travel outside of the U.S. anytime soon.

"I feel like I still need to be careful," she said. "I don't know what I can do."

In Nassif's experience, laws as written and the laws in practice can differ, even before Trump took office. As a Syrian who had to obtain a visa to live and work in the U.S., Nassif knew that Syrians were routinely denied visas, even though there was no official policy stating they couldn't get them. At one point, she didn't go back to Syria for five years out of concern for the procedures involved.

"You just want to make sure that everything is OK," she said. "There was no clear order ... not to issue visas to Syrians before Trump. But everybody knew ... in Syria, that people were not getting visas. That's it. It was kind of unofficial understanding."

Confusion and chaos reigned at American airports in the immediate aftermath of Trump's executive order. Human rights groups reported that legal permanent residents of the U.S. were stopped in foreign airports as they tried to come back to the country from funerals, vacations or study abroad, according to the New York Times.

A Syrian family of six was detained on Saturday morning — hours after the order was issued — at Philadelphia International Airport, despite having legal paperwork, green cards and approved visas, according to the Times.

"It just felt unfair. That's something that I don't want for the people of any country," Nassif said. "The idea of making a sweeping generalization and punishing everybody from that nation, it just to me contradicts the values that the U.S. was founded on. To me, that was a shock. Something was changing."

Nassif remembered hearing mortar shells in Syria when she visited after living in the U.S. An hour later, she went to the dentist and the area had largely resumed business as usual.

"People don't seem to be interested in knowing how Syrians in Syria live," she said. "It's only covering news of destruction and what's happening here, who was hit?"

The war is brutal, but citizens are fighting to continue living their lives, even through struggles with basic needs like electric power and water.

"I came back feeling inspired," she said. "The people are fighting in a different way. They're fighting to continue with life. [Syria is] still ... alive and kicking, and I hope people will be able to see her like that," she said. "

Despite the worry and uncertainty, Nassif said she's encouraged by the support she's received from the college and local community and the courts' decisions regarding the executive order.

"I had confidence in the American people and it was wonderful just to see the reaction and the support of everybody ... this is the U.S. that I know," she said. "There were judges who were able to implement the law and to reaffirm American values. So that's something that I feel confident about. In a way, I'm not worried."

Any uncertainty Nassif feels hasn't impacted her confidence in her decision to come to the U.S. for graduate work — something she calls the best decision of her life. A recipient of both a Fulbright scholarship and another scholarship to study in England, she chose the U.S. for its potential for more interesting work, university support for Ph.D. students and time allowed to take courses before starting a doctoral thesis.

"I really want to learn," she said. "I've always felt that education can make a difference."

In addition to her master's degree and her doctorate in foreign language education from the University of Texas at Austin, Nassif holds an undergraduate degree and two post-graduate diplomas from Syrian institutions.

Even though she's worried about what might come next — Trump has vowed to sign another travel ban that he says will withstand legal challenges, Nassif remains optimistic.

"I feel a lot of support, and I know that people are going to be firm about upholding the values and the laws of the United States, so it's [like] the saying, 'Every cloud has a silver lining,' " she said. "So there's always hope."

Reach staff writer Patricia LeBoeuf at 413-496-6247 or @BE_pleboeuf.


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