I have spent almost a decade as a resident of the Middle East. Five years in Cairo and four years in Istanbul have given me friends of all faiths and talents from countries such as Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon and Turkey. I also worked in Afghanistan, Gaza, Yemen and Iraq, among many other places, and witnessed the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
The bulk of my work as a photojournalist has been devoted to documenting the human impact of conflict, bringing me into contact with countless refugees. So I was appalled to learn that President Donald Trump signed an executive order freezing America’s refugee resettlement program for 120 days, and indefinitely for Syrians. It also temporarily halted entry into the United States for citizens of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Sudan.
According to a recent figure from the U.S. State Department, about 60,000 visas were revoked because of the ban, leaving students, professionals, researchers, business people and others stranded outside the country. Thankfully, the courts have blocked the order, for now, but it has already marginalized and alienated Muslims in America and abroad, many of our allies in the fight against extremism, and refugees – the most vulnerable people on the planet.
Trump’s action is rooted in fear and ignorance. The processes for visa applications and refugee resettlement in the U.S. are already rigorous and restrictive. His order cloaks improvement of those processes in a false premise: that one’s potential for extremism can be determined by nationality or religion.
Refugees are the most vetted of all foreign visitors to the U.S. It takes a minimum of two years of applications, interviews and security checks for refugees to be accepted for U.S. resettlement. Some nationalities, such as Syrians, already undergo additional screening. I have heard of people from Somalia and Yemen waiting 10 years to gain approval.
The executive order requires that immigration officials “prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality.”
For Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Iran, Libya and many other Muslim-majority countries, this would curtail acceptance of Muslims for U.S. refugee resettlement based solely on religion. As if Muslims haven’t also suffered at the hands of extremists. As if Muslims don’t also want to live in peace.
Some of the bravest, smartest, most wonderful people I know happen to be Muslim. Some are refugees. Some are from the seven nations cited in the travel ban. All are people who hate extremism, too.
People like the Syrian students attending a youth center in Istanbul – young people who had to leave Syria if they wanted to survive, if they wanted a future. Some of them accepted scholarships from U.S. universities and are currently studying. Where does the legal battle over this order leave them?
People like my brilliant and talented Syrian, Iraqi, Libyan and Yemeni colleagues – members of the journalist tribe I have come to see as my second family overseas, like the humanitarians working with local and international nongovernmental organizations to help their own countrymen, and like Iraqi and Afghan translators and even soldiers who have served with the U.S. military. Is this order how we acknowledge and thank those who put their lives on the line to work with us and try to make the world a better place?
People like the injured Syrian children I photographed in a Turkish rehab clinic near the border. There was 15-year-old Rama, who became a quadriplegic when a sniper shot her through the neck as she was walking to her sister’s house; 11-year-old Malik, whose left leg was amputated above the knee, and 12-year-old Maysa, who was forced to hide in a cave for a month after she was shot in the back and became so traumatized she stopped speaking.
People like my Istanbul-based Arabic teacher, Mazen, a Palestinian Syrian, who regularly invites students and friends for home-cooked Syrian meals. Falafel, mutabal, maqloubeh and shakriyeh; all eaten while drinking arak, a customary alcoholic spirit. Fluent in three languages, he excels at building community and friendships.
People like my friends Haider and Shaimaa, who came to America as Iraqi refugees in 2009 and took the oath of citizenship in 2015. They are among the proudest, most patriotic Americans I know. They love this country and are dedicated to building a future for their children here.
The success of our country is bound up in immigrants and refugees like these, and we will be poorer if we slam the door on them. America needs to protect itself from security threats, but when we let fear rule, we lose part of our humanity – we miss out on those who are our friends and fellow Americans, those who need our protection and those who are in this fight alongside us. We can’t continue to treat every Muslim as an enemy or indiscriminately exclude people based on religion or nationality.
Holly Pickett was a photographer for The Spokesman-Review from 2002-2007. She spent nine years based in the Middle East as a freelance photojournalist and recently moved back to the United States.
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