On July 4th, the Carnegie Corporation of New York plans to celebrate 38 naturalized U.S. citizens as Great Immigrants in America. The news about this year’s annual event was announced the same day the new “revised” travel ban went into effect: Thursday June 29th. The Carnegie Corporation’s list of honorees includes people from all walks of life and from more than 30 countries. From journalist Masha Gessen (Russia) , to state legislators like Ilhan Omar (Somalia), to award-winning poet Suheir Hammad (Jordan). I happen to be one of those who will be honored as an immigrant from Iraq. More than any other award, this one came in the midst of a physiological shakeup of what it means to be an immigrant in America these days.
As the the first wave of immigrants who came to this country, new immigrants also come in search for a better life. For those who come from unstable countries, the search is also for a safe life. Those who lived through political and security turmoil can handle much from the loss of loved ones to the loss of all belongings, but the one thing that is emotionally important is the safety of being in one place. I, and many other immigrants, think of America as that country of safety and stability where one can contribute their full potential. But the travel ban shook the foundation of that feeling and left many wondering if safety is something to assume in America.
Beyond those from the six countries of the revised ban (Iran, Syria, Somalia, Libya, Sudan and Yemen), many immigrants from various parts of the world, and regardless of their legal status in the U.S.,were shaken by the long-term meaning of the ban. Ana, an immigrant from Romania and an art teacher, talks about how the ban impacted her by saying, “I always thought I am safe in America but if certain immigrants are not safe in this country, how do I know I will be safe on the long run as an immigrant.” She is not a Muslim nor from any of the countries of the ban but was as unsettled by its implication as Dounia, a recent refugee from Iraq.
Dounia arrived the U.S. with her 4-year-old son in 2014. She had to escape Iraq after facing security risks for working as an accountant for an American security firm. Even though she is a green card holder and the ban did not impact her, she still describes it as unfair. “I was very scared when the ban was issued and feel it is unjust. We have not done anything. We did not choose the country we were born in or the religion we were born to. Just because we are Muslims, it does not make us sympathizers with ISIS.”
Dounia’a husband was in the air to join her in Houston when the ban was first implemented back in late January. He was handcuffed and detained for 24 hours even though he passed two thorough security checks in the three-year application process before he could join his wife and 6-year-old son. “It is so unexpected for this to come from the country that stands for human rights, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression.” Dounia tears up as she talks about how her son comes from school and reporting to his mother how “all Muslims will be kicked out of this country.”
“It was like waiting for our execution. We don’t know if my husband will stay or not. If they returned him, they would have returned him to Iraq and that for many means death.” Thanks to the International Refugee Assistant Project (IRAP), Haider is now safe and was able to be united with his wife Dounia and their son, Karam, in Texas. Both mother and father work as accountants, paying their taxes, and living their American life. But they have not forgotten about their journey nor about the plight of so many refugees from the countries listed in the Muslim ban. “It is important for all to remember that not one terrorist came from any of these countries,” Dounia says.
As for me, I have been a naturalized citizen since the mid 1990s and I had assumed that I am accepted and welcomed as an American all these years. Not once did I question my safety in America — not until the Muslim Ban. When expressing my feelings and my questioning of what it truly means to be an American these days in a recent speech I was giving in Phoenix, a nice middle-aged woman wrote me a note saying “the ban is not against you. You are an American and we see you as one of us. The ban is about others from these countries to protect our security.”
As I read her note, I thought to myself the only difference between me and “those others” is that she got to know me personally through my speech and she does not know them. And as a result, she accepts me and rejects them — an arbitrary judgment based on stereotypes of others and projecting fear on those who have been more victims of violence and terror than causing any themselves.
Perhaps if we get to know each other as individuals and understand the stories of Dounia, Haider, Ana, and so many other immigrants, we celebrate the best of American values: a big heart and deep generosity. On this July 4th, I plan on joining the Carnegie Corporations of New York in celebrating #greatimmigrants, a campaign that “reminds us of the debt the United States owes to generations of immigrants who become citizens and contribute to the progress of this country. Today, we celebrate and thank them,” as Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York and an immigrant from Iran who runs a corporation that was founded by a Scottish immigrant, puts it. But then again, aren’t we all immigrants — including other honorees including actor Anthony Hopkins (Wales) and entrepreneur Jeff Skoll (Canada) — great voices who help make America great?
Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.