The US Muslim ban and the story of my Iraqi father

In the 1950s political turmoil interrupted my father’s life, just like the Muslim ban has now done to many other lives.

Protest at Atlanta''s Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport against President Trump''s immigration ban.
People gather and hold signs during a protest at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport after new immigration policies enacted by Donald Trump in Atlanta on January 27 [EPA]

A federal court judge has temporarily lifted the ban that has been interrupting the travel plans of US-bound students, professionals, and travellers from seven predominantly Muslim countries. While this news comes as a welcome relief, it also leaves me contemplating a story my father used to tell.

When my father was a first-year medical student at Grant Medical College in what was then known as Bombay in India, he went on a trip to visit family in Iraq and wound up stuck.

In 1958, Iraqi General Abd al-Karim Qasim staged a coup and overthrew King Faisal II. Iraq’s borders were closed for six months, and my father lost his seat at medical school. He applied for admission to the University of Baghdad’s Medical College where he repeated his first year of medical school and graduated four years later.

Whenever my father wanted to give us an example of perseverance, he would tell us the story of that trip, how he was staying at the home his family owned in Baghdad when he first heard “Long live the Republic of Iraq” on the radio; how he watched the demonstrations in the streets from the rooftop; how dismayed he was when he realised he would not be returning to school.

I grew up hearing this story from my comfortable suburban life in California, and it always struck me as so many of my father’s stories struck me as a child – fascinating but in a strictly historic sense.

I couldn’t fathom anything like that happening in the US. Imagine going to school in one country, and then a revolution erupting and not being able to return. These things did not happen in our stable, first world land of law and order with rules that applied to all people equally.

A story for a new generation

Last week my father turned 82. Born in Zanzibar to Iraqi parents, he grew up speaking five languages; English, Farsi, Arabic, Swahili and Urdu. His stories traverse continents and include so many snapshots of history – life during the British protectorate in Zanzibar, the long and arduous journey his family took to travel through Africa on their way to Baghdad during World War II.

In recent years, my father’s stories have taken on a prosaic feel. They are scripted in his memory and the details rarely vary.

This US policy, specifically targeting people from seven Muslim majority countries, was the source of what is likely still a disorienting disturbance in these individuals' personal and professional lives.


However, the executive order on January 27 calling for a 90-day travel ban on citizens from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen has made my father’s decades-old story feel eerily contemporary.

Dr Suha Abushamma, an internal medic resident at the Cleveland Clinic and a citizen of Sudan, was on her way back home to Cleveland when she was detained at JFK airport in New York.

Samira Asgari, an Iranian genomics researcher, was travelling to a post-doctoral fellowship before being sent back to her point of origin in Switzerland.

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Iranian MIT undergraduate Niki Mossafer Rahmati was not permitted to board the connecting flight in Doha, Qatar, that would have brought her back to school.

There were countless other stories of students, workers, and travellers just like these, and each one of them felt so personal. Not only do they remind me of my father’s own educational path, but also of how he came to the US.

He, too, arrived on a similar visa to train as a neurologist in the early 1970s. He went on to earn his citizenship while serving as a physician in the US Army, taking an early retirement as a colonel before moving on to work in our local county hospital until his final retirement.

In my father’s story the US was his point of arrival, the place where he was welcomed and valued for his expertise. He spent half of his career treating and teaching US soldiers, the other half working with prison inmates and underserved communities.

He was not the one-dimensional stereotype of the immigrant draining the economy that is being tossed around in today’s political discourse. He was a British national and he chose to settle in Monterey, California because he liked it there. He said the trees reminded him of his childhood in Zanzibar.

Forty years later, the US played an entirely different role in the case of the individuals detained under this ban.

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This US policy, specifically targeting people from seven Muslim-majority countries, was the source of what is likely still a disorienting disturbance in these individuals’ personal and professional lives.

A secular nation that prides itself on the freedom of religion was the one barring people from their work and their studies because of their presumed faith.

Despite the federal court ruling, the spectre of the ban still lingers, and with it comes a deep sense of misgiving. I can’t help but wonder how long it will be before anyone from a Muslim-majority country can arrive at US borders, whether for travel or relocation, without a sense of trepidation, let alone welcome.

Huda Al-Marashi is an Iraqi American writer specialising in Muslim women’s issues and the Muslim experience in the US.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.