“This is my America just as much as it’s anyone else’s,” she remarks. My clogged phone speaker turns her mellow voice coarse, mechanical. The Barnard senior speaks to me over the phone—and anonymously—because in her America, she does not feel safe enough otherwise.
It is the third week of Donald Trump’s presidency. Although these three weeks have already unraveled much of the political and social fabric of the United States, the senior cannot help but look toward what’s coming next. It’s a fearful prospect. She is a Pakistani Muslim, and her mother is a green card holder. While Pakistan is not one of the seven countries implicated by Trump’s immigration ban, which includes Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia, it is a predominantly Muslim country. And, his message is clear to the Barnard senior: “You’re not calling it a Muslim ban, but it’s a ban on Muslims,” she says referring to Trump.
On Jan. 31, Columbia students reacted to the ban by assembling on Low Steps to protest the executive order. The protest was followed by a smaller group of students marching downtown with students from other New York colleges.
The Barnard senior tells me how this ban has impacted her family, of how Donald Trump’s rhetoric turned to policy, and uncertainty turned to fear. “My mom planned on traveling to Pakistan this March,” she explains, “but she completely cancelled the trip.” She says this decision was made because her mother, a green card holder, feared that the executive order could expand to include Pakistan.
The Trump administration’s Chief of Staff Richard Priebus echoed these sentiments on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” on Jan. 31, when he declared that the seven countries implicated by this ban were chosen because they are, to the White House, the countries most associated with “dangerous terrorism taking place in their country.”
“Now, you can point to other countries that have similar problems,” Priebus continued, “like Pakistan and others—perhaps we need to take it further.”
Visiting professor of immigration law at Columbia Law School Rose Cuison Villazor corroborated the claim at a recent University Life panel, noting that Trump’s order contained a provision that may allow him to ban immigration from more countries. She ran through an alarmingly long list of rumored additions: “Afghanistan, Colombia, Egypt, Indonesia, Lebanon, Mali, Venezuela, the Philippines, Pakistan.”
The Barnard senior’s family is concerned about this snowballing effect, like many immigrants across the country.
“This is just the beginning,” she notes. “This is just week three.”
This state of uncertainty has pushed Muslim immigrants like the student’s mother to act more cautiously. “People are certainly watching their steps more carefully, even though they’ve done nothing wrong,” she says.
The Barnard senior feels the Trump presidency is attacking Muslim communities as a whole, even past the executive order. “I certainly feel like my identity is under attack,” she admits, “And certainly my faith is being demonized.”
She has seen Trump’s hateful rhetoric materialize in her hometown, as her neighbors echo the messages of their president. “Whenever somebody that’s a minority does something wrong,” she recounts, “the reaction [of people in my neighborhood] is, ‘Well, I’m so glad Trump is president.’” To her, it’s their way of saying, “I’m so glad this person who will oppress you is in charge.”
But the Barnard senior insists she must remain positive. “I need to stay optimistic,” she concludes, “because I don’t have a choice.” She laughs anxiously, as if what she’s saying has resonated too deeply.
“We are definitely being noticed through our protest, through our resistance, through our voices,” she goes on.
And she’s grateful for the support that Columbia has provided to students implicated by the ban.
Born and raised in America, the Barnard senior feels there is no place for her to go. To her, America is her home, even if there are people who don’t want it to be. “So I’m staying put,” she affirms, “and we will fight, and we will continue to resist.”
Foad Torshizi, a student at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, sat at home with his wife last year, drinking beers, as they watched Donald Trump win Iowa, Ohio, and Michigan. Around midnight, the night’s trajectory seemed to crystallize, and Torshizi and his wife received a phone call from a friend who couldn’t bear it alone. He needed company. The friend joined them, and the three opened a few more beers and watched Trump’s suddenly damning rise.
“I think that none of us, the three of us who were in that room, anticipated that within 15 days, there was going to be an upheaval in everything,” Torshizi says.
During his candidacy, Trump had already declared—prompted by shootings in San Bernardino, California executed by a married couple of Pakistani descent—that he intended to bar Muslims from entering the United States, at least “until our country’s representatives can figure out what’s going on.”
To the surprise of Torshizi and many others, Trump’s threat wasn’t empty: On Jan. 27, the president signed an executive order restricting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. Judging by the ban’s expanse, “what’s going on” will take 90 days to “figure out.”
For now, Torshizi and his wife remain in New York, but in a kind of suspension—although they can stay in the United States relatively safely, they just can’t return here if they ever choose to go back to Iran because their visas have expired.
“It's very difficult to think that you are bound to stay inside, and if you leave you're going to relinquish your chance to come back,” he says.
The couple used to return home to Tehran, Iran to visit their family every summer, but now that plan is out of the question, indefinitely.
Torshizi acknowledges the pain in this constraint but worries more when he sees a five-year-old United States citizen with an Iranian mother handcuffed at John F. Kennedy International Airport because the White House called him a “security risk.” He worries about the status of Syrians in dire need of refuge, turned away. “In general, [my wife and I] always thought that the worst case scenario is: We're gonna go home—and not return,” Torshizi admits.
For now, Torshizi has things to do here in the United States. A Ph.D. candidate within Columbia’s Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies department, he studies how perceptions of Iranian art become tokenized by a Western eye. The “About” section of his personal website, a cleanly-designed forum archiving his academic accomplishments and black-and-white photography, reads: “My research examines how Western art criticism has continuously suppressed the heterogeneity of Iranian contemporary art in favor of readily consumable social, political, and ethical messages.”
In short, Torshizi’s dissertation argues that Iranian art has been oversimplified, largely by the viewers in the United States. The problem, says Torshizi, “is the inability to understand the other on the other's terms.” It’s a matter he’s had to think a lot about lately. It is his last year at Columbia, and he will soon defend his dissertation—his fate will be, in ways, decided.
In the meantime, Torshizi feels the solidarity of his community. Friends have reached out to him and his wife by way of email in the wake of Trump’s executive order to offer support. “My American friends are ashamed,” he says.
Torshizi and his wife even drafted an email of their own in reaction to the outpour of concern. It said something along the lines of, “We understand that this is difficult for you guys, too.”
Torshizi came to the United States in 2008 from Iran as a graduate student to study art history at the University of Minnesota. Even in his earliest days in America, he saw something in this country that its own citizens could not see so clearly: “One thing that strikes me about the United States—and I think partly it is because of its academia—is that it has been able to consistently produce its most staunch critics within itself.”
“When the governor of Washington and Minnesota come together to sue the federal government, when people, Americans in JFK, make a circle of support around [Muslims] who are publicly praying,” Torshizi animatedly says,. “You know, it’s a beautiful sight.”
The events of the last few weeks have driven some people toward each other, just as when Trump’s impending victory brought a friend to Torshizi’s home. “It just has brought people together in a way that I don't think anybody else but Trump could,” he says.
And counterintuitively, he realizes, “It’s the first time that I walk on the streets in the United States and think that people are greeting me and saying, ‘You are welcome in this country.’”
Mohammadreza “Aref” Bolandnazar
Every month, Iranian economists, students, and professors alike hailing from various places in New York City, get together to talk about economics. The meetings are typically informal and the locations alternate. But the purpose of the meeting—to bring together bright academics excited to talk about economics—always remains the same.
That is, until the first meeting of 2017.
Rumors of an immigration ban affecting Iran and surrounding countries had been floating around even before the Jan. 27 get-together—the uncertainty was palpable. As a result, participants decided to forego the traditional focus on economics and instead invited an Iranian lawyer to explain to them possible legal options should a ban go into effect.
This discussion was of particular interest to Mohammadreza “Aref” Bolandnazar, a second-year Ph.D. candidate in finance and economics at the School of Business, which was also, incidentally, the location for last month’s meeting. Bolandnazar is in the United States on an F1 visa.
The lawyer gave insight into what those present at the meeting should and shouldn’t do if the executive order was signed. The legal limbo was troubling for Bolandnazar as his wife Roya Arabloodariche was still in Isfahan, Iran, visiting family. Her F2 visa does not allow her to work in the United States—however, she was planning on applying for a work permit after returning to their home in New York with her husband. But worried that getting a work permit would mean shorter visits to Iran, she stayed back in Isfahan an extra week.
“And all of a sudden, the future was not great,” Bolandnazar remembers.
It was during that evening, during the group’s speculative conversations about a hypothetical ban, that Trump signed the executive order and made what was once uncertain, definite, and what was now definite, chaotic.
The question was no longer whether Arabloodariche, an electrical engineer, could return to Iran, but whether she could even step foot on American soil. “At the beginning, we didn’t believe it, and we didn’t believe that it [was] a blanket ban,” Bolandnazar says. “No matter where you are, no matter if you’re a student or a green card holder—it was so unbelievable.”
Bolandnazar speaks of the nightmarish scene with a relaxed tone, but his words express stages of grief. His wife was not allowed to board her flight from Iran scheduled the day after the ban was put in action. Bolandnazar describes the feelings of shock, denial, and numbness he felt over the course of seven days. “My wife is good at crying, but at the time, it took two or three days for our minds and bodies to believe this,” he says.
And sure enough, a ruling by a federal judge in Seattle meant that Arabloodariche could fly into Boston as soon as the ban was lifted. She’s with him—they’re together. Had the judge not ruled as he did, Bolandnazar admits that they would have been blaming themselves for the last-minute ticket-change.
But, despite their reunion, Bolandnazar is still grieving.
He left Iran because there were no more educational opportunities left for him there. “There is no study permit for me because I was against the government. I was protesting—I was detained,” he explains. So he came to the United States, as did most of the Iranians in his meeting, to find freedom of speech, to find freedom of expression. “If this freedom is banned, there is no reason to stay,” Bolandnazar admits.
Not all is bleak, however. The protests that took place in airports across the country or even the demonstration that attracted hundreds of students on Low Steps gave Bolandnazar hope. “There might be something good happening,” he states.
And over that whirlwind week, Arabloodariche’s legal limbo was profiled in the Washington Post. At the time, Bolandnazar was thinking about dropping out of his doctoral program and joining his wife in Iran. But now he seems more hopeful. “The government is not the only voice in this country,” he says. “There is this system that does not allow those laws against humanity to be enacted.”
Bolandnazar is applying to programs in Canada, where he already received two master’s degrees from the University of British Columbia. Nevertheless, he is firm on staying at Columbia in the meantime. “I might go on and leave before something happens, but I will not leave now,” he says. “My life is here.”
Although he wanted his exposure to the media to help people in similar situations, the experience still left a bitter taste in his mouth. Comments left on the article—that have since been removed—were blaming his wife for leaving the country. To him, his wife’s immigration isn’t something up for debate. “It’s not something you should vote for. It’s not a matter of majority—it’s a human right,” he says.
Ana Espinoza contributed reporting.
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